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Opinion | Coordination as a hurdle for the #MeToo movement

Opinion | Coordination as a hurdle for the #MeToo movement

The cost of joining hands to impose our own penalties on sexual predators remains high

After the high of the #MeToo movement last year, we are once again in despondent times. For me, it started with the trailer of De De Pyaar De featuring Alok Nath. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, because there he was, in a mainstream movie, featured prominently in the trailer, alongside Ajay Devgn and Tabu.

To recap, Nath was accused of rape by Vinta Nanda, who recounted the events leading to the alleged rape and abuse by Nath that took place 19 years ago, on social media. She did not report the event at the time in fear of retribution and loss of employment. Her story became one of the turning points in the #MeToo movement as it prompted two other actors, Sandhya Mridul and Deepika Amin, to come forward and describe the sexual harassment they encountered while working with Nath. Giving even more credibility to the allegations, senior actors, including Himani Shivpuri and Renuka Shahane, confirmed the pattern of Nath’s behaviour over the years. Soon after, the Cine and TV Artists Association (Cintaa) expelled Nath. And many film-makers vowed to never work with accused sexual predators until they were proven innocent. So, you can imagine my surprise to see Nath in a movie trailer.

When questioned, the makers of De De Pyaar De argued that the movie was completed before the allegations against Nath surfaced; and though they supported the #MeToo movement, it was simply too costly to reshoot Nath’s scenes with another actor. It must be mentioned here that this is no small film. It is co-produced by T-Series and Luv Ranjan (its director), and distributed by Yash Raj Films and AA Films led by Aditya Chopra and Anil Thadani, respectively. Devgn, known for big box office numbers, Tabu and Rakul Preet play lead roles. Theoretically, a lot of big names had a lot to lose by featuring in a film with Nath.

And that’s when I realized that they believe they will lose very little by associating themselves with Nath. They don’t expect anyone to boycott the film just because an actor accused of serial sexual predation is in it. The issue is not that the cost of the reshoot was too high, but that the costs imposed by society for not removing Nath from the film were too low.

We know this because of the impact of complaints by other offended groups. A few years ago, the All India Sikh Students Federation complained to the Akal Takht against the portrayal of Sikhs in one of Devgn’s films, Son Of Sardar. Devgn promptly made edits removing the offending portions, and ensured the movie had safe passage. There are numerous examples of film producers bending to the demands of offended groups; making edits, changing movie names, posters, lyrics, dialogues, etc. The reason is that these groups are well organized—usually along linguistic, regional, caste or religious lines—and can affect the release and success of a film. Identity politics is strong because the costs of organization are lowered by identity affiliation. Women in India and, even more specifically women and men showing solidarity to the #MeToo movement, are just too broad and dispersed as a group.

This was, in fact, the success of the #MeToo movement. It took off because it was decentralized, lacked any coordinated attack or organization. Strangers, mostly women, supported each other, lending credibility and solidarity. But women in India are not one thing. And, while women can more easily empathize with the accounts of harassment and abuse, there is no monolith or single organization representing them. They are too dispersed and separated by language, caste, class, religion, region, age, occupation, etc. But this also means that it is too costly for women to organize and impose costs on sexual predators.

And therein lies the difficulty in socially punishing film producers working with sexual predators. This is also the reason M.J. Akbar faced little backlash in his political career. When journalist Priya Ramani broke her silence last year, she was joined by Pallavi Gogoi, Ghazala Wahab, Shutapa Paul and many others. Instead of facing any consequences, in a perverse twist, Akbar filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani for her tweet. Incredibly enough, now Ramani is the one on trial, instead of Akbar. If convicted, she could go to jail. And while there is a lot of individual outrage, there is no organized social outrage against this horror.

The cost of coordination for those supporting the #MeToo movement is too high. Many people who showed solidarity with the survivors of #MeToo are deeply disturbed by the fact that Nath’s and Akbar’s careers are still intact. But it’s difficult for us to have any impact unless we impose costs on those who work with alleged sexual predators. But outrage is costly to generate. We need to set aside our daily lives, get informed and feel it. Then, this outraged group must form a large enough group buying tickets or generating ad revenue through satellite viewership. And finally, there should be a fear that this group will take some form of collective action and boycott the film. This would make producers, distributors and sponsors nervous about a backlash.

A few months ago, I had argued that while the #MeToo movement changed the costs and benefits for victims to come forward, as a society we need to change the costs for sexual predators and make them face long-term consequences. This requires organized action, which at present seems like an insurmountable hurdle. It leaves me in despair.

Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York