'Nepotism is for the Rich. For Us, There's the Couch'
An entire industry exists to support this abuse
Anshika came to Mumbai as a 14 year old with big dreams. "I never wanted to be an actor," she says, but after a production crew cameraman spotted her near her hometown, a small village called Gherganj in Madhya Pradesh, Anshika began to dream of life as a star.
At 30, Anshika has appeared in more than a dozen films, but the wide eyed wonder that accompanied her foray into Bollywood is a thing of the past. "In the film industry, there's both nepotism and the casting couch," she explains. "Nepotism is for the rich. For us - there's the couch."
Anshika says that casting coordinators and others prey on young women from small towns, selling dreams of making it big in Bollywood. "It happened to me, and many others I know," she says. As the women arrive in Mumbai, they soon realise that the big movie they had been promised does not exist. "Many have cut ties with their family and run away, and anyway, going back home is expensive. They are at the mercy of the men who brought them here."
There isn't a hint of judgement in Anshika's tone. "If ten equally talented girls are shortlisted, the casting director extracts favours. Marginalised women at times have no choice… they need the money," she reasons.
Bollywood is no stranger to stories of sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement prompted several senior actors to speak out on trading sexual favours for roles. But Anshika's account brings in a less discussed aspect of the casting couch in the Indian film industry – the vulnerability of marginalised women.
Kavita, an aspiring 23 year old actor also from a small town in Madhya Pradesh, says that when young women first come to Bollywood, "they can't tell the genuine from the fake casting directors." "Many casting directors are that just in name; they are actually running a racket that women then find themselves caught in," she says.
These so-called casting directors prey on the woman's vulnerability. "I've been told I'm too dusky to make it… that I don't look the part, and that I'll have to compromise to land roles," says Kavita.
Barely a few days after she arrived in Mumbai, desperate for money, Kavita was cast to appear on an album cover. "At the shoot, I realised that the album cover was a ploy; in reality there was something else going on."
Kavita found herself trapped in a seedy hotel with other girls. "The producers and other so-called crew members were in different rooms with different women, and I knew my turn was going to come soon." Terrified and distraught, Kavita managed to escape through a window after someone took pity on her. "I have never been so scared," she recalls. "But what could I do? I couldn't go back home - that wasn't an option either."
Drawing on her early experience in Mumbai, Kavita has written a play, "about new women coming in for one kind of work, and being forced into another kind of work." "There is a financial angle," she says. "The less privileged cannot say no that easily."
"It's widespread," Kavita tells The Citizen. "Almost everyone I know and meet at auditions has this exact same story: Lured from home with false promises, trapped in Mumbai at the mercy of men."
Accounts such as Kavita and Anshika's do make the news pages every now and again. Last year, three casting directors were arrested for pushing a struggling 14 year old actor into prostitution. The actor had been promised TV serials and films in Bollywood by the men.
A few years ago, police busted a sex racket run by yet another casting director and "rescued" two women, junior artists with stories similar to Anshika and Kavita.
The same year, an actor was arrested for running a sex racket involving women who also acted in low budget television serials.
But Ria, an aspiring 28 year old singer who finds herself in Mumbai all the way from Varanasi, says that women continue to be exploited, and it rarely comes to light. "MeToo was for the privileged. If any of us come forward to speak of the abuse we have faced, no one will believe us."
Anshika agrees. "What change did MeToo bring?" she asks. "If I say something happened to me, people just mock me. They say I'm seeking attention. No one takes it seriously in Bollywood circles." She says that there has been no real change after the MeToo movement. If anything, casting directors now joke before propositioning a girl, "They say things like 'don't make a MeToo case out of me.'"
"There's a big difference in how Bollywood treats the privileged and the less privileged," says Kavita says. "There's this way of thinking – that you're not worth anything, so you'll have to do what we say."
She says that until today, she hadn't spoken to anyone about what happened in that hotel room all those years ago. "Where would I have had a chance to speak about it? Who talks to us?" she asks. "Twitter is for established people. If we say it, they'll say we are lying. No one gives our voice any importance."
Sneha too came to Mumbai hoping to be a star. "I was approached by a casting coordinator on Facebook," she says. "He told me I will be the next Katrina Kaif." Sneha's been in Bombay five years, and even as scepticism has now set in, says she will not leave the city. "I'm determined to make it," she says.
Others, such as Kavita's former roommate Payal, were not as lucky. "She was 17 years old when she came to Mumbai," says Kavita. "A casting director found her on Facebook and arranged for her to come. He kept her with him. For years. Tortured her. Raped her daily. Locked her up. She finally escaped and I have no idea where she is now."
"For those of us who come to Mumbai with this story – dependent on the men who brought us here – how are we to survive?" Sneha asks.
Anshika explains that while the casting coordinators extract favours, the widespread competition in the industry facilitates exploitation. "There's a lot of female competition… and to get an edge over another, women agree to sleep in return for a big scene or dialogue," she says. "If one says no, the casting coordinator can pick another who will say yes."
"Ninety per cent of women who come to Bombay to make it in Bollywood know nothing about the industry. They fall prey to flattery… they're told, 'you look like Deepika Padukone, you'll be the next Katrina Kaif'… and they believe it because they're told it repeatedly," Anshika tells The Citizen. "These women don't even know how to act, but they're encouraged to come to Mumbai. Once they get here, they're told that even Deepika and Katrina had to sleep around to get roles… and that's what they are expected to do."
Anshika speaks with authority that comes perhaps from experience as she has been in Mumbai for over a decade now. "Casting coordinators take advantage of the fact that these women are from small towns with humble backgrounds. They brainwash you. They tell you that Deepika and Katrina and everyone in the industry has done this." "You feel like you have no choice," she says.
Everyone starts out here, says Anshika – at the bottom, preyed upon by men. Eventually, some make it as small time actors and models, but most others "get into that line permanently. They say they are actors and models, but actually, they're in that other line."
"We all know who these coordinators are," says Sneha. "It's common knowledge that they aren't really in the business of acting, but of trafficking."
Anshika says that an entire industry exists to support this abuse. "Many films are made just to use women," she says. "This is what B grade cinema is all about. Movies are cast and even shot for the men on set to use the women. The vast majority of them aren't even released."
"This is the difference between us and them," Anshika says. "In A grade films, even if all this happens, your talent counts for something. But many B and C grade movies have nothing to do with talent… they are just an excuse for men to use women."
But Anshika wouldn't use the terms rape or assault. "It's clean work versus conditional work. And coordinators and others are clear from the beginning whether the work is clean or has conditions attached to it. Casting calls clearly mention that the casting is conditional. It's up to the woman then to audition."
"There is no sexual harassment in Bollywood. It's sexual favours / sexual give and take," she says, underlining the fact that women agree to sexual favours because the system is geared against them.
"Change will only come when women stand up to these men and say no in the moment," Anshika says. "Not on Twitter later, but there and then, in the moment… But can you expect a woman who is so far from home and desperate to make ends meet to be able to say no every time?"
The casting couch is not limited to Bollywood or Mumbai – it extends to the film industries across India, where the double burden of marginalised women facilitates the emergence of a sleazy side industry.
In some industries, such as the Malayalam film industry, it is still spoken about – thanks in part to the work of organisations like the Women in Cinema Collective. The WCC, which existed long before the emergence of the global MeToo movement, has fought to put in place mechanisms to address sexual harassment complaints in the Malayalam film industry.
But across India, aspiring actors share the same story. Radhika, an actor in the Tamil film industry recounts that when she first started auditioning for roles, there was one producer who consistently promised her the lead.
"When I went in for the auditions, the director was fine with my acting, the whole creative team was ok with it, they told me I just need to get the nod from the producer. So I went and spoke to him, and he said he would be happy to take me on. He then asked me when I would be able to come to his office," she recalls. She asked a friend to go along with her, much to the producer's annoyance. "He called up my friend and asked her 'why does she have to come with you, can't she understand why I'm calling her?' Thereafter I started keeping my distance, but we would often meet in film screenings and he would text me telling me how sexy I looked, and then ask me to come by his office to discuss the role. I missed three roles because of him, in spite of getting the nod from the directors" she says.
But Radhika admits that the ability to say no puts her in the minority as far as work in the industry goes. "I'm sort of giving up on acting because of this," she says. "Whenever they write down the budget for a film, they actually have an extra column called adjustments which is normally around Rs 5 lakh. This is basically for the producer, director or anyone else to give to someone who is willing to 'adjust' or have sex with you," Radhika says, explaining just how entrenched the casting couch is.
For minorities, it's worse. "I have a friend who's a transgender. Everyone just sees her as an object. There are huge celebrities who when they see her ask her to come sleep with them. She gets video calls from these celebrities asking her to take her top off. She's trying her best to find work the right way. But it's really difficult," Radhika tells The Citizen. "For one particular show, she was told she would get the role if she stayed in a hotel room for three months. When she asked why, they told her that for those three months, anyone could come to the room and use her."
It's not just the men, even women are part of the problem, says Radhika. "Even the females in the industry act like brokers. They tell young actors, 'you're getting to act with such a famous person, why would you say no? It's just sex, it's no big deal.' The industry is full of it. These people tell you on your face that if you want the role, you need to sleep with someone," Radhika explains.
Shruti, a 23 year old actor trying to make it in Bollywood, says that speaking out against harassment isn't an option for a vast majority of women in the industry. "If she says something, even if not to the media but to her peers, quite often casting coordinators and directors will almost blacklist her, ensuring that she doesn't get any work. How will she then survive?"
The odds are stacked against women in the industry, Shruti says. "A few lone brave voices may speak up, but those are usually women with some kind of backing. Either privileged families or actors who have already made it somewhat in the industry."
Shreya, a 24 year old actor, says that support from her family has been crucial to her survival in Bollywood. "My experience with the casting couch was pretty much from day one," she says, "After auditions, casting directors would call, saying that I have to 'impress the executive producer' to get the role. I could say no, as I'm clear that I want to make it because of my talent. I'd rather choose the long part of struggling," she says, admitting that her family's support enables her to pay her rent and bills through the months.
"Once a casting coordinator tried to spike my drink," she remembers. "That was the first time I'd gone to meet someone - a small time investor in films. I was new to Mumbai and I didn't know how to get auditions or get work at the time. I didn't have contacts. I thought maybe I'd make a contact and get some work. When it happened I made the excuse of needing to use a toilet, and instead just took the elevator down to the street and hailed an autorickshaw home."
For Shruti and Shreya, the MeToo movement has had an impact. "I feel less alone," says Shreya. "I know it happens to everyone, and I feel more powerful to walk out or resist it as a result of the MeToo movement," she says. "It's less about speaking out publicly, I'm not sure if I would do that – but I do feel more empowered and less scared of facing the harassment and walking out."
Not so for everyone. "Nothing has changed," Anshika concludes. "Not for us anyway." "The problem isn't the film industry," says Kavita. "The film industry is a mirror reflection of society. And society cares only about the rich and privileged."