MUMBAI: A new Indian film looks at the sensitive topic of sexual harassment in the workplace at a time when Bollywood has come under fire for its portrayal of women, after a fatal gang-rape shocked the nation.
“Inkaar” (Denial), a Hindi movie combining crime and romance, explores how a relationship turns sour between Rahul, the alpha male CEO of an advertising agency, and his ambitious protegee Maya, who rises up the company's ranks.
She claims sexual harassment, a charge he flatly denies, and the film develops through a series of flashbacks as the pair tell their story to a social worker looking at the case.
The theme is an unusual one in an industry that has faced fresh criticism for objectifying women as merely skimpily dressed arm candy for a macho hero.
The brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi on December 16 sparked shockwaves and protests across the nation, along with much soul-searching about its treatment and portrayal of women.
Director Sudhir Mishra said the timing of Inkaar's release, on Friday, was a coincidence but he hoped the film would spark debate on under-discussed issues facing modern and rapidly urbanising India.
“The film explains the environment of a workplace from both men's and women's points of view,” he told AFP.
“Everyone has a point of view on a subject, especially something as strong as sexual harassment. I have come across a cluster of people who work in different offices and they have similar stories to narrate.”
Inkaar's initial reviews say it has failed to live up to its promise, and should have pushed further its exploration of gender politics in the office.
“The tough questions that the film had started to lay out for us... all get buried under a hurried, compromised end,” said The Indian Express.
But film trade analyst Komal Nahta described it as a “brave attempt” to take on a “bold subject”.
“Films based on sexual harassment should be made more and more, but the filmmaker should handle this delicate subject with utmost care,” he told AFP.
The “item number” has come under particular fire, a musical performance often unrelated to the plot, featuring scantily clad women in sexually suggestive dance routines.
When the film returns to the storyline, the main female character is often tirelessly wooed by the male protagonist until she gives in to him.
“We talk about public or police apathy towards crimes against women but nothing comes close to the antipathy shown to women by Bollywood,” said award-winning playwright Mahesh Dattani in a scathing column.
“Bollywood loathes women. Bollywood is a monster that has gone horribly wrong,” he said.
Shabana Azmi, a 62-year-old actor known for her roles in Indian New Wave cinema from the 1970s, suggested there was some responsibility on younger women in the business to insist on better portrayal of female characters.
“Celebration of a woman's sensuality is healthy but commodification is not and our heroines will do well to make more discerning choices,” she said on Twitter.
Others in the industry defended its movies, saying Bollywood had become a soft target that could not be blamed for inciting violence.
Chitrangada Singh, the female lead in Inkaar, said song-and-dance numbers in films had been around for decades. She pointed in particular to Helen, a legendary Indian star in the 1970s and the most famous “item girl”.
“Helen did a lot of dances during my mother's time but men were not like this,” she told AFP.
Veteran art film actor and television presenter Farooq Sheikh suggested that scripts had deteriorated over the years. “Intelligent writers need to be given a chance,” he said.
An alternative Bollywood is starting to emerge: a crop of “Hindi Indie” directors have done well on the festival circuit and even some mainstream films have departed from the typical love story themes.
Films such as last year's thriller “Kahaani” (Story) and “The Dirty Picture” a year earlier, both starring Vidya Balan, have won praise for presenting stronger female characters.
Among India's leading independent filmmakers is Anurag Kashyap, who said it was up to the audience to make movie-makers adapt.
“Cinema is business and whatever will work, they'll keep doing that,” he told NDTV. “You want that to change, stop watching those films... stop buying those tickets.”