The flood of reaction to an anonymous blog accusing a hallowed media entrepreneur of sexual harassment proves that Arunabh Kumar might just be the norm, and the Indian entertainment industry is a sitting duck for discrimination
How much can public persona change in two years? For Arunabh Kumar, dramatically, we imagine.
In a 2015 interview to a fashion magazine, the boy from Muzaffarpur who founded digital entertainment outfit TVF (The Viral Fever) Media Labs, had said the harshest criticism he has encountered is being called autocratic. "Most of the original team of TVF are small-town boys and in more ways than one, we are still 'uncool'. So, sometimes we seem inaccessible and unapproachable because we are shy and scared," the magazine quoted the IIT Kharagpur alumnus as saying. That persona is at loggerheads with Arunabh's current public image of pawing wolf.
On March 12, a late night anonymous blog post on Medium by someone identifying herself as Indian Fowler, robbed him of respect when it alleged Arunabh doesn't hire talent, "he hires toys". The woman from Bihar, then freshly out of DU, recounted abuse she had suffered over two years, including him holding her hand and saying, "Madam, thoda role play karein". Even as 34-year-old Kumar, who made it to Fortune magazine's 40 under 40 of India's brightest entrepreneurs in September 2016, defended himself as a heterosexual who approaches women but doesn't force himself on them, a slew of others joined Fowler in support, saying, me too.
Nikhil Jois, Head, Eventosaur
A 28-year-old, who like Fowler requests anonymity when she meets this writer, is a freelance blogger. Seven years ago, she worked with a film glossy. A late night message from the boss read: You are a bitch. Abusive language aside, this reaction was unsettling because it came in response to a film review she had filed. That he was out of the closet, she says, gave him the licence to cross the line, or so he thought. "He'd snap my bra strap, and use his sexual preference - which didn't include women - to justify his free behaviour." Her 41-year-old male colleague, now running an independent content firm, claims he had it worse. "We were in a room discussing appraisals, and he pulled his chair next to mine and said, 'Kiss me'. Did my appraisal depend on it? Teasing was common," he tells mid-day. Drumming up the courage to mention sexual harassment during the exit interview didn't impress the company's HR. "He is still the editor."
TVF's human resource and legal teams didn't react very differently, writes Fowler. When she decided to walk out after the late evening episode, Legal called her to say she would be guilty of breaching her contract. Since that post, more than nine testimonies cropped up on social media, one of them from filmmaker Reema Sengupta, who had directed a series for TVF. "In the middle of the shoot, he touches my shoulder tattoo and tells me he finds it sexy," she wrote, "Do I wish I had retaliated? Yes. I didn't because the agency and the client would have both suffered. In hindsight, that was wrong."
Team TVF: (From left) Arunabh Kumar, Nidhi Bisht, Jitendra Kumar, Vaibhav Bundhoo, Anandeshwar Dwivedi, Biswapati Sarkar, Deepak Kumar Mishra and Amit Golani
Why we are silent
Writer-actor Vaishnavi Prasad may have the answer to why most of the women calling out Arunabh haven't identified themselves or filed a police complaint despite a tweet from the police requesting them to come forward.
"In the light of this whole TVF thing, I'm reopening what happened with me in 2013, for which I still haven't received justice," she tweeted on March 13. In a series of following tweets, she narrated her time at a Chennai-based firm headed by a man who'd accompany her on field visits, graze his legs against her thighs and try to hug her. She was told by senior colleagues to dress in salwar kameezes to exercise precaution. A blog she wrote about the experience attracted attention from the wrong crowd. She pulled it down. Vaishnavi then filed a written complaint with the firm, demanding an internal inquiry to review the situation. Since the firm didn't have a sexual harassment cell, the company's board helmed the inquiry, and said, "All men stare". "One of the reasons women don't file complaints is because you get branded as 'that girl who filed a harassment complaint'," she says to us over email.
Bharati Masiwal, HR executive
Industry observers say the nature of India's entertainment industry fans the fire. Corporate governance is far more familiar in this terrain than it was 10 years ago, but the ad hoc tilt of the industry dominated by freelance consultants who work on per-project basis, lets cases such as these go unreported. They usually end up as dinner party conversations. A 28-year-old upcoming actor-writer from Mumbai, who is making a mark in the digital entertainment space, says casting directors, both male and female, calling talent over to their homes to discuss projects, is common. "They will touch you and ask you to bare your soul. I refused one such offer, and I have never been approached by that production house again," he says.
Media in a mess
According to a survey undertaken by the women development cell of Churchgate's KC College in collaboration with city-based Population First, a non-profit that works on population and health issues within the framework of women's rights and social development, most young, urban professionals are not aware of their rights. "They are not clear what constitutes sexual harassment, and who in their company is the person to approach if such an incident were to occur. The ratio of complaints made to complaints solved in the favour of the complainant is negligible," says Suraj Kamdar, student at KC College.
Until recently, Bharati Masiwal was with the human resource department of Endemol Shine India, a firm that produces and distributes multi-platform entertainment content. She says, according to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, each organisation needs to have a working sexual harassment cell in place. The Act, that seeks to provide protection against sexual harassment of women, has an exhaustive definition of what a 'workplace' constitutes - including, 'any enterprise which employs less than 10 workers'; 'places visited by the employee (including while on travel) including transportation provided by employer; 'any enterprise owned by an individual or self-employed workers engaged in the production of goods or providing services of any kind'. "I know of media firms that don't follow regulations, and hence, women aren't sure who they must turn to. Firms with a turnover of over Rs 200 cr tend to come under the scanner, but the mid-sized ones get away," she adds.
Most such firms, media start-ups included, don't have an Internal Complaints Committee or a clear Sexual Harassment Policy that aligns with the provisions of the new law such as definition clauses, procedural mechanisms, interim remedies. Employment contracts don't legally bind a staffer for acts that create a hostile work environment. Neither do firms make it implicitly clear what the consequences of indulging in acts that constitute sexual harassment will be. Nikhil Jois is head of Bengaluru-based event management start-up, Eventosaur. He says the positive fallout of a controversy like the one surrounding TVF is it kickstarts the debate around sexual harassment in offices. "Even though we are a growing company, we have decided to set guidelines. Everything should be done according to the book. It is the founder/CEO's responsibility to ensure a professional atmosphere is maintained. We need to work towards cultivating the right work culture."