Somy Ali was just 16 when she saw Bollywood heartthrob Salman Khan for the first time in the 1989 Sooraj Barjatya-directed film Maine Pyar Kiya. The Florida girl knew she had to find this man. The teenager convinced her mother to allow her to move to Mumbai where she took up modelling assignments and also acted in films. She finally met her crush and they began a torrid love affair that lasted about eight years and broke up Khan's engagement with actress Sangeeta Bijlani. But the relationship wasn't all sunshine and rainbows.
While #MeToo and #TimesUp, two hashtags that lit up social media last year, are now being used in an Indian context as countless survivors of sexual abuse and harassment are coming out with their stories, Bollywood's upper crust has managed to remain largely unscathed.
That's because Bollywood's blue-blooded elites are not dissimilar to the country's politicians. They have managed to create an entire system rigged in their favour, one that not only guards them, but is also self-sufficient in ensuring its own continued existence. They have the backing of others in their own industry, who close ranks when one among them is accused. Even those not part of these networks remain tight-lipped, as was seen during a nepotism debate in 2017. This is perhaps illustrated best by the curious case of Salman Khan, one of Bollywood's biggest stars and arguably its most powerful figure.
Known for films that glorify and normalise misogyny, Khan was long rumoured to have emotionally and physically abused his girlfriends. Bijlani once described their relationship as "the most emotionally traumatic" experience of her life. During his romance with Ali, it was reported that he once poured a glass of rum on her head in public. Observers say their affair also apparently began when she was a minor, which raises legal questions.
Both Bijlani and Ali, however, never publicly said much about their relationships with the star and now maintain that he's a generous human being that they get along with very well. Ali even clarified the story about the glass of rum by saying that Khan had poured it on a table because he didn't approve of her drinking or the company she kept.
But what had simply been unclarified rumours became a matter of public record when Khan's relationship with actress Aishwarya Rai went sour. In incidents confirmed by the star himself, Khan once broke into Rai's flat when she wasn't there and damaged her property while, another time, he wrecked her car during the shooting of Kuch Naa Kaho. A separate incident took place on the sets of Chalte Chalte, where Khan showed up drunk and created a major spectacle.
Rai later said in an open letter to the press that he had been stalking her since their break-up. "There were times when Salman got physical with me, luckily without leaving any marks. And, I would go to work as if nothing had happened," she wrote. Rai once showed up at an awards function with a black eye and her arm in a cast, though she maintained that she'd injured herself in a fall.
Khan once spoke out on the alleged abusive relationship with Aishwarya. "If you do not fight in a relationship, it means you do not love each other. Why would I squabble with a person who is a stranger to me?" he told the press.
The second wave of the #MeToo movement was sparked off in India by one of Bollywood's forgotten members. Tanushree Dutta's account of the harassment she allegedly faced on the sets of Horn OK Pleassss back in 2008 opened the floodgates. The primary accused is actor Nana Patekar but, according to Dutta, choreographer Ganesh Acharya was also complicit in the harassment.
Soon after, there were allegations against other men in Bollywood. Dutta herself has alleged that filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri behaved inappropriately with her on the sets of Chocolate. Accusations of sexual abuse and harassment against director Vikas Bahl resurfaced and have led to the dissolution of Phantom Films, the production house in which he was a partner. Humshakals director Sajid Khan has been accused of sexual harassment by three women, while actor-filmmaker Rajat Kapoor has also met the same fate. Actor Alok Nath, too, has been accused of rape by screenwriter Vinta Nanda and harassment by actress Sandhya Mridul.
The thing to note is that while some of the most powerful men in stand-up comedy and journalism are among the #MeToo accused, the same cannot be said about Bollywood. The actors and directors in question may have had considerable influence over their alleged victims and may be well-known public figures with some clout in the industry, but they're placed fairly low on Bollywood's power pyramid. In fact, the most powerful Bollywood figure to be accused of sexual harassment is producer-director Subhash Ghai, a man whose star has fallen considerably in the new millennium as his films have seen increasingly diminishing returns.
An individual's place on the political spectrum is generally perceived to be dependent on his or her views of how society should be organised. Thus, we see terms like 'conservative' and 'liberal'. However, when it comes to some things, such as the #MeToo movement, a more accurate divide would be between those who come from networks of entrenched power and those who don't. The former's source of sway is an entire system that protects them while for the latter, their personal clout is generally the limit of their influence.
Of course, owing to the millennia of privilege that straight men have enjoyed, it could be argued that they all belong to the former group. But to understand why #MeToo has still not hit Bollywood's core, we must make this distinction nevertheless.
Salman Khan's criminality regarding assault and harassment may never have been proven in court, but it is something he has effectively admitted to by confirming the incidents about damaging Rai's car and breaking into her house. And yet, weeks after #MeToo hit India, none of the women from his past have come forward about their experiences despite many reports, both confirmed and unconfirmed, about the abuse he allegedly meted out to them. Each of these women is a public figure who is reasonably insulated from him at this point. If even they don't feel comfortable speaking out, one can only imagine how difficult it must be for an unknown person to narrate any abuse they may have faced at the hands of a Bollywood star.
Salman Khan is just the tip of the iceberg. He's possibly the only Bollywood star of his stature to be publicly accused of any kind of abuse by a woman, despite countless rumours about inappropriate and abusive behaviour of many stars for years. In a blog post two years ago, actress Raveena Tandon, without naming names, spoke about how common it was for male stars to have affairs with starlets in the 1990s and then wreak havoc on their careers if the women did anything to displease them: effectively a form of sexual harassment at the workplace. That even now Tandon doesn't feel comfortable disclosing names shows that the fear of reprisals from Bollywood's entrenched power structures is too great for #MeToo to hit its blue-blooded core.
(The author is a student of screenwriting and life, and is an ardent fan of common sense. He writes about cinema, cricket, current affairs, and also a few things that don't begin with the letter C)