October was an excruciating, endlessly exhausting, and uncomfortable month for most women, and some men, as more and more names were added to the list of men implicated in MeToo revelations across industries, occupations, and levels of seniority. Many expected, and some shockingly unpredictable names came tumbling out of closets women had kept padlocked for far too long. MJ Akbar, Vikas Bahl, Alok Nath, Subhash Ghai, Sajid Khan, Suhel Seth, Chetan Bhagat, Kailash Kher, Nana Patekar, Vivek Agnihotri, Anu Malik, Piyush Mishra, and many other widely known public figures have been named and shamed. A few have disappeared from public sight, but not before vehemently denying all accusations against them. Some tried to threaten and intimidate their accusers with defamation suits. While a scant few immediately offered up apologies for their behaviour.
The storm is still brewing, with indignation, anger, and adrenaline coursing through the veins of the women who have finally, blessedly, at long last spoke up about the horrid, dehumanising ways in which bosses, colleagues, friends, acquaintances and even romantic interests had sexually objectified them. Clearly, the women are not done yet. Not by a long, long shot.
Given that the dust is far from settling right now, it might seem premature, possibly insensitive to discuss comebacks and contrition. Or, it might be exactly the right time to examine how, or if, it is possible for the men who find themselves accused, often by multiple women, clearly exhibiting a pattern in their predatory behaviour. It’s important to have these conversations while we’re still seething because unfortunately public memory is fleeting, and its attention easily distracted. One of the most powerful lessons to emerge from churning that is MeToo is that it has forced many among us to reexamine our own behaviours and collectively redefine what consent and acceptable behaviour mean to us. Even as we do this, it’s important to address whether we’re capable of allowing the men who have wronged us, to make amends and re-enter our orbits. How do we engage with them, while still holding them accountable?
I think to be able to move forward, we have to accept some ugly home truths. Ours is a country extraordinarily skilled at forgiving powerful repeat offenders, if we’re smitten enough by them. The continuing popularity of some of the Bollywood bigwigs accused of sexual misdemeanors in the past are a perfect example of this collective talent in action. This is not the first time Subhash Ghai has been talked about in this regard, just as reports about Vikas Bahl sexually abusing a woman have been floating around for a while. While Bollywood biggies like Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan might now be rushing to show their support of MeToo by distancing themselves projects involving perpetrators, one has to wonder how they could have been so blissfully unaware of the things going on in their own backyards, right under their influential noses, ostensibly for years.
With this out of the way, any attempt at rehabilitation of reputation rests on some important pillars — the severity of the accusation, their peers’ willingness to take them back, their time spent away, and, most importantly, the extent of their remorse.
I would like to believe that in a post MeToo world there are some lines that cannot be crossed, and there are some things you simply can’t come back from. It would be depressing, and a slap in the faces of all the women who risked so much to call them out on their sickening behaviours if the likes of MJ Akbar, Alok Nath, Sajid Khan, Subhash Ghai and Vikas Bahl were welcomed back into their industries, and by their peers, with open arms, once the worst of the storm blows over. While Bollywood has been particularly adept at waiting for controversies to fade to orchestrate remorseless returns for some to its worst, one can only hope that MeToo will force the industry to confront its moral bankruptcy with a heightened degree of shame and awareness, in the times to come.
The time that offenders spend away from the public eye is important because it tells a story of what the effect of coming face to face with the repercussions of their actions was on their victims. Did they spend time internalising and learning, or were they simply plotting their comebacks? Were there any attempts at atonement, and trying to find peace by making things a little bit right for the women they hurt? Or was all of their time spent in a self-absorbed huddle with crisis managers and spin doctors, slowly putting into motion a carefully calibrated comeback plan?
And then there is redemption, which requires serious shame, contrition and a desperate need, not just a PR-motivated willingness to change. Such a change can only come through meaningful, often uncomfortable self-reflection. It requires the accused to step away and remove themselves from public sight, and make peace with the fact that even if they are forgiven, things might never quite be the same again for them. It requires less focus on their feelings of misery about being forced to take a time-out from the limelight, and temporarily halting their celebrity, and more focus on the impact that their actions had on the women they victimised and terrorised. Ironically, to successfully resurrect the careers of the men implicated in MeToo, our collective priority needs to shift away from them and their right to not be sentenced to eternal damnation, and onto their victims’ healing.
Because, let’s face it, if the only thing they really lost is their celebrity status, they got off real easy. It’s disingenuous to say that they lost their livelihoods, because most of the men who are being written and spoken about are already part of the hallowed 1 percent. Yes, there are financial consequences to this very public airing of all the dirty laundry most of these men have accumulated over years and decades — some of these men have been forced to abdicate their thrones, as the very survival and future of the businesses they founded now depends on how quickly they are shown the door. But compare this to the financial, emotional and professional cost of being harassed, abused or assaulted, sometimes over extended periods of time, paid by the women they forced themselves on (verbally or physically), and any baseline decent human being would know where their sympathies should lie.
So let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that the men being named are now suddenly, magically financially ruined. It’s not putting food on the table, paying electricity bills, or making rent that they’re worried about, the sudden wrinkle in their charmed existence is only that they no longer get to be media’s darling men. And that they no longer get to spin elaborate tales about who they want the world to think they are, instead of seeing who they really are. It is unlikely that the suggestive text messages Chetan Bhagat seems to favour in his interactions with women that barely know him will result in any lasting damage to his prospects of writing another book. His transgression, like those of the many garden-variety creeps that women around the world shrug and put up with, lies squarely in the murky no-man’sland between the boundaries of unacceptable and illegal. What will, most certainly, have to be curbed is Bhagat’s penchant for the flighty one-liners on social media he is exceedingly proud of, cementing his self-view as an irreverent, audacious social commentator. His petulant response to the accusations levelled at him is less about any real fear of loss of material wealth, and more about not being able to adequately promote the first in his multi-million dollar six-book deal. He doesn’t get to grin at us from newspapers and TV screens and on the Internet — at least for a while. It’s a mourning for this sudden cramping of his style, not any real remorse for how terrible he made the women interacting with him feel. Most among us would be hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly what it is that Suhel Seth does, other than his many appearances on panel discussions, TV talk shows, and at literature festivals. It’s tough to argue that a person’s career has been destroyed, when there’s no discernible record of said person actively pursuing one.
It’s a disturbing message to send to women, because what we’re really telling them is that lurking under the hemming and hawing about “due process” and “snap judgements” in the courts of public opinion, is this ugly truth: their suffering, and their right to reclaim their narratives is less important than their perpetrators’ right to fame and adulation.
It would be tragic if, once the storm has stoped raging, that’s all that MeToo ends up amounting to.