India’s minister for women has written to leading Bollywood film-makers asking them to crack down on sexual exploitation in the industry after several actors went public with allegations of harassment and assault.
Maneka Gandhi wrote to at least 25 prominent producers and actors urging them to “provide a safe, secure and inclusive work environment for women” in line with national laws against sexual harassment.
She said harassment under Indian law included unwanted touching, lewd remarks or making “a demand or request for sexual favours”.
On Wednesday the Guardian published the accounts of several actors across Indian film industries alleging harassment at the hands of male directors and casting officers.
The actors said a “casting couch” culture, where women were regularly propositioned to exchange job opportunities for sex, was endemic.
“It is always very subtle,” one actor, Swara Bhasker, said. “People try to insinuate that there are 10,000 girls for one role – so what can you do?”
Another, Tisca Chopra, said: “They make situations uncomfortable and load choices in a way where if women want to get ahead, you have to do certain things.”
Film industry journalists and union officials blamed the culture on a competitive, heavily male-dominated industry with poor regulation and a surplus of vulnerable young actors.
“It’s an insecure industry in which people take advantage of each other because of this insecurity,” said Amit Behl, the senior joint secretary of the Cine and TV Artists Association (Cintaa) in Mumbai.
In the ministerial letter, sent to heavyweights such as the producer Karan Johar and actors Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, Gandhi ordered film studios to set up internal complaint mechanisms and processes for dealing with complaints.
Similar letters will soon be sent to producers in other Indian film industries, according to ministerial officials.
The wave of accusations against high-profile politicians and news and entertainment figures in the US and UK has so far only caused ripples in the Indian cinema industry, the world’s largest.
But the number of official reports of sexual harassment made to Cintaa has increased fourfold in the past two years in line with a growing willingness among Indian women across society to report sexual misconduct.
Flavia Agnes, a senior lawyer and women’s advocate, said women in Indian cinema had frequently complained to her about the conduct of their male colleagues but “are generally afraid to speak out when their career is at stake”.
“They fear they won’t get work, that’s the main worry,” she said. “They are afraid the industry will shun them, and that there are always newcomers waiting to take their place.
“There has to be a lot more work to bring women together in associations so they can raise issues collectively,” she said.
Indian women contributed thousands of stories of harassment and abuse to the #MeToo campaign, sparked by the revelation of decades of sexual abuse allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Allegations of abuse against men in south Asian academic circles were also collected in a publicly accessible document that was widely shared across social networks.