The Curious Case Of The Spider Woman

chandrima-palFor every ‘outsider’ who cracks the Bollywood success code, there are a hundred others who have to find other means of sustenance

Some time back, media was abuzz with the ‘sensational’ story of a National Award winning actress caught in a sex racket in Hyderabad. While none of the names of those who had162-nov-14 reportedly offered money for her ‘services’ were revealed, or the identity of the ‘reporter’ who ‘leaked’ her name made known, 23-year-old Shweta Prasad Basu dominated our screens and consciousness for a few days.

The industry, in a rare show of sensitivity, rallied around the young woman, taking the high moral ground against the media, which had so callously and wilfully revealed her identity, which is against the law and our better judgment.

Shweta has resurfaced after two months in a remand home. And early reports suggest, she is resolutely facing the world that had dug deep into her personal life to come up with juicy bits that could reinforce the theory of a woman fallen prey to the lure of Bollywood, a woman with promise and talent, who had to ‘support’ her family and hence took to prostitution. Shweta’s story, as told by everyone, but her, had ticked all the boxes of clichés – and it sat pretty with the abiding sense of right and wrong, about personal choices and professional compulsions, in the big bad world of Bollywood. Amidst cries of ‘leave that girl alone’ from industry heavyweights, the matter was buried but Shweta does not seem too ruffled. Or two months in a remand home, teaching her fellow inmates and facing her fragile mother and other family members must have added a fair bit of steel to her character.

163-nov-14While the issue of Shweta’s actual involvement in any kind of prostitution racket is ambiguous, that she was in a situation that could have swung any way, does not raise eyebrows for those in the know. Small-time actors, starlets on the periphery of the industry, with a little toehold in the industry, often disappear through the cracks of our imagination. There are countless stories of young aspirants who have tried to find their niche in a business where it is more important to have a surname that starts with K or a big production house backing you, than actual talent. And for every ‘outsider’ who cracks the code, there are a hundred others who have to find other means of sustenance. Mumbai Mirror editor Meenal Baghel, who interviewed Prasad for a front-page story, paints an achingly real account of the aspirants who remain on the fringes and disappear from the radar in her bestseller, Death In Mumbai.

But Shweta is keen to portray herself as a woman who makes her own choices and not a victim of circumstances. In Baghel’s interview, she says she is making a documentary on Hindusthani Classical Music, and writing poetry. In another, she says, she knows people in the film industry who could have helped her out. Ironically, in the same breath she says about a certain filmmaker who publicly vowed to work with her that she has not heard from him ever.

Shweta, who impressed with her natural talent in Iqbaal and Makdee, is no pushover. For someone who had been ‘shamed’ and ‘hounded’ and sent to a remand home, she appears remarkably poised. She urges people not to feel sorry for her. And that is brave.shweta_basu_prasad

The industry, despite its bunch of ‘sensitive’ filmmakers who treat women’s issues with an eye on National Awards, remains ambiguous about how its treats its women off-screen. On one hand, Shah Rukh Khan makes a big deal of putting the names of his heroines before his own in the credit rolls. On the other, you have wives of stars who routinely suffer abuse and adultery in silence.

What should matter is how we treat these stories when they reach us. Not so long ago, TV actress Mona Singh’s MMS clip was leaked by an irate former boyfriend to strip her of dignity. Singh’s response was measured, matured. So is Shweta’s. That they choose to face the world that denigrates them, should say a lot about what is changing. Even if one scandal at a time.