TELEVISION NEWS AND social networking have a common trick to manufacture traction—deliberately conflate the pointing out of a phenomenon with its endorsement. It is especially evident in sensitive issues where anything that seems to be a neutral or different opinion becomes a mark of character on the person who voices it. It is thus not surprising that Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan was vilified as a defender of the casting couch. In the interview clip that led to this, she can be seen saying that the casting couch is not rape (true), it is a means to a career (true), it happens everywhere (true), and why target only Bollywood for it (true)?
Distasteful as the practice is, so long as the give and take is of free will, it doesn’t make it criminal, only unethical. This is a distinction that does not apply in areas like government jobs, where fairplay is a legal right and everyone has equal claim over a vacancy if they fulfil the eligibility criteria. A movie production is a private enterprise, where the overseer of good behaviour are the proprietors, partners, management or board. No one gets sent to jail in a casting couch case unless it is deliberately misrepresented as rape. A famous case in this vein was that of Preeti Jain, who a decade-and-a-half ago accused the director Madhur Bhandarkar of rape. This was after they allegedly had sex based on his promise of casting her as a heroine in his movie, one he later reneged on. He was rightfully acquitted in court.
The casting couch can also be gender neutral, which is something that many who were shocked by Khan’s views seem to miss. In Bollywood, one of the rumoured casting couches is of a woman executive at a major production house who has propelled the careers of many of today’s male stars. When asked about Khan’s comments, Ranbir Kapoor clarified at a media meet recently that he had never faced a casting couch. He is actually a fit illustration of why the practice prevails. In an industry where entry barriers are enormous and nepotism is so widespread that outsiders have little chance of breaking into the big league, the casting couch can be something of a leveller. We will never know with certainty who rose to the top having slept with whom, but one thing is always noticeable: casting couch gossip usually tags those who are not from a movie dynasty. A star son or daughter has no need for it, even if their talent is limited. The choice is thus between nepotism and sexual quid pro quos. In an ideal world, both should be anathema, but if one exists then there is no mystery in the other following.
Saroj Khan has since apologised. The view she holds is however not going to go away because it is shared by many as a realistic appraisal of the phenomenon. It does not necessarily condone it, but to browbeat people into silence will not end the practice.