AT 52, KHUSHBU SUNDAR appears braver, fitter, and more confident than ever. Ahead of International Women’s Day, when the actor-politician decided to go public with details of her sexual abuse by her father while she was still a child, there was, understandably, an outpouring of support for her on social media. Amidst the congratulations, however, we seem to have forgotten an older interview of hers that speaks of how far India has progressed as a society that acknowledges, if not always upholds, women’s rights. Back in 2005, political opportunists vilified Khushbu for acknowledging the fact of premarital sex and live-in relationships in India, and advising women to safeguard themselves while choosing a sexual partner. As many as 22 criminal complaints were filed against the actor under Sections 499, 500, 509, 153-A and 292 of the IPC, read with Sections 4 and 6 of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, in various jurisdictions. It took Sundar years to fight off all the complaints in various courts, and she finally emerged victorious in 2010 when the Supreme Court quashed all 22 cases. Khushbu has come a long way since, one that has wound through three political parties and several roles—producer, actor, presenter, screenwriter, political spokesperson, social media personality, and a champion of women’s rights, among others.
Khushbu was recently nominated to the National Commission for Women (NCW). “When a child is abused, it scars them for life. It is not about whether they are a boy or a girl. Not many people are able to come out of that… When my abuse started, I was just 8 years old and I had the courage to speak against him when I was 15,” Khushbu said in an interview with Mojo Story’s Barkha Dutt, revealing an unknown facet of her past. Coming from someone who wears her heart on her sleeve, it is a powerful revelation—one that may yet inspire children and women living in abusive households.
According to CHILDLINE 1098, the national child abuse helpline, India has the largest number of child sexual abuse cases. A child below 16 is raped every 155th minute and one below 10 years of age is raped every 13 hours. New data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that 1,49,404 cases of crime against children were registered in 2021, of which 53,874, or 36.05 per cent, were registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). It is believed, however, that only 3 per cent of child sexual abuse cases are reported to the police, due to social stigma and shame. Children abused by a member of the family who is in a position of power and trust carry an immense emotional burden and are faced with the possibility of being sent to a care home. While POCSO has provisions for treating survivors of abuse with sensitivity—the Act mandates that a support person be appointed to help the child navigate the pre-trial and trial process—the abused child and the person reporting the crime have difficult choices to make. “The main fear and thought that comes to their mind is that society is going to ask them [questions]… What did she do to provoke the men, what was she wearing, was she behaving friendly with the harasser, etc. Moreover, most such child abuse happens within the family or by people known to them. So, children should open up,” Khushbu told The Indian Express.
Ahead of International Women’s Day when Khushbu Sundar, who was recently nominated to the National Commission for Women, went public with details of her sexual abuse by her father while she was still a child, there was an outpouring of support for her on social media
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Born Nakhat Khan in 1970 to Muslim parents in Mumbai, Khushbu got her first break in films as the girl singing ‘Teri hai zameen’ in The Burning Train (1980). The young actor started going by the name Khushbu and acted in Hindi, Telugu, and Kannada films before landing her first role in a Tamil film. Dharmattin Thalaivan (1988) co-starred Rajinikanth and Prabhu, Sivaji Ganesan’s son, whom Khushbu got to know well and admitted to being in a relationship with. Prabhu was already married, however, and the two decided to go their separate ways. But not before delivering a string of hits, the first of which was the 1991 blockbuster Chinna Thambi. After the breakup, the Tamil film industry became a hostile place for Khushbu, and she found a friend in director Sundar C, whom she would later marry and have two daughters with. From then on, Khushbu’s rise in Tamil films was mercurial. She became the first actor to have a temple built in her name, even if it was later demolished when she made the statement about premarital sex. She was also the first of many women actors from north India—Nagma, Jyothika, and Simran among them—to win south Indian hearts.
If her controversial statements had branded her a progressive, her role in a 2007 film on Periyar and her formal entry into the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the then-ruling party in Tamil Nadu in 2010, placed her firmly in the political landscape of Tamil Nadu. When she quit the party four years later, however, saying she felt slighted, she was accused of abandoning a sinking ship. DMK leaders claimed she wasn’t an asset to the party and targeted her for speaking up against its dynastic politics. Six months later, she joined Congress, claiming it was the only party that could unite India. This too-familiar script played out again when she quit Congress in 2020 for BJP. Overnight, the relentless anti-BJP campaigner who had dubbed the Narendra Modi-led government a “jumla” government, and questioned the “neeyat/motive” of the saffron party, had seemingly had a change of heart. Perhaps it was the promise of a chance to contest elections for the first time in her political career that made this change palatable. She had felt cheated—after all, she had been the crowd favourite for taking on All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo and the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa from Chennai’s Radhakrishnan Nagar constituency in the 2016 Assembly polls, an opportunity that didn’t materialise. Contesting from Thousand Lights in Chennai on a BJP ticket in 2021, Khushbu must have known it wouldn’t be easy, and sure enough, she lost to N Ezhilan of DMK by 17,522 votes. Now, as BJP tries to break out of the marginal role it has played in Tamil Nadu, Khushbu, an atheist and a secular person, could be the sobering voice the party needs. In a state that has consistently voted for progressive ideas, her hybrid identity and her activist streak are strengths the party could lean on.
She also seems to have finally shaken off the rumour-mongers who had doggedly besmirched her reputation over the course of her political career, linking her amorously to politicians. On Twitter, where she is still branded a political turncoat, she minces no words, hitting back like a “wounded tigress”. Whether it is calling out rape threats online, or actually slapping a man who misbehaved with her at a political rally, Khushbu is all kinds of fierce, and richly deserves the nomination to NCW.