Film star Bipasha Basu's younger sister, Bidisha, already has her face in the newspapers. The media is promoting her even before she's entered Bollywood. The Kapoors, Deols and Bachchans don't need to struggle for their first break. So why did aspiring Bollywood actress Preeti Jain (28) have to wait so long to see her name and photo in print?
Jain lacks a celebrity family. Bollywood's strongly-entrenched "caste system" makes this is a truly serious handicap. 'Star children' don't need to struggle for their first break. They have a status as soon as they are born. Being in the limelight isn't an issue. For a young person like Jain, getting a break - an opportunity to prove her talent - is a huge issue. A newcomer without lineage, contacts or godfathers just doesn't belong.
Jain recently filed a case of rape against Madhur Bhandarkar, a promising Bollywood director whose last film, `Chandni Bar', won critical acclaim. Although Bhandarkar was arrested by the Mumbai police, he was released on bail.
While the case is being fought in court, several newspapers and television channels have already passed judgement. Most have been overtly sympathetic towards the influential director and have displayed scant respect for Jain. Had a 'star daughter' filed such a case, the media is unlikely to have treated her so shabbily. From the tone of most articles, the media seems unable to stomach a `nonentity' challenging a deeply entrenched sexist and exploitative practice.
As with most other jobs in our country, thousands flock to Bollywood hoping for a lucky break. There is no clear, above-the-board recruitment procedure by which this industry assesses the potential of applicants. Jain's case exposes the existence of virulent exploitation at this stage. Sexual favors are often demanded in return for film roles.
Interestingly, the media is not denying the existence of the `casting couch'. It is acknowledging that aspiring youngsters (women and men) are sexually used. However, sexual relationships are being presented as if they were consensual. The power relations involved are being conveniently overlooked.
According to media reports, Jain says she consented to sex with Bhandarkar for professional and personal reasons: he promised her plum roles as well as marriage. But roles in his films kept going to other actresses. Jain claims to have seen through his deception within a year or so. She alleges that after this he coerced her to sleep with him, threatening to harm her and her parents if she did not. He continued to dangle promises of starring roles in front of her. He strung her along year after year. He had other affairs. She had another affair. Four and a half years down the line, he married somebody else.
It is likely that several aspirants in the film and modeling industry reach this sort of impasse. Many flee the scene. Jain could also have faded away, licking her wounds and finding a safe niche elsewhere. She is a Delhi University graduate and has studied computer programming. She has indulgent and loving parents. She could have walked away and created a different life for herself. However, Jain refused to fade into oblivion. She decided to speak out.
Jain's case is that Bhandarkar cheated her. She struck a deal with him. He did not live up to his part of the deal.
The media has failed to look at these allegations and their import. Instead, the case has been reported as a `kiss and tell' story and Jain caricatured as a gold-digger, publicity-seeker and guilty of `moral turpitude'. Bhandarkar's `moral turpitude' is hardly being mentioned. Women who engage in sex as part of their climb to success are being ridiculed as cheap and ethically wanting. But powerful male buyers of sex are being presented as smart and deserving of due respect.
Jain's case raises issues that have wide ramifications. At a point when women's groups and human rights organizations are reeling under the sheer weight of domestic violence and sexual abuse cases in the country, it is archaic to suggest that personal relationships should be kept away from public scrutiny, whatever the context. But advocate Mahesh Jethmalani's words were reported approvingly in a leading national daily: "We cannot let the law and police come into personal relationships. Women should be careful and men gallant.... If people in every relationship-gone-sour start complaining, the courts would be clogged."
The media is implicitly endorsing double standards. Misogynist language reinforces this. For instance, newspapers are widely using the term `starlet' when referring to Jain. `Starlets' are women aspiring to be actresses. This loaded term doesn't apply to males. It robs a woman of the right to be ambitious in a way considered entirely normal for males. A `starlet' is sexy, desperate and willing to do anything for a foothold in the glamour world. Was this term ever used for Kareena, Karishma or Kajol even when these star daughters were aspiring actresses?
Bollywood is primarily a workplace, operating like an unorganized sector, with people in varying positions of power or powerlessness. Clearly elaborate games are being played under cover of words like `merit' and `luck'. The rules are slanted against `nonentities'. The dice are loaded in favor of the powerful. The media is sanctioning this reality, accepting it at face value.
Mallika Sherawat of `Khwaish' fame has famously said, "Bollywood is a man's world." She made it as an actress by studying this world and its rules, and wedging herself in strategically. Her willingness to be raunchy on screen was a major ingredient of her recipe for success. The same is true for the growing breed of `item girls' like Neha Dhupia (former Miss India) and Shefali Jariwala (of 'Kanta Laga' remix video fame).
While the Sherawats, Dhupias and Jariwalas provide grist for fetid voyeuristic sexual fantasies - Jain provided actual sex to somebody who promised her a place in Bollywood.
Jariwala has recently said "My family knows whatever I do on stage or in videos is just play-acting", while Sherawat claims, "Despite my image, I live like a nun." As for Dhupia, she "had to steel herself for some of the love scenes in her second film, `Julie'". Dhupia now avoids a night out at a pub because of the eyes that bore into her.
But being skimpily, seductively clad on screen is not about women's liberation. It is about earning money, status and value in a man's world. Similarly, Jain is not at all a "high priestess of new feminism", as one national weekly sarcastically dubs her. She is an unhappy and isolated woman who tried to play according to the rules but failed to win the rewards. She was not particularly wise or discriminating. She made her mistakes and is not afraid to admit it.
The media ought to play a constructive role by providing respect and dignity to women - whether vulnerable, victims or winners. Instead of which, the media is busy portraying Jain's anger as something to laugh at. This is the caricature of a woman in mental distress.
The tragic reality is that it's still much easier to damn one woman than to question the whole filthy system.