Susmita Mukherjee on #MeToo: I have no first-hand experience of this
Actor Susmita Mukherjee on drawing from the underbelly of Bollywood for her debut fiction
Never has the underbelly of Bollywood been as exposed as it is now, as horrific accounts of sexual harassment continue to spill out in the #MeToo movement. But even before, there were always whispers, says film and TV actor Susmita Mukherjee.
"I have no first-hand experience of this, but we would hear whispers [of sexual misconduct]," says Mukherjee, who explores the same dark side of the film industry in her debut novel, Mee and Juhibaby (Speaking Tiger). The book follows the journey of the eponymous protagonist, Mee, short for Meehika, a successful Bollywood actor who faces a failed marriage and a bruising rejection from a movie mogul, plunging her into a world of alcohol, promiscuity and obesity. Is there a #MeToo story in Mee's journey? "She has an extramarital affair, but it is not a #MeToo story. It was consensual," says Mukherjee.
Eventually, as Mee turns to writing for TV, she reconnects with her estranged mother, Juhibaby, who is blind and ailing, living in an old age home. Parts of Mee's life are similar to Mukherjee's, who is a well-known face from films and TV, as well as a screenwriter and playwright (her first script was turned into the play Nati, which opened at Prithvi Theatre in 1990). But that is where the similarities end. "This is a work of fiction. She's a theatre and film actor like me, but the things that happen to her in the book did not happen in my life. Of course, as a first-time writer, I have drawn from things I have heard of in the industry. But I've never seen this underbelly personally," she clarifies.
The #MeToo storm has struck people in her work life, however. In the TV serial Tara, her on-screen husband was played by Alok Nath, aka Sanskaari Babuji, who stands accused of rape and harassment by multiple women. The first of these allegations was made by Vinta Nanda, who was also the writer for Tara.
"I have worked with Alok and Vinta on Tara. I don't wish to speak about this," was all Mukherjee said on the matter. Asked whether she had ever faced any sexual misconduct or had to walk away from a job because of it, she says, "Yes [to walking away from a job]." "I had a very strong marriage with my husband, and I didn't need that role to survive.
I walked away from projects and that was my choice. But, I also recognise that some people do need the job, and they may not have that [choice]," she adds. As someone with a direct window into the industry, what does she think of the #MeToo movement? "There is something very therapeutic about coming out and speaking up. I have compassion for all these women, who feel like they are now ready to come forward. But I feel admiration for women in rural areas, who don't have the same education or privilege, but have the courage to stand up for themselves immediately, no matter the cost. Both ways, there is no judgment."
Bollywood is only one part of this tale, emphasises Mukherjee. "At its heart, it's a story about mothers and daughters. It is about our relationship with our mothers, and their's with their mother. It's about how Mee and Juhibaby reunite and find it in their hearts to forgive each other and build a bond despite their differences," she ends.
This book is my way of saying goodbye; it's a prelude to moving away. India has been lost to me because a cultural shift has occurred. The election results dealt a deathblow. They unleashed something that I don't wish to be caught in. I'd rather not be reduced to a marginal character in this India.
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