As my phone flashed the words “Nawazuddin Siddiqui” and “MeToo” my initial reaction was that of a startled fan – “What?! Nawaz?” Immediately, I wondered what would happen to Sacred Games and the other projects I’ve been looking forward to. Already grieving the shows and movies that could have been, I tried to snap back into the ethos of the MeToo movement – that nobody be spared. But I’m still haunted by an increasingly common dilemma – can we spare the art while skewering the artist?
On November 9 Bengaluru-based journalist Sandhya Menon tweeted former Miss India Niharika Singh’s account of harassment and abuse by her ex-boyfriend Siddiqui.
2005 Miss India Niharika Singh's experiences in Bollywood but especially with Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Mayank Singh Singvi
Niharika and other women accused Siddiqui of making up lies in his autobiography, due to which he withdrew the book.
This is her side of the story. pic.twitter.com/XBVGgE3r0c
— Sandhya Menon (@TheRestlessQuil) November 9, 2018
This isn’t even the first time he’s been caught in a similar situation. In the not so distant past, he had to pull his autobiography off the stands after Singh publicly objected to his descriptions of their sexual encounters, saying he had neglected to take her consent before publishing the accounts. This entire incident was only punctuated by a feeble apology – and the whole thing got swept under the table as Siddiqui delivered one masterful on-screen performance after another. Of course, we, the audience, played our role in forgetting too.
However, today’s climate is a drastically different one and the audience’s memory is longer than it used to be. So will Netflix scrap Sacred Games?
We’ve been here before. In 2013, with Bernardo Bertolucci and his admission that that actress Maria Schneider was basically assaulted on camera while filming Last Tango in Paris. With Woody Allen and his relationship with his former adopted daughter, now wife, and his Oscar-nominated movies.
At first we could argue that we didn’t know the gory truth behind the shots and stories we loved. But now, we continue to enjoy our “problematic favourites” despite knowing what went into them.
Last Tango in Paris remains a masterpiece for many, regardless of the mental and physical toll it took on Schneider, who was just 19 when the movie was shot. Doesn’t the audience’s reverence for the movie automatically undermine, even dismiss, her suffering and exploitation? Don’t we implicitly support and even encourage such methods of filmmaking by continuing to turn a blind eye to Bertolucci’s intentions and actions?
When Bertolucci and his male star Marlon Brando conspired to assault the unsuspecting Schneider for an “authentic” shot, they weren’t alone in the room – there was a roomful of crew members. They have all remained silent, and thus complicit too.
A part of me wonders if art isn’t powerful enough to transcend the humans who create it. If, by identifying the follies of its human makers, we curtail a piece’s own power.
This problem stretches way back into time. The ancient philosophers were misogynists, Lewis Carrol could well have been a pedophile, our beloved Enid Blyton was racist and Stan Lee, the man behind our superheroes allegedly spent his last years harassing nurses.
There’s another uncomfortable question I’ve been grappling with – do we, as an audience, think we can wash off our guilt by implicitly supporting these men just because we liked their art?
Coming back to Siddiqui, I have to acknowledge that for me, watching his movies and appreciating his performances amounts to endorsing his actions. An artist can’t flourish without an audience. What’s to stop a man from behaving poorly if there are no professional repercussions for his actions?
As a viewer, our strength comes from deciding what is important to us in the long run. Do I want my children to grow up playing musical chairs to songs like ‘Chikni Chameli’ as I clap on, or consuming movies and books while keeping the author carefully in the background? Or do I want to contribute to the creation of a new era of art and cinema – one not built on the denigration of women – by making difficult choices today?
If we keep turning a blind eye to our artists’ transgressions and crimes for the seemingly noble purpose of salvaging ‘art’, we risk making the MeToo movement irrelevant. If we have taken it upon ourselves to go ahead and believe women, even if their encounters were anonymously shared, even if the telling of their stories don’t follow due process, then to turn around and say we can successfully separate art and artist is to indulge in a very convenient hypocrisy.
There’s a part of us that will mourn the loss of talent that is bound to happen when the dust settles on talented, abusive artists. But this can also be a turning point for making way for new art, created and consumed by those who have spent too many years silenced and tormented.
Fortunately or not, being accused does not take away a person’s right to create art, but then the onus is on us as to decide whether we wish to accept it or not, and weigh it against our complete knowledge of who the creator is and what they might have done.
It’s harder to figure out what to do with the art that was produced in times of different social norms. On one hand, it cannot be celebrated, on the other, erasing it is disingenuous because that would also mean erasing histories and legacies that are inconvenient for us to remember now. These works tell parts of our history and have determined the way our society has evolved, and by purging our society of these works, we would be creating a narrative that is dishonest and incomplete.
One episode of ‘Still Processing’ a podcast hosted by New York Times’ writers Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham laid out the argument for boycotting the work of sexual offenders so crisply and cleanly that it’s best to conclude with that.
“I can’t express this forcefully enough,” said Morris. “But in the same way we think about where our fruit comes from or where our potatoes come from, you need to be asking where your entertainment is coming from. Who’s making it? How many asses were grabbed in the name of making this movie or getting this show out or putting this record out? It’s a for-real question.”
If we, the ultimate consumers, begin to really weigh the costs of supporting projects helmed by problematic men, then isn’t that a step in the right direction? And if, after this calculation, we decide not to give our patronage to ‘bad’ men’s good art, then that’s definitely a good move too.
Anahita Mehra is a public policy researcher and currently pursuing law from Faculty of Law, Delhi University. She tweets @anahita_mehra.