Queen Director Vikas Bahl, Author Chetan Bhagat Named In India’s Own #MeToo Firestorm

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THE director of celebrated film Queen, Vikas Bahl, best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, and former executive editor of The Times of India and ex-DNA editor-in-chief Gautam Adhikari were among those accused of sexual harassment, as allegations against names from the film, media and entertainment industries swept social media on Saturday.

As women shared their stories, that ranged from verbal to physical assault, including snapshots of social media chats showing persistent propositioning, identifying with the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, the allegations set off a debate on how many of those accounts fell within the definition of sexual harassment at work place. Organisations linked to many of those named said they were taking action.

Among them was Phantom Films, a production house founded by Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena and Bahl. In a HuffPost India report, a former woman employee of Phantom accused Bahl of sexually assaulting her in May 2015 at a hotel in Goa. She talked about her ordeal, said she had confided in Kashyap, and said he hadn’t taken action. She quit the company in 2017.

Confirming the incident, Kashyap said in the report, “Whatever happened was wrong. We didn’t handle it well, we failed. I cannot blame anyone but myself. But now we are determined to do better. We believe her completely. She has our undying support. What Bahl has done is horrifying. We are already on our path of course correction and will do everything in our capacity to fix it.”

Later in the day Kashyap announced on Twitter that Phantom Films had been dissolved.

Bahl, whose film Queen dealt with women empowerment, is currently directing his next film, Super 30, starring Hrithik Roshan.

Several members of the Hindi film industry condemned Bahl, and extended their support to the woman. Aligarh director Hansal Mehta, who asked on Twitter when the industry would take a stand against “Bahl and his ilk”, told The Sunday Express, “Right now, I’m more concerned as a father and wonder if my daughters should join the film industry or not. I hope we create a safe environment for women… This issue is about equality, safety and justice… The culture of following stars blindly has to change. We need to understand boundaries, and studios should work towards providing a safe and ethical ecosystem.”

Another woman shared screenshots of a conversation between her and Chetan Bhagat, in which the author says he wants to woo her and ignores her protests that he is married. Soon after, Bhagat released a statement on Facebook, saying he wanted to “apologise to the person concerned”, said he had felt “a strong connection” with her, and added he may have “misread the friendliness”. He wrote he was sharing what he had told his wife, and added, “I am really sorry to person concerned. The screenshots, are of course real, and I am sorry if you felt they were wrong I hope you will accept my apology… As I also say in the screenshots, I realized I was married and this was not about looking for any action… Also, I also want to clarify that there never was was nothing physical, no lewd pictures or words that were ever exchanged.”

After a woman journalist said Gautam Adhikari, while he was editor-in-chief of DNA, Mumbai, had “kissed” her without consent, Adhikari said he had no recollection of the incident. Over email, he told The Sunday Express, “I do not recollect this incident at all. I remember her as a colleague whom I treated with respect and politeness, as I did all my former colleagues. I retired from the media industry many years ago though I still write occasionally. I remained courteous and respectful towards all colleagues and there was never any question of harassment on my part. This kind of allegation through social media can hardly be countered through the law. Therefore, no, I do not contemplate any legal action.”

Multiple women came forward to accuse K R Sreenivas, who is currently the Resident Editor of Times of India, Hyderabad, of sexual harassment and misconduct. On Saturday evening, BCCL, publisher of Times of India, released a statement, saying, “BCCL has a strong POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) policy and does not tolerate any act of sexual harassment at work place. A highly empowered and accessible committee under this policy and under the law is in place to investigate and address all allegations of sexual harassment. The committee is chaired by a senior woman executive and a majority of its members are accomplished women, in addition to NGO representatives and legal professionals with relevant experience in social work. The company respects and acts on the committee’s findings without fear or favour. BCCL is committed to maintaining a safe work environment for all its employees. In keeping with this, the committee will investigate matters brought to its attention under the procedures laid down in law.”

Sreenivas told The Sunday Express, “I will submit myself to the investigation.”

A former employee of Hindustan Times shared screenshots on Twitter of a conversation with the National Political Editor/Chief of Bureau of the paper, Prashant Jha, saying he had made her feel “uncomfortable”. Repeated calls and texts to Jha went unanswered. A Hindustan Times spokesperson said, “We are verifying facts as this was two years ago. We are seeing whether a complaint was filed or not and whether any action was taken or not. An internal investigation will begin Monday.”

Allegations also emerged against a reporter with Business Standard, Mayank Jain, with a woman journalist from another organisation calling his behaviour “predatory”. While Jain did not respond to calls or texts, a senior editor at Business Standard said: “An internal inquiry into the matter has been initiated… The first phase of the inquiry was completed Friday, wherein the accused was summoned for questioning by the HR. The committee against sexual harassment met on Saturday, and will submit a report on Monday.”

On Saturday, another allegation of sexual harassment against another employee of the organisation was levelled by a woman on Twitter. The senior editor said, “We will proceed in the same manner as we did in the earlier case.”

These allegations come days after actor Tanushree Dutta accused actor Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her during the shoot of a film in 2008. She also accused filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri of asking her to take off her clothes during a shoot.

Last week, well-known comedy collective AIB had announced it was cutting off all ties with Utsav Chakraborty, after a writer and fellow comic accused him of sexual harassment and said that AIB had not taken any action despite her telling them about it. Several women had made similar complaints against him after that.

On October 5, Chakraborty tweeted, “It’s a little too late now but I am sorry, I really am… I can’t think of myself as a victim anymore. Please tell me what to do now.”

AIB also issued an apology for failing to take action when the complaint was made two years ago, as well as continuing to hire Chakraborty in a freelance capacity. “All reasoning beyond a point is just going to sound like we’re making excuses. It does not justify any of our actions,” it said.

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