Bollywood Director Vikas Bahl Accused of Sexual Misconduct, Phantom Films Dissolved

Vikas Bahl - Getty - H 2018
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Bahl, along with directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, was one of the founders of Phantom, the edgy production company behind Netflix's first Indian series 'Sacred Games'.

In what is being seen as the beginning of Bollywood's #MeToo moment, Indian director Vikas Bahl has been accused of sexual misconduct.

The allegations, which were detailed in a Huffington Post story published on Saturday, came soon after the dissolution of Phantom Films, the edgy production company behind two-part epic Gangs of Wasseypur and Netflix's first Indian series Sacred Games which Bahl co-founded with fellow directors Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and producer Madhu Mantena. 

In the HuffPost story, an unnamed former female employee of Phantom, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was sexually assaulted by Bahl in 2015 after a wrap party in Goa. The woman said Bahl insisted on dropping her to her hotel room late in the night after the party ended and pretended to pass out drunk on her bed. She alleges she was awakened soon after and found Bahl masturbating on her.

Following the incident, the woman complained to Kashyap "but almost two years would pass before her testimony was addressed with any degree of seriousness," reported the HuffPost. The woman, who eventually quit Phantom after alleged harassment from Bahl, says she had repeated assurances from Kashyap that Bahl would apologize to her for the incident.

"All I wanted was an apology. An apology would have saved me from all the hell that I went through," the woman was quoted as saying.

In February 2016, while the woman was still at the company, Kashyap asked her to work with Bahl on a short-term commercial assignment. According to the HuffPost, "the assignment had come to Kashyap, but he passed it on to Bahl because he was busy and said Bahl needed the money."

"This made me realise that Kashyap wasn't thinking about me or the trauma I went through," the woman said, adding that she felt humiliated at having to repeatedly ask that Bahl apologize to her. "It told me that he isn't going to do anything about it. I had to leave," she said.

A March 13, 2017 meeting between Kashyap, his girlfriend Shubhra Shetty (who also worked at Phantom), the woman and her boyfriend to resolve the issue, turned fractious, with Kashyap and the women's boyfriend getting into a physical altercation. The woman alleges that Kashyap wanted her to go public with her story and that her boyfriend was against the idea, as Phantom had done nothing about the issue for two years and would not offer any guarantees to stand by her if she did go public. 

The story added that the woman "refused to cooperate," which led to "several heated text exchanges between Kashyap and her," which HuffPost said it had reviewed. Afterward, "she asked him to leave her alone and forget about the incident once and for all."

"I was disappointed in Kashyap. He knew everything," the woman said. "He had the power to do stuff. He could have if he wanted to. He didn't. And I ... will never be able to forgive him for that."

The HuffPost said Kashyap did not deny this version of events. It quoted him stating, "We didn't handle it well. I cannot blame anyone but myself."

A day before the HuffPost published its story, Kashyap, Motwane and Mantena announced on Twitter that Phantom, which was established seven years ago, would be dissolving, without alluding to the reasons behind the decision. "Phantom was a dream, a glorious one and all dreams come to an end," tweeted Kashyap, adding, "We did our best and we succeeded and we failed. But I know for sure we will come out of this stronger, wiser and will continue to pursue our dreams our own individual ways. We wish each other the best."

On Sunday, Kashyap and Motwane posted additional statements in response to the Huffpost piece, and apologized to the victim. "I am deepy truly sorry to the woman in question and she has known this all the while. This will never happen again on my work premises ever again," tweeted Kashyap in a lengthy two-page statement.

Kashyap explained that "according to the legal advise provided to me, we had very limited legal options. Now in hindisight [sic] and after taking stock of things myself, I can quite see how I was ill-advised." He added that though "we were told then that there was very little we could do, we decided to take a strong moral stand whilst also taking steps in our power as part of the company. We first suspended him [Bahl], we barred him from the premises, took away his signing authority. If that wasn't enough I named and shamed him privately amongst whoever asked about it [the alleged incident]."

Kashyap said that "while others in the industry were only rumor-mongering [about the alleged incident], it was me who was responsible for bringing out Vikas' name publicly by speaking with [newspaper] Mumbai Mirror on an anonymous basis and the publication eventually carried a front page article about the incident [last year]. Nothing about it was under wraps. Its been out there for more than a year."

Motwane called Bahl a “sexual offender,” adding, “He has preyed on a young woman, abused her trust, ruined her life. The scars are going to stay and that just isn’t right. The only thing I can offer now is [an] apology."

As well as Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur and its latest success with Sacred Games, Phantom produced the Bahl-directed 2014 breakout hit Queen, starring Kangana Ranaut. The film was considered a landmark film in its depiction of an empowered female lead character hardly seen in Bollywood films.

Ranaut issued a statement to Bollywood website MissMalini expressing her support for the victim, while detailing Bahl's behavior during the filming of Queen.

"Even though Vikas was married back in 2014 when we were filming Queen, he bragged about having casual sex with a new partner every other day," said Ranaut. "I don’t judge people and their marriages but you can tell when addiction becomes sickness….he partied every night and shamed me for sleeping early and not being cool enough."

Ranaut added that while she often "told him off … he was scared of me but still every time we met socially, greeted and hugged each other … he’d bury his face in my neck … hold me really tight and breathe in the smell of my hair… it took me [a] great amount of strength and effort to pull myself out of his embrace. He’d say “I love how you smell K…" I could tell something is wrong with him."

Kashyap and Motwane, who co-created Sacred Games, are also members of the Mumbai Film Festival organizing body MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images), which was to hold a press conference Monday announcing the festival's lineup. However, festival director Anupama Chopra said the press conference was being postponed and issued a statement saying, "The Mumbai Film Festival is fully supportive of the #MeToo movement. We have postponed the press conference because now is not the time to focus on our lineup, which is what we were going to announce. There is a larger issue at play and as an Academy we will put our attention and weight behind all efforts to find concrete ways to address this deep-seated and pernicious problem.”

The shuttering of Phantom will lead to questions about current and future projects at the company. Phantom has a partnership with Blumhouse and Ivanhoe, which produced Netflix's Indian horror series Ghoul. In 2015, Reliance Entertainment (which made its Hollywood foray by investing in DreamWorks) acquired a 50 percent stake in the company.

Bahl is currently in production on his next film Super30, a biopic on mathematician Anand Kumar which stars top actor Hrithik Roshan. The project was announced as a co-production between Phantom and Bollywood producer Sajid Nadiadwala, and is slated for release next year.

Netflix had recently confirmed that the second season of Sacred Games was going into production in the coming months. As to how the dissolution of Phantom will affect the show's production, when contacted by THR, Netflix issued the following statement, "At this time we are evaluating options on the path forward."

When contacted by THR about the future status of Phantom projects, Kashyap said that "they will go with their individual producers as far as I foresee. An official statement on them will follow soon."