#MeToo: Exceed's co-founder Afsar Zaidi accused of sexual misconduct
Exclusive: After Anirban Blah's ouster, rival talent management Exceed's co-founder Afsar Zaidi in #MeToo scanner
After mid-day published the accounts of four survivors who faced sexual harassment at the hands of talent manager Anirban Das Blah, several women reached out to the newspaper to reveal the misdoings of Afsar Zaidi, co-founder of Exceed Entertainment, another big player in the field of talent management. The celebrity management agency currently boasts a clientele that includes Saif Ali Khan and Sonakshi Sinha, among others. Two survivors — who wished to remain anonymous — accused the entrepreneur of sexual misconduct and abuse of power.
The survivor, who joined the celebrity management company in 2014, recalls that though Zaidi asked her "strange questions" during the interview, she did not read too much into it. Her instincts kicked into action when he would repeatedly remark on her dressing. "He would make me stand in the middle of the office and ask everyone to dress like me. Initially, it would be flattering, but after a point, it was systematic. On certain days, he would make comments like, 'Are we showing too much back today?' He would look me up and down," she says.
The first blow, she says, was when she had to travel out of the country for around one month on an official assignment. "We cracked a big deal with a big celebrity and a major TV channel, for a reality TV show. I traveled with the CEO and met Ajit Thakur on that trip. It was then that I gauged how Exceed functions. I was told that Ajit was an "important client", and we had to "keep him happy". "I tried to brush it off and ignore it, often with a forced smile or a retort. I didn't want to upset my boss, it was my first job in this industry and my first big client. And honestly, I respected my CEO and I didn't know then what 'keeping him happy' really meant. But a few days later, I was asked to join them post-shoot, for a few drinks at a popular street which housed multiple bars. I made sure to drink very little and very slowly so as to stay completely sober as I had an early call time the next morning. I remember that agitating Ajit. They were loud and boisterous and I didn't make much of it, considering their alcohol levels. That is, until my boss took me aside and told me that Ajit wanted women. And I was to help him get some. I recall looking at him with complete bewilderment. I thought he was joking at first. I was then asked to approach a few girls dancing at a distance and engage in conversation with them, eventually to convince them to join them for the night, with the hidden goal of Ajit taking them back to his hotel. When I timidly expressed that I wasn't comfortable doing it, I was told, 'Yeh sab karna padta hai, go Girl come one you can do this', or something implying the same, as if motivating me to do it. So, I squeamishly went near the girls and started dancing next to them. I tried to talk to them, ask them where they were from etc. I could see Ajit watching me like a hawk from the corner of my eye. I felt sick and decided I couldn't so I discreetly told them that they should go someplace before the men approached them but do not say anything. After that, I remember Ajit trying really hard to 'score' a few himself but he was unable. I guess that must have pissed him off because he proceeded to get completely trashed and continued the 'after party' in my CEOs room where he repeatedly came on to me. I remember making an excuse to leave a little later on the pretext of a walk, but I was followed to the beach by him where he just got relentless. I made my unavailability clear at that moment, as politely as I could, excused myself and went to my room."
This incident repeated itself once she was back in India, at a private after party held at the CEOs house where she was forced to bring female models and contestants. "The CEO himself seemed like a decent man, one who opened doors and kept a comfortable distance. It just seemed that he had resigned himself to the fact that the industry worked this way."
The Diwali party at their office proved to be the tipping point for her. "Afsar has a terrace with a separate door opening into his cabin, where he was hosting the party for employees and celebrities alike. I remember I was told that Hrithik Roshan, Bipasha Basu, and Shilpa Shetty were to eventually make a polite appearance with their respective managers. Afsar was physically grabbing people and pouring drinks down their throats, which seemed normal to those he was grabbing for some reason. It was as if they were desensitised to it, or were allowing it to happen as they were maybe used to it. While I kept dodging him, at one point, he grabbed me from the back, put his arm around me across my breasts and held me really tightly, and forced me to down a drink. He did this a few more times in the course of the evening. I put on a brave face and fake-smiled through it all, I was petrified. He was drunk by midnight, as were most people by then. It was then that he came to me again and under the pretext of giving me another drink, put his arm around me from the back and started pushing his penis up against my back. I froze. He started doing it over and over as if to dry-hump me from behind, as discreetly as a completely sozzled man could, with an audience of around 30 people. Amazingly no one looked, or they pretended not to. I froze and didn't know how to respond, what to do, where to look. There were people all around yet all blind to what was happening in front of them. I remember him coming close and whispering into my ear while he held me, 'If you want it, push back harder.' My mouth went dry and I didn't respond. I couldn't. He said it again. That's when I gained a little courage and I pushed him back with my elbows and angrily said, "Is it hard enough for you?" It was meant sarcastically, for him to take a hint and back off. He was so drunk that he didn't register the tone of my voice, and my obvious rage that I was trying to contain so as to not make a scene. He thought I was interested! He got so turned on that he let go of me and said: "Meet him in my cabin". I knew what was coming. The minute he left the terrace in anticipation of me following him, I ran across the office bay to a colleague, who was also a close friend, for help. I told him everything as fast as I could. When I didn't show up to his cabin, Afsar came looking for me and found me standing next to my colleague but still asked, "Are you coming?". I swallowed hard and somehow managed to say "No Sir". He looked hard at me and walked off in a huff. I was a mess, everyone around was completely drunk, some throwing up, others asleep under tables and on the terrace. I tried mustering the courage to talk to the HR person, when a few minutes or maybe a half hour later another woman came screaming out of Afsar's cabin. She was hysterical and it turns out, she became his prey that night when I said no."
The survivor goes on to recount how Zaidi, in an inebriated state, had tried to take advantage of another employee that evening. "She was maybe three-four days old in the company. I could tell immediately that he had tried something with her in his cabin. She was hysterically crying after she emerged from his cabin. What I witnessed then was even more disgusting than the act itself - a massive cover up that was orchestrated by the employees she approached for help, along with the HR. Not knowing where to go, we both sat together on the steps outside the office for awhile while she cried and I bit back my own tears, trying to make sense of what has just happened with us. To us. I didn't want to break down in public. My colleague dropped her home. The top officials, in their drunk state, held a meeting at 2 am post the party in the presence of Afsar. It was evident that they were plotting a cover-up and were shielding Afsar. I wasn't present but I heard that the HR manager was constantly s***-shaming the girl, and Afsar was pretending he had no clue and was trying to deflect blame. After seeing this, I didn't see a point complaining about what happened to me."
"I used to be the kind of girl who would pride herself on taking a stand, who was never afraid. 'Any man who tries to touch me, it'll be his bad day, not mine,' I remember saying jokingly to my friends earlier when we encountered men on the road. And then it happened. And I wasn't brave. Instead, I froze. I still have nightmares every time before Diwali.
To the girl who was assaulted after me, "I'm sorry I didn't get to warn you. I'm sorry it happened. You asked me why now. This is why."
mid-day reached out to the second survivor separately, who then corroborated the incident from the 2014 party. Stating that it was an incident of "near rape", the survivor — who has since moved out of the country — said it was horrific how no one in the firm backed her then. Two of our survivors backed out an hour before we went to press, fearing dire repercussions, after giving their entire testimonial.
When mid-day reached out to Zaidi, he said, "The allegations that appear to have been made are without basis, and are an attempt to malign me and defame my reputation and that of my company. The company has in place a policy for sexual harassment at the workplace. If the complainant has a genuine case, let her come forward and present it before the ICC constituted by the firm. This matter should not be one for trial by the media — there are systems in place in law and those should be used to ensure fairness and justice. I deny the allegations in entirety, they have been made without any basis or an iota of evidence. I plan to take appropriate legal action as may be advised."
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