What Daisy Irani’s account of rape reveals about the dark world of child artists in Bollywood

A robust legal framework is needed to regulate their working hours and conditions.

 |  5-minute read |   23-03-2018
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Veteran actor Daisy Irani has revealed that she was raped when she was six years old, by a “guardian” escorting her at a film set. Her account is stark: “The man who did this was supposed to be my guardian. He accompanied me to a film shoot (Hum Panchhi Ek Dal Ke) in Madras. One night in the hotel room he violated me, hit me with a belt and warned me that he would kill me if I ever told anyone about what had happened.”  

Irani did not talk about the incident for years, but in her own words, became “over-protective” of her sisters, Honey Irani (Farhan and Zoya Akhtar’s mother) and Menaka Irani (Farhan and Zoya Akhtar’s mother), when they entered Bollywood, and “began flirting outrageously” as she grew up.

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Irani’s courageous revelations once again train the limelight on two major issues Bollywood faces –the utter vulnerability of child artists, and the culture of silence around sexual abuse in the industry.

Child artists need safety measures

Irani was raped while she had gone for a film shoot and was alone with the man, “Nazar Uncle”. Actor Rekha was molested on camera at 14, when her Anjana Safar co-star Biswajee forcibly kissed her for over five minutes, even as “whistlings and cat-calls from the entire film crew filled the air”. More disgustingly, after the movie was released, she was labelled as a “sex kitten willing to do bold scenes” for a kiss she never consented to.    

Singer Papon recently forcibly kissed a 11-year-old reality show participant.

Given how stories of sexual assault are routinely hushed up in a Bollywood that thrives on inter-connected clans and power coteries protecting each other, and how our patriarchal society links sexual abuse to the victim’s “honour”, there are likely to be many other child artists who never spoke out, bearing the trauma of assault in silence.

So what is it that makes child artists so vulnerable?

The most glaring shortfall is the lack of a well-defined framework regulating their work hours, which puts them at the risk of not just sexual, but also physical and emotional abuse.

In the past few years, reality TV shows have brought children into the limelight like never before, often from small towns, where Mumbai is a new and bewildering world not just for them, but even their parents. Mesmerised by the glitz and glamour of the industry, the artists are ill-equipped to even process, much less speak out against, what is happening to them.     

Writer-director Amol Gupte has long been talking about the need for such a framework. Last year, he had said: “These kids are wrenched away from all normal activities and are thrown into a single-minded devotion to lending their voices to these reality shows. They are made to shoot for countless hours, sometimes in humid non-airconditioned rooms. It’s barbaric.”

There are no rules stipulating the number of hours children can be made to work, how many adults should accompany them, what kind of accommodation they should be put up in, who should they speak to in case they feel threatened at a shooting set.  

Also, child actors are thrust into a world they do not have the emotional or cognitive maturity to tackle. They earn money over which they have no control, they do not choose the roles they play, indeed the very decision to give up school, the company of children their age, a “normal” life, for the gruelling silver screen is not taken by them.

In such a scenario, dedicated counsellors should be made available to these children, over-exposed and under-equipped from a very impressionable age. However, with basic things such as work hours and remuneration unregulated, counselling services seem a far cry.

Culture of silence

Every time sexual abuse survivors are denied the space to speak out, they are denied the opportunity to heal. Talking of sexual assault is not just about nailing the accused, but also about summoning the necessary help to deal with and rise above the lasting trauma it leaves behind.

Also, every sexual assault story that is buried emboldens the perpetrator.

Bollywood is notorious about shutting up victims. Even as Hollywood has been rocked by the #MeToo and #TimeIsUp movements, no major Bollywood actor, producer, director has been named, even though “whisper networks” to warn actresses about such creeps have existed for decades.

The few actors who have chosen to speak out – Kangana Ranaut against Aditya Pancholi, Payal Rohatgi against Dibakar Banerjee, have been derided and slut-shamed.

This, perhaps, is not surprising in a movie industry whose biggest “blockbusters” are sexist and misogynistic, showing women as nothing more than “sexy” bodies to be ogled. An industry in which lyrics like “main to tandoori murgu hun yaar, ghatka le mujhko alcohol se (I am a piece of tandoori chicken, down me with alcohol)” are mainstream hits can never be expected to treat women with dignity and respect.

Sexual assault survivors cannot be forced to be “brave” and talk about their trauma. However, as viewers, we all aid sexism in Bollywood by mindlessly consuming the regressive, cringeworthy fare routinely dished out. Maybe, if we protest against the rampant misogyny and objectification of women onscreen, we can bring some change.

We owe this much to women like Irani, and all others who summon the courage to speak out.   

Also read: Jeetendra is not the first Indian celeb to face sexual harassment charges: Here are 10 others 

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