The casting couch is a term used to describe “the trading of sexual favors by an aspirant, apprentice employee, or subordinate to a superior, in return for access into an occupation, or for other career advancement within an organization,” (Wikipedia). Also known more formally as quid pro quo sexual harassment, it occurs in many industries and many workplaces around the world including the entertainment industry. Sadly, in Bollywood it exists as well and has for, as one director said, since Bollywood first came to be.
According to Bollywood reporter Rajeev Masand, “I have always known about the casting couch. Every single person who enters the industry doesn’t necessarily make it into the industry through the casting couch. However, the casting couch does exist though it is spoken about in whispers.” It happens to men and women, newcomers, models and even established singers. Many insiders say this is of no consequence, as long as the two are consenting adults. However, in many cases it is not two consenting adults: false promises are made and powerful people exploit young men and women, sometimes forcibly. Victims have been afraid to talk about this terrible practice, but now more and more stories are coming out.
A few years ago, the hushed up subject of the Bollywood casting couch came into the public eye in a television documentary that exposed actor Shakti Kapoor and Aman Varma asking for sexual favors in exchange for a roles in a movie. The dirty truth was there for everyone to see but amazingly many defended the practice. “It’s embedded in every field, not just the film industry. Our industry is talked about because it’s in the limelight. Also, who are we kidding? Everybody is an adult here. Nothing happens without consent,” declares director Madhur Bhandarkar. Bhndarkar himself in fact was involved in a casting couch scandal.
The secret was out. In a 2005 article a reporter wrote, “…a top heroine is said to have bagged a role meant for an ex-beauty pageant winner by jumping onto Bollywood’s infamous casting couch. A music industry boss, who doesn’t necessarily produce musicals, invariably finds roles for a small-time actor because the actor is a regular on his office sofa, oops, casting couch. One of the industry’s biggest filmmakers had a hotel suite and a top industry heroine at his disposal for two whole days. After which she bagged his prestigious flick.” In fact one young actor said, “if promising roles in return for sexual favours as a criterion was a cognizable offence, 90 percent of Bollywood men would be behind bars”.
Fast-forward to today and we find that the casting couch is still in existence. Lately it has been in the news again, but now because it is being reported that not only women are being coerced the headlines say Bollywood’s “Male Casting Couch”. One of last month’s biggest stories was of famous singer Sonu Nigam accusing well-known Bollywood critic and journalist Subhash K Jha of sexually harassing him. When Nigam refused his advances, Jha began to write articles against the singer trashing his voice, his career and his performances. “Jha is one of the most powerful journalists and that is what gives him the authority and prejudice to write anything about anyone, or probably see to it that people succumb to his advances or his desires,” said Nigam. And Nigam is not the only one the Jha rails against in his articles. There are many he dislikes and talks about quite openly in his stories. In a letter to the Times of India, Nigam states the reason he has brought this story to light is that, “If someone can do this to me, I wonder what the new strugglers, models and actors have to go through in this industry? My heart goes out to them. Please let them know we are not living in a jungle where someone’s silence is taken as a sign of weakness by a beast!”
The male casting couch has probably been in existence just as long as the female one but it was talked about even less. Actor Priyanshu Chatterjee said, “I was asked for a sexual favour by this man who promised me a film in return. But I didn’t believe him, and was right in doing so, since the film wasn’t made.” Model Bobby Vats said, “I was told, ‘You’ll get the job, but you know for the job you got to do this.’ And that’s the thing. That’s why I’m out of the fashion world. Sorry all fashion people, I love them all for their creativity, but that’s the way I am. I will not succumb.”
It seems as if this phenomenon affects every part of Bollywood and gender does not play a role. It is all about power and the abuse of it. As I was doing research to write this article, I read over and over again that no one is being hurt, since this is between two consenting adults. But the idea that a girl or guy feels that he or she has to sleep with someone to get a break or a role in a movie or a job is disgusting. You are supposed to be rewarded for merit and how well you do your job. It is insane that someone with talent to be the next Shah Rukh or Hema who refuses to sleep with a director or producer may never get noticed because of taking the stance of not laying down on the couch. Perhaps in time if they are good enough some say they will be noticed anyway, but many will be hurt if this practice is allowed to continue. As Mahesh Bhatt, one of Bollywood’s most respected producers said, “The rot is within us.” It is my hope that the Bollywood community as a whole will work together to make this shameful practice a thing of the past.