Disclaimer: I’ve almost picked a side, after dearly hoping it weren’t this way. But then I got a mind, that doesn’t quite agree with the popular, rigid narrative.
A little background
The first time the world was introduced to this 17-year old from Srinagar was a year ago in December when Dangal (under the banner of Aamir Khan Productions) released worldwide.
The rare display of talent and a nuanced performance in a film revolving around wrestling, no less, Zaira Wasim burst into the halls of India’s tinsel town in the quietest way possible, intriguing even the harshest of critics while surpassing the perfectionist Khan himself.
Just so you don’t write the actress off as a fluke or a one-off wonder in Bollywood’s fleeting landscape, she proved her mettle again in the endearingly crafted Secret Superstar ( October 2017), quite literally overshadowing mentor and fellow powerhouse performer Khan.
Since star success is not just reliant on stellar performances alone, but largely dominated by how many bums on seats a movie can draw in, we know Dangal went on to become the highest-grossing Indian movie overseas (a whopping 2000 crores!!) while smashing just as many records in the home country itself! Same can be said for Secret Superstar that went on to become the fourth-highest grossing Bollywood film in the international markets in addition to its commercial success in the home turf, all on a budget of Rs. 15 crore.
This kind of unexpected, massive fame in such a short while and at a tender age as hers; heck, a national award in her debut performance itself is nothing short of magic, and can easily turn someone’s head around. Couple it with a YouTube/Insta/Twitter/Facebook obsessed regular teen’s ambition for rapid fame, and you have an adolescent heading towards delusion and an imminent fall, which could well be just as dramatic as the rise was.
Zaira will have none of it – ‘the trappings of fame’- so to say. At least that’s what I used to believe till a few days ago, till the memory of her recent interview with film critic Rajeev Masand was dominant of the image I had of her in my mind.
Dressed crisply in a white vest and a black-and-white striped jacket of sorts, she shoots off responses like she owns her being, and that entertainment space where she is a mere newcomer, but with a poise and grace unmatched by even experienced artists in this realm. Not one of her answers sounds doctrinated (well, she’s a brilliant actor too, so you never know, but let’s give her the benefit of doubt, shall we?), and not once does she falter, not once does she give away her power, even when Masand asks her a couple click-baity questions ;).
I was truly bowled over….
Until a video of the starlet having allegedly suffered molestation by a passenger on a Mumbai-bound flight did the social media rounds barely a week ago, largely unsupported by facts and necessary evidence – making me question, for the first time, if Zaira indeed was as unaffected by the spotlight as she portrays herself to be.
How the drama unfolded
The video that she shot herself while in the flight to capture the ‘molestation’ does show the accused’s (Vikas Sachdeva) foot hanging loosely by Zaira’s side (not moving though as per Zaira’s allegations); the little footage that we have access to is certainly insufficient to substantiate an accusation as grave as the one made here.
Airline Vistara promptly apologized for the ordeal Wasim had to suffer and let the public be known of its PR-drilled stand on the issue stating, “We have zero tolerance for such behaviour”, while initiating an inquiry into the incident, even flying two of its senior team members to meet the actress.
The accused was taken into custody by the police for further questioning, and as many as three charges under the IPC and POSCO were slapped against him.
Sachdeva’s wife, Divya Sachdeva on the other has cried foul at these allegations leveled by the Dangal star, calling it a “publicity stunt”, while offering a possible explanation stating, “His mama ji had passed away and he was not in the right frame of mind. He was feeling very low and asked for a blanket. He wanted to sleep. I am shocked at Zaira’s allegation.” I say Madame, this is not a valid enough reason to behave in this manner-less fashion in public.
But then again she raised some pertinent questions as well, demanding to know “Why did Zaira not raise an alarm then and there? Why did Zaira tweet two hours later? Zaira had her mother for company. Despite that, the two ladies chose not to make any noise, why?” This is a fairly reasonable doubt that has had no responses offered to it as yet.
Meanwhile, Twitter too went berserk over this incident, rushing out in support of the teen actress.
And even as netizens denounced such appalling instances of women harassment even in broad daylight and clamored to have the “culprit” punished, there were some who found the whole affair fishy and reserved their sympathy and encouragement for more “deserving cases” – in not-so-subtle terms.
A look at women’s rights activist Madhu Purnima Kishwar lets us know in harsh, unapologetic language that she isn’t buying any of this.
Even Vikas’s co-passenger came out in his defense, stating that while the suspect’s legs did touch Zaira’s armrest, he had dozed off immediately after being seated and had not misbehaved as alleged by the actress. Apparently, the man had also apologized to Zaira after the plane landed at Mumbai airport, post which the matter was reportedly settled.
What’s the verdict, then?
The last we know, Zaira’s mother refused to file a complaint regarding the alleged molestation on board (I wonder why though).
The latest update states Vikas has been granted bail by a Mumbai court today on a surety of Rs. 25,000. Seems the matter has been laid to rest, for the moment.
As of now, the public remains divided on whether the accused placing his foot on Zaira’s armrest really constituted molestation; I don’t blame the differing points of view offered on this incident, considering the first thing a rational human being (note: I’m not using the word ‘woman’) would first do is to politely ask the passenger behind to take their foot off the armrest.
I’ve done this in countless situations – in theaters, in airplanes, buses – and I believe so have others, before jumping the gun. Nine times out of ten, it has been a lack of basic etiquette that people suffered from, than the malicious intention of getting touchy with a stranger like me. But then, the few instances where I have called out deliberate sexual behavior also add to existing testimony that men do try to take advantage of the crowd, of the naivete of young girls and women, and many a time of their mislaid assumption that a woman can’t possibly draw attention to herself in public because of the shame involved.
The key here lies in discernment of a man’s true intention, a feat women don’t even have to accomplish since they’re already endowed with a powerful sixth sense no mansplaining can defy.
Her claims about the accused nudging her shoulder and moving his foot up and down her neck and back, sound illogical; primarily because it would have to come to someone’s notice at the very least, with co-passengers tightly seated around. I mean, I’m not sure how someone can pull this feat off in the presence of so many people around, the crew included.
And even if someone did dare, I cannot fathom why Zaira or any other girl in her position (irrespective of their celeb status) would not raise an alarm, considering at least some good-natured folks and/or the crew would step in to set the offender right in the plane itself. Having an unwanted strange-looking foot nudge you in your private space and enduring it for a good two hours or so, when you could have called for help doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially, when when you have your mother around!
This is also baffling, considering Zaira as a person does not come across as someone who can be shushed easily, or pushed into a corner where she sees no recourse. For a girl so forthright and self-assured, for someone who seems unafraid to speak her mind, it strikes me as odd that she should wait till the flight landed to make a video about it and cry about how “no one will help us if we don’t decide to help ourselves.”
It’s disconcerting as to why she didn’t try to help herself while on the flight as opposed to narrating her ordeal after deboarding the plane. The best help really would have been to turn around and confront the molester, shame him, even better -slap him, and ensure the passengers and the crew inside take notice and take appropriate action.
Lest my take on this be perceived as an attack on women empowerment and feminism, let me make it amply clear I do not wish to disregard the harassment faced by strong assertive women from all walks of life (circa the Uber scandal that came to light in February this year), and especially by women belonging to the entertainment industry, as has come to surface in the wake of Hollywood’s dirtiest scandal in recent times: the Harvey Weinstein saga.
By no means does being strong-willed, articulate and determined shield a woman in these times from getting sexually assaulted/harassed. Contrary to what one might think, the stakes in reality are higher for women who have tasted success and have been thrown into the glare of the public eye. Then again, this is also why it is so deeply traumatic for survivors to come out with their stories since they find themselves pitted against powerful men, with truckloads of moolah and a litany of connections,and can quite literally on a whim make or break their careers. Shame, guilt, and loss of agency continues to haunt even the most accomplished of women, only to crawl their way out years or maybe decades later.
We know the drill by now – the stakes are high.
And before you think I’m demeaning those women who aren’t as successful and established or have a platform at their disposal for airing their voice, or probably have no such “big stakes” well, I’m not even taking those instances into account, considering we’re talking about public figures here and cant wrap our heads around how bad it can get for them, even with all the money, power and connections! Is it any wonder the rest remain restricted to simply being read as case studies or as mere statistics?
My point is – Zaira had nothing to lose and yet she did not raise an alarm right where it mattered most – in the flight. She effectively waited for the plane to land and recorded her ordeal, with tears streaming down her face. Not only does it betray the image she has already portrayed of herself in countless interviews this year, but also reeks of misplaced judgment as to what sexual harassment really means, and when you pair all the facts together, well, I hate to say this but it really does seem like a publicity stunt.
No, we’re not burdening her with being the torchbearer of women empowerment but not raising her voice where it did matter the most, but instead slipping into “victim mode” after a whole two hours, puts scores of other women at a disadvantage who might find actually themselves in similar situations but not react at the appropriate time because they feel safer being portrayed as victims and expecting help will somehow materialize; or worse, urge them into taking advantage of the feminism ride and accuse someone genuinely blameless!
Note: before I’m lampooned by people crying hoarse that “she is already do widely known, she doesn’t need to manufacture this kind of fame”, well, let’s not forget human flaws, the age we live in coupled and ambitious, driven youngsters bombarded with numberless opportunities to milk their constant hunger for fame.
In all likelihood, the man probably was sleeping, and at most, he deserves a telling off for sitting in an uncouth manner in an airplane, but definitely not being slapped with such grave charges for ‘molestation’, something he clearly did not engage in.
In this age of Instagram and Facebook fame, even the most innocuous thought/view/statement posted can have far-reaching consequences, some, that a mere two minutes of fame cannot even comprehend. Sharing an experience as traumatic as sexual harassment/molestation needs to be done responsibly, and not because one has a preconceived notion that men, are, across the board, just lusty animals and every accidental touch is an act of transgression deserving to be condemned and punished.
Ladies, let’s also hear the men out. By now we know what good touch and bad touch really mean. Yes, men can be uncivilized and stupid, but to paint them as sexual attackers/offenders in generic strokes goes a long way in defeating what feminism really stands for. Let’s not do that, because if we have honor, so do they. If we have a reputation and a public image, so do they.
Before I sign off on this really lengthy rant, here’s some food for thought. You really want to know how women can and should react if sexually apprehended by men in public? This video here (from more than two years ago) was recorded by a woman on a flight to Bhubaneswar, to shame this uncle who had reportedly tried to grope her through the gap between the seats. She raised a hue and cry. Right there. Created a scene. Made herself heard.
I believe the public shaming might have desisted the old moron from flying ever again.
But I also believe women, at least some of the time, have the power to change the drift of the wind in their favor.