About 15 minutes into our conversation, Tanushree Dutta begins to describe an unforgettable spiritual experience. She narrates the incident with the equanimity of someone accustomed to, and untroubled by, the glare of scepticism and disbelief. It is perhaps this ability to be unperturbed by public opinion that allowed Dutta to stand up to co-star Nana Patekar, who she accused of harassing her in 2008, on the sets of the film Horn Ok Pleassss, at the age of 24. Hours later, Dutta’s car was attacked by a mob, and a complaint she filed with Cintaa (Cine and TV Artistes Association) remained unaddressed.
It’s been a little over a month since Dutta recounted this experience in an interview to Zoom TV, unwittingly setting in motion a series of events that sparked the country’s second #MeToo wave. Women from across fields came forth with disquieting accounts of sexual harassment and abuse on social media, revealing the graphic details and losing the shame; problematic men were ousted from positions of power; industries and organizations like Cintaa in Bollywood were jolted into setting up committees for redressal of sexual harassment complaints.
But being an accidental catalyst of the #MeToo movement has also wearied Dutta, who currently faces a defamation suit filed by Patekar. When we meet at Atmantan, a wellness resort in Mulshi, Pune, the former actor is winding down after a detox programme that involved highly effective massages and healing meditation sessions. At the end of her last day at the resort, Dutta spoke to Lounge about her role in the #MeToo movement, why it is a moment of reckoning for Indian men, the emotional toll of reliving past trauma, and her spiritual leanings. Edited excerpts:
This is your first trip to India after moving to the US two years ago, what were your expectations from this visit?
I’d come to India for the Durga Puja holidays. My plan was to leave soon after the festival. When I arrived, there was a lot of media attention, simply because I was coming back after a long time. And generally, in the last eight years, I’ve kept a very low profile. People know bits and pieces about my spiritual life, they saw a picture of me with a shaved head (2012) when I was practising Buddhism, heard about me at some ashram. So I think there was still some curiosity about me because I completely left Bollywood, and I seemed okay.
It wasn’t my intention to start a movement; it’s become what it has. It’s not about me, or my incident anymore. Many women, even men, are coming out with their stories. And it will continue.
You have retold your story multiple times over the last month, and met with both support and scepticism. Have these repeated narrations had an emotional impact?
It’s not been easy, it has taken a lot out of me. Even media interactions take a lot of energy and effort. And when you are part of a movement like this, a lot of toxicity and negativity can be thrown at you. It weighs you down. Even the strongest people need to retreat from time to time. I’m not the kind of person who will always be on the battlefront. It appears like I’m out there with daggers drawn, but I’m not. I have a team of advocates that’s handling the legal aspects. I’m not trying to take the entire load on myself.
I definitely felt the need for a break, which is why I came (to Atmantan). The last 10 years of my spiritual life have been my bedrock in many ways. I have made it a habit to regularly go and spend some time at a retreat centre where I can experience holistic healing modules. I was pleasantly surprised to find this space so close to Mumbai—it’s been very helpful.
As a young actor, how was your experience with the film industry? What made you want to leave the profession?
I felt like I deserved better, I could have done better with my talent. I felt shortchanged. I had started getting the feeling that maybe I’m in the wrong place. But it was a stepping stone; because the fact that I was able to travel so much and experience so many things was because of my career as an actress.
I did well, I fell in love, I was heartbroken…I experienced everything. Ups and downs in my career, pain and disappointment. Then in 2009 I was at my wit’s end. I just couldn’t figure out the mantra to happiness. I was a happy child, even young adult, but I felt like the world was getting the better of me. I was also put off by things. By 2016 I was sure that I wasn’t returning to movies and that I wanted to live in the US.
What professional changes did this move involve?
Because I haven’t taken up movies, I would take up short-term commitments such as photoshoots, events and celebrity appearances in the Indian community. If you’re a celebrity you get invited to events or as a brand ambassador. So that’s pretty lucrative. It’s a very good lifestyle for a (spiritual) seeker like me because it doesn’t take up a lot of time. I know for somebody else this might not look great…but I think it’s pretty great actually. If I’m happy with my life and the lifestyle that it affords me, then why not?
I’m definitely not looking at reviving a film career in India, but you never know what god wills. Right now, I’m okay with where I am. And whatever is next, I’m going to be okay with that too. I don’t have a negative internal dialogue. I never complain about myself.
As one of the catalysts of the #MeToo movement, how do you feel about the accounts and consequences we have witnessed in the past month, and what changes do you want to see implemented?
It’s a moment of reckoning for Indian men, and a time of introspection for a lot of people, in a good way. I’ve noticed that the people who have some kind of guilt in their minds are the ones who overreact and say things like, “Oh, is even shaking hands (with women) okay or not?"
For something like this to carry on and bring out about real change in society, it has to translate into stronger redressal mechanisms within organizations. I have said this earlier, the idea of an internal enquiry committee is a very vague concept that never works. The person you’re complaining about and the investigator could be friends. It is doomed for failure. There has to be an external committee, independent of the organization.
And how do you see your own role in the movement?
I’m not looking at (the #Metoo movement) as something that I’m spearheading. I’ve had this impact without wanting to. My involvement has been very instinctive and unplanned. As for my role, I would not want to be in some kind of leadership position. This movement cannot have a leader. Each of those women is her own leader.
I know people are looking at me like I’m a kind of flag-bearer, but I’m just being myself. I have learnt not to give into pressures of people’s expectations. Because in one moment people will make you a hero, and the next they will take you down. Nothing in the world is consistent. I don’t want to be putty in the hands of people.
There has been some debate about the veracity of claims by anonymous accounts. In a tweet, actor Swara Bhaskar said stories of harassment from anonymous accounts should be discouraged—what is your view on this?
I’m surprised she said that. See, this movement is a more like a social cleansing. Offences of a sexual nature can never be so black and white, you cannot always try them in a court of law. That’s why today in our country there are so many cases that have not yet come to their judgement. You cannot always bring proof—women will have to wear cameras on their foreheads if one has to prove everything that has happened to them. When something like a social media movement happens, I’m sorry this is how it goes. Some people are going to be anonymous because they are just not comfortable talking.
It’s also the first time some women are recognizing their experiences as harassment.
Not only that, sometimes they’ve been aware of it, but have chosen not to deal with it or not confront it for what it is. You know harassment when you experience it. You know it is not light-hearted—it affects you. It has led to people leaving their jobs, you becoming incapable of doing your job. Workplace harassment makes it difficult to go on working. Not to forget that I’m still waiting for justice…
What justice do you hope to achieve?
Justice for me is always divine retribution. But also, what’s happening in the country now has never happened before, in Bollywood and workplaces, which is also some kind of retribution. People have been dropped from movies… Nana (Patekar) was dropped from a film (Housefull 4). I’m still waiting for those other three to get pulled to task—the choreographer, producer and director—because they were the real evil behind the whole thing. They were the ones who were pressurizing me to do the dance steps. I want them to be held accountable somehow because now they have all gone into hiding.
A lot of people are saying, “Oh, she’s come back at the opportune time". It’s not like that. In terms of emotional closure, I forgave and moved on a long time ago—not individually, but I forgave the situation. Forgiveness doesn’t mean ignoring something. It means you have dealt with the disappointment and the trauma of the situation.