Mumbai Film Festival Expands #MeToo Conversation With Focused Sessions

Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival
Indian actress Renuka Shahane (from left), filmmakers Ruchi Narain, Shonali Bose and Kabir Khan

In light of the recent wave of allegations against numerous personalities, the 20th edition of the festival has become a platform to discuss and formulate the way forward for the industry.

Just weeks before the 20th edition of the Mumbai Film Festival opened last Thursday, India's #MeToo movement sprang to life as several allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct surfaced in local media against a number of well-known film and entertainment industry personalities.

Without question, #MeToo is the hot-button topic at the festival, which had to pull some films from the program following allegations against their creators.

As a response to the ongoing debate, the festival programmed special sessions to discuss a wide range of topics while looking at ways to establish guidelines for the future. The first session kicked off Oct. 26 with a conversation titled "Culture, Content, Conduct," which also looked at how the #MeToo movement could affect India's film culture, especially in an industry where objectification of women is the norm and screen depictions of stalking has usually been passed off as romantic or comical. 

Moderated by filmmaker Ruchi Narain, the panel included veteran film and TV actress Renuka Shahane, South Indian actress Parvathy Thiruvothu, directors Shonali Bose and Anjali Menon, casting director Tess Joseph, screenwriter Suhani Kanwar, cinematographer Neha Parti and well-known Bollywood director Kabir Khan.

In her opening remarks, Shahane referred to Alfred Hitchcock, saying, "I have been a huge fan but he [Hitchcock] was terrible to his heroines. We have seen cases like that of people we really admired and I have worked with people like that, but they have feet of clay. Somebody could be a mind-blowing actor and done great social service, but that person could be a misogynist ... his behavior towards women could be atrocious ... This whole power equation has created this atmosphere of being scared."

Khan agreed that most of the people facing allegations "are people about whom we seem to have known about. But we all kept quiet ... Now when I think back, because of the #MeToo movement, we are not going to do that anymore. The moment I hear even a murmur of [an allegation], I am going to come down like a ton of bricks on that person."

Khan has major Bollywood hits to his credit such as Bajrangi Bhaijaan and spy drama Ek Tha Tiger, both starring top actor Salman Khan. While being one of India's most bankable stars, Salman Khan has been embroiled in numerous controversies and legal cases, including a deadly hit-and-run case and another for allegedly killing a protected species of antelopes during a break from a film shoot in 1998.

Two years ago, the actor sparked a major controversy with a comment that he felt like a "raped woman" after filming intense wrestling scenes for his film Sultan. India's National Commission for Women urged the 52-year-old actor for an explanation but he did not respond.

In 2002, former Miss World and leading actress Aishwarya Rai reportedly said that she was verbally and physically abused by Khan.

In the post-session Q&A, Kabir Khan was asked by a member of the audience about the alleged incident with Rai, especially with context to the recent #MeToo wave, to which the director said, "I would rather not go into individual cases, but we all need to be sensitized about what's happening around us. I don't want to get into individual cases because, honestly, I don't even know the details of the case you are mentioning but, definitely, we need to be responsible about the people around us."

During the session, casting director Tess Joseph, who handled India casting for the Harvey Weinstein-produced film Lion (which starred Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel), referred to how the #MeToo movement in the U.S. gathered steam following the allegations against Weinstein. While she said she "loved" Lion, referring to the fallout of the Weinstein scandal, Joseph added, "but now I have a different opinion of where power and money come from."

The #MeToo movement has not only galvanized Hindi language Bollywood but also the vibrant South Indian film industry, which has also been rocked with numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Last year, an unnamed actress in the state of Kerala was abducted and sexually assaulted, sparking outrage and a legal case, which is ongoing.

Menon, whose directing credits include Bangalore Days and Koode, said that the incident was "a tipping point" that led to the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective. She added that since WCC came into effect, "there has been an assertion of the kind of rules [of conduct] that need to be established [in the industry]."

Parvathy Thiruvothu, who has starred in major hits such as Milana and Maryan, gave the discussion a cultural context, explaining that "we are suffering from a cultural gap ... we have boys who never grown up with girls, and there is a certain repression there."

The Mumbai festival includes an award for best film on gender equality presented in association with Oxfam. Last year, the award was won by Rima Das' Village Rockstars, which is India's official entry in the Oscars foreign-language category.

At a separate event on Sunday titled "Women in Film," hosted by festival organizers Mumbai Academy of Moving Images and Oxfam, festival director Anupama Chopra said that the number of films competing for the gender equality award doubled this year to eight from four last year. However, just a day before the festival, one of the films in this section, Balekempa, was withdrawn by its producers following allegations against its director Ere Gowda.

In her opening remarks at the event, Chopra said, "Honestly, in my fantasy world, we would be in a place where you don't need an award for gender sensitivity because all films should have it, but we are a little ways away from that."

In addition to a workshop Sunday examining legal issues regarding sexual harassment, the #MeToo panels culminated Tuesday with a session titled "The Power of the Collective and the Road Ahead," which again featured Menon and Thirovothu along with actress Rima Kallingal.

A presentation on WCC outlined the organization's agenda and workings and how it reached out to the local government and industry bodies to ensure that guidelines established under India's Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act were implemented. WCC also spelled out an action plan for the future, which included setting up a sexual offenders registry and police verification by unions and industry associations of its members, among other initiatives.

Menon pointed out that the recent wave of allegations hitting Mumbai-based Bollywood and "the way the Mumbai film industry reacted to the many #MeToo allegations, has given us momentum."

The Mumbai Film Festival runs from Oct. 25-Nov. 1.