October 2018 bore witness to the #MeToo movement coming to India. In a bid for accountability, many men in positions of power were called out for behaving in sexually inappropriate ways. Among these men were politicians, famed media personalities, and actors and filmmakers.
Filmmaker Sajid Khan was one such man, who was accused of sexual harassment by over half a dozen women. Over nine women, including actors and journalists, accused Khan of exploiting his position of power over them and sexually harassing them.
Post-MeToo, conversations about cancel culture, its benefits and perils, were mainstreamed and continue to occupy a prominent place in popular discourse as we strive to move towards a more equitable and accountable society. Many believe that cancel culture is harmful because it doesn’t lead to meaningful change and it is often called a form of bullying.
While cancel culture allows marginalised folks to seek accountability from people who hold power over them, ultimately all conversations about cancel culture in response to #MeToo are moot. Men in power are rarely held accountable in any meaningful way. And even when they are held accountable for their actions in the media or by the court of public opinion, more often than not, such accountability is transient and polarised.
Sajid Khan is an excellent example of this. Despite the many sexual harassment allegations against him, Khan is now a contestant in the newest season of the reality television show, Bigg Boss. Khan’s appearance on the show isn’t just a vindication of a predator who preyed on vulnerable women whom he was in a position of power over but it is also a testament to the failure of accountability in the face of wealth and power. In response to the manifold allegations of misconduct against him, Khan received a measly, slap-on-the-wrist one-year ban. Since this ban ended in early 2019, the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) wrote to Anurag Thakur, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, saying that Khan is free to work once again.
While Sajid Khan’s Bigg Boss gig was met with public outrage, the FWICE backed him, as did some of his co-contestants, some celebrities, and sections of the public. Former Miss India Manya Singh, another contestant on the show, said, “I do feel that everyone deserves a second chance in life, and he is living that in the show.”
We must ask ourselves, why does Sajid Khan deserve a second chance? Why is his career and reputation more important than the lives of the women he willfully harmed? Why does Sajid Khan deserve forgiveness or second chances when he can’t mitigate the harm he has caused?
Sajid Khan is a sexual predator who has displayed a systemic pattern of exploiting his position as a prominent filmmaker to abuse women whom he has power over. Accusations against Sajid Khan are of serious criminal offences, why then must he be given another chance?
This vindication of Sajid Khan by paving the way for his return to public life and the recapturing of the cultural capital he once enjoyed is proof that accountability is rare for men in a deeply patriarchal world. While the West saw some semblance of accountability; like the imprisonment of Harvey Weinstein, the ouster of Kevin Spacey from House of Cards, or the downfall of Armie Hammer; India has seen little to no such accountability. While accountability has been sparse and transient, victims who spoke up had to endure hardships while their abusers walked away with little more than a slap on the wrist.
Prominent politician, MJ Akbar, was accused of sexual harassment by several women during #MeToo, including journalist Priya Ramani. In response to this, Akbar sued Ramani for criminal defamation. In 2021, Ramani won the case against Akbar, in one of the first and perhaps only high-profile legal wins of the #MeToo movement. But Ramani still had to go through a long and arduous trial for speaking her truth. It’s ironic that Ramani was the defendant while Akbar never faced any legal consequences for his actions, proving once again that with the aid of power and wealth, men continue to evade responsibility for their crimes and predatory behaviour even years after #MeToo.
Four years after #MeToo kickstarted in India, we are a far cry from accountability. When a man is accused of sexual misconduct, our collective response is to often fret over the implications of such allegations on the reputations and careers of men, ignoring the very real harm they have caused their victims. Sajid Khan’s career shouldn’t be more important than the lives of the women he has harassed, but unfortunately for us, even in the post-MeToo era we continue to live in a world where we protect predators and question victims. Actor Sherlyn Chopra, one of the women who accused Khan of misconduct in 2018, is now filing a criminal case against him after the news of his Bigg Boss participation broke. While Chopra’s case provides hope that Sajid Khan will face consequences for his crimes, that’s still only the bare minimum.
Sajid Khan shouldn’t be allowed to waltz his way into public life like the half-a-dozen sexual misconduct allegations against him don’t exist, but the fact that he can not only do so with impunity but also support is a testament to the fact that we continue to fail our women to protect the men who wrong them.
Akshita Prasad is a writer and student whose work mainly centres around feminism, law, and pop-culture.