SPOTLIGHT: CLASH OF THE SUPERSTARS

Published April 29, 2018
Given that both Meesha Shafi and Ali Zafar are high-profile celebrities, there are murky layers and multiple rumours attached to the story
Given that both Meesha Shafi and Ali Zafar are high-profile celebrities, there are murky layers and multiple rumours attached to the story

Some very powerful men in Pakistan are very scared right now. A few days ago, a feeling of impending doom assailed them when singer, model and actor Meesha Shafi accused singer and actor Ali Zafar of sexually harassing her. Their panic has continued to rise as the scandal has unfolded and the media has had a field day, happily feasting on character assassinations and heavy smatterings of ‘Breaking News’ headlines. These are famous men: producers with a predilection for anything on two feet, actors who rampantly play the field, superstars so lost in their stardom that they may have, on occasion, muddled the boundary line between consensual intimacy and coercion.

Right about now, many of them may just have turned holy, vowing to change their ways as long as Divine intervention ensures that the umpteen skeletons in their closets aren’t aired out on social media.

Sexual harassment is a depravity that exists everywhere, simmering just beneath the surface of our daily lives, rearing its head inside private homes and illustrious professional circles. As the #MeToo movement against harassment has gained momentum around the world, shocking stories have emerged: of doctors accused of misconduct with their patients, of lecherous university professors preying on young students and of lascivious corporate heads taking advantage of their subordinate workers. The Harry Weinsteins of the world — harassers working in show business — have particularly come under scrutiny because they are usually famous men, often lauded as icons before having their reputations tarnished.

Meesha Shafi’s allegations against Ali Zafar are different from the usual stories of harassment increasingly coming out primarily because both are high-profile celebrities

And Ali Zafar’s public image has undoubtedly been tarnished. There’s no denying it. Meesha’s allegations have opened up a Pandora’s box of vitriol, directed towards the vile ways of show business in general and Ali in particular. Why would a married mother of two make such a serious allegation and risk being dissected brutally by the nation at large? Why would a woman living in a patriarchal society make such a serious claim against a popular, well-loved star unless there were some truth to it?

Stories have filtered out about other women claiming to also have been molested by Ali. Some have gone on record accusing Ali of misconduct; others have whispered off the record. At the same time, questions are being raised regarding the nature of the harassment having been committed by Ali. There is a difference between philandering and physically imposing on a woman without her consent. Given that Meesha has clearly alleged the latter, it must be taken seriously. She may not have provided details but, according to her lawyer, she is willing to do so should the matter reach the jurisdiction of a court.

At the time at which this article was written, Ali has filed a lawsuit against her for having defamed his character. He is seeking for her to delete the tweet in which she publicly accused him and threatening damages to the tune of one billion rupees.

“Meesha had raised an allegation that he has harassed her physically twice on different occasions,” outlines Meesha’s lawyer Ahmed Pansota. “She decided to say it out loud, choosing her words very carefully on Twitter and she is willing to discuss the matter in court in a civil manner should the need arise. Should he apologise, she may consider settling the matter in some way but, beyond this, no other action can be taken up.”

But is this really a straightforward case of sexual harassment? Most cases involve an unequal power dynamic. Given that both Ali and Meesha are high-profile celebrities and PR companies are inevitably involved, there are murky layers and multiple rumours attached to the story. It is particularly curious that many of their industry colleagues haven’t readily jumped to their defence. A Mahira Khan or Ahsan Khan may have posted Twitter statuses advocating against sexual harassment but, with the exception of some such as directors Ahsan Rahim and Wajahat Rauf who have defended Ali, few in the industry have publicly taken sides.

Do these private inner circles know something that the world at large doesn’t? Or is this a case where industry professionals are too scared to publicly align themselves with one camp or the other? Ali would have particularly benefitted from any support given that his movie, Teefa In Trouble, produced by him as well as featuring him in the lead role, is just about to release.

There has also been no official comment emerging from the third, very significant, player in the story — soft drink company Pepsi, which was about to feature both Ali and Meesha as judges in the second season of the fledgling show Pepsi Battle Of The Bands. Sources reveal that Meesha continues to be a judge while Ali Zafar has been ousted from the judging panel.

Making matters confusing have been “leaks” that have followed the harassment allegations, hinting at a personal vendetta being waged for the sake of earning more money from the BOTB enterprise. Why doesn’t Pepsi step up and make a statement, even a carefully worded one? Is the brand indicating that it stands by Meesha by keeping her on board? Or is Ali Zafar’s apparent exclusion from this year’s season simply an effort in damage control, ensuring that the international soft drink image doesn’t get tainted by the inevitable mudslinging associated with a scandal of this nature?

Then again, even if financial interests and rivalries have been at play, the controversy’s focal point remains on the allegation of harassment. It’s a tough accusation to prove in court and, even before the legal battle royale ensues, Ali Zafar’s career is suffering. There is conjecture on the fate of his movie, which is to this date slated for a July release. Losing out on the judge’s position at BOTB, as rumours imply, is a definite setback. In a precisely worded statement on Twitter, Ali has professed his innocence but he has possibly lost out on his image as entertainment’s blue-eyed boy for a long time, or perhaps, for all time.

And while Meesha may have her supporters, social media vultures haven’t refrained from Googling out images of her with Ali Zafar — there are plenty of them, given that both are musicians who often worked and socialised in the same circles in Lahore — making snide comments about how the controversy is contrived. Typically, images of Meesha in risque clothing have also been hunted out, making the ludicrous insinuation that she was ‘asking for it’.

These inane comments are symbolic of the typical Pakistani response to a woman who decides to speak out boldly on a topic as sensitive as sexual harassment. If a woman claims to be harassed, she has to be taken seriously regardless of the way she dresses or the profession that she belongs to. Declarations that she must have been complicit need to be eliminated.

While care must be taken that the #MeToo movement does not get sidetracked by loose insinuations of wrongdoing, there also has to be a recognition that harassment is fairly commonplace and that, in most cases, happens without legally prosecutable evidence.

Unfortunately, this controversy has also managed to cast a shadow over the country’s entertainment industry, a field that was only just rising from the shambles of its past and moving towards lucrative, respectable territory. Parents may once again become wary of their daughters pursuing careers in showbiz. Actors may never be able to shed their images as roving Lotharios with uncontrollable libidos. The talent, the hard work, the spectacular productions slowly emerging from Pakistani film, drama and music have fallen under a persistent shade that will be hard to shake off.

It remains to be seen how the scandal will culminate. On the upside, the men in the industry are scared. Meesha Shafi has made a bold move. If nothing else, it may manage to make the Weinsteins of Pakistan think twice.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 29th, 2018

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