Film director Nagraj Manjule’s ex-wife Sunita has accused him of domestic abuse. The woman who says that she now works as domestic help alleges that he forced her to have an abortion three times, hit her when she tried to resist, left her to cook and clean for his family while he pursued a film career, and when they divorced in 2014 after 15 years, gave her only Rs 7 lakh, promising more when he was more successful, but never made good on it.
Consider this: Nagraj Manjule is the same man who, in an interview, said: “I am tired of this world created by men, ruined by men. I want a woman now to build the world or mess it up.” Manjule is being celebrated right now for his latest film Sairat – feted not just for its portrayal of an inter-caste couple in love and the reality of caste violence, but for its sensitive depiction of its female protagonist. “Sairat is Archie’s story. The hero, Parshya, is secondary,” Manjule said in the interview.
How do we reconcile Manjule, the sensitive filmmaker who seems to say all the right stuff, with Manjule, the man who allegedly put his wife through physical and emotional torture? When men whose progressive politics we think we know turn out to be no different from abusers who do not claim the distinction of being sympathetic to women, why are we so keen to overlook their transgressions in favour of their creative genius?
I ask this question because Manjule, if guilty, is by no means the first of his kind. No one has so far come forward to defend him publicly in the English media, but it would not be cynical to expect this. Recent history has thrown up Tarun Tejpal – journalist, writer, Tehelka founder, accused of raping a junior woman colleague. Aside from the many influential individuals who have sided with Tejpal on the case, a tabloid columnist recently referred to Tejpal’s raping as a “grave error” – not a criminal activity – and went on to ask, “[W]as there really need for such a vociferous dragging through the coals?” The writer lamented that Tejpal wasn’t able to “fight the good fight” as a result of his vilification, but predicted a comeback, nevertheless.
It’s terrifying how allegations of assault draw sympathy for abusers instead of the abused. Think of Woody Allen, who directed movies like Annie Hall and Blue Jasmine with women at their centre, and who is accused of sexually assaulting his daughter Dylan Farrow as a young girl. His daughter’s allegations have had little impact on his career, and many in the industry continue to work with him, either supporting him or choosing to separate his personal life – the realm in which they think allegations of assault belong – from his professional life.
When I think of these men I’m reminded of the word “brocialist”: one writer’s term for the kind of man with “righteous politics but a dodgy attitude to girls”. In their company I’d place Mahmood Farooqui – artist, Dastangoi storyteller, Peepli Live co-director – accused of raping an American research scholar who he and his wife were friends with, at his home. Lower on the scale, I’d also place celebrated filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, who on one hand made a short film about violence against women and on the other, supports Tarun Tejpal and pronounced with certainty after viewing illegally obtained CCTV footage that “none of what the girl [allegedly raped in the Tehelka case] says about Tarun Tejpal is true.”
Last month, Hollywood actor Amber Heard alleged domestic violence by her husband, superstar Johnny Depp. Depp’s former long-term partner Vanessa Paradis jumped up in his defence to say he was a “sensitive and loving” man, and could never do such a thing. But it’s hard to argue with photographs of Heard’s bruised face. No doubt Depp’s career will go on, as it has for many men before him, his artistic genius privileged over the fact that he may have beaten and wounded women in his life.
It isn’t just men in the arts who are easily forgiven – take the case of the Stanford swimmer, Brock Turner, convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Unlike other criminals, his mugshot was not released for months, and despite being convicted on multiple accounts, was given a measly sentence of six months as the judge was worried about the “severe impact” a longer sentence might have on the young, promising swimmer, never mind the impact of the assault on the woman herself. Turner will likely only serve three months of his sentence.
In another interview after Sairat’s release, Manjule, who is Dalit, spoke of his struggles coming from a “lower” caste, and how he had to work as a watchman, man a telephone booth and iron clothes in order to fund his film career. But there is no mention of the woman he left behind to care for his family while he moved in dedicated pursuit of his career. Free of an allegedly oppressive and abusive husband, could Sunita Manjule have followed her dreams, forged an illustrious career of her own? And what of Tejpal’s victim, and Farooqui’s, who have had to take time out of their lives and careers to deal with police, with the judicial system and a probing media, not to mention the mental trauma they may always carry with them? If only we worried about preserving their creative genius instead of those of their abusers. If only we acknowledged that these women are fighting the good fight.
Co-published with Firstpost.com.