by Swati Singh
Beautiful blue-eyed girl meets a tall handsome young man. They fall in love.They have it all. Name, fame, money and the blessings of their parents. They get married and live happily ever after. Sounds like another happy ending to a mainstream Bollywood movie. But what happens when fantasy meets reality? Girl meets boy. They get married. Girl gets pregnant and is thrown out of her job. Sounds like a case of discrimination against an ordinary woman but it’s not. This is the story of Aishwarya Rai, former Miss World, supermodel and a leading Indian movie actress.*
A cultural ambassador and India’s high profile film export, Rai is jobless after having been ousted from the movie Heroine, after the director of the movie discovered she was three months pregnant. One of the very few Indian actresses who has challenged the status quo, whether to continue acting after getting married at the peak of her career or balancing her international commitments at Cannes and in Hollywood with her work back home, Rai truly embodies the ambitious career woman who could not be thwarted even by the chauvinistic and traditional movie making business largely dominated by males.
Directed by Madhur Bhandarkar, who is touted as sensitive to female friendly subjects, the movie has been shelved after a week of shooting with monetary damages to the team and producer running in the millions. At the heart of the controversy lies the twitter post of Rai’s father-in-law, Amitabh Bachchan, who broke the happy news of her pregnancy this summer. Little did he know that all hell would break loose!
Once the media got a whiff of the news, reports in movie magazines of the director crying foul over what he characterized as unprofessionalism started doing the rounds. Within days of the tweet, Rai was ousted from the project with Bhandarkar and UTV, the production house, which released a press statement wishing Rai well and then the project was shelved. But the media were not willing to let the matter rest.
Barkha Dutt, the firebrand journalist from the leading television channel, NDTV, first addressed the issue of discrimination against the pregnant Rai. Floating rumors of producers rushing to include a pregnancy clause in their movie contracts was also a subject of the discussion. The Indian media went to several superstars and media personalities to take a verbal stand on the camera. Rai’s talent and influence notwithstanding, a large part of the industry sided with the actress who chose to maintain a stoic silence while a dejected and depressed Bhandarkar went to town accusing her of deliberately hiding information from him.
Because it’s difficult to get all the facts, no one can say with absolute clarity who is at fault. Given the money and jobs involved in the project, the objectification of the actress and the perceived nature of the visual media make it difficult to put the blame squarely on the director’s shoulders. Rai has returned the signing amount for the film and most probably will not pursue legal recourse as reported by the media. Ketan Gupta of Legal Eye Associates says: “According to the Constitution, discrimination based on gender may invite legal action. However, this is subject to contractual terms and conditions agreed by both people.”
This issue at its heart is reflective of equal rights for women and has hit home for many. Overt or subtle discrimination against women has been prevalent in the workplace. According to India’s Maternity Benefits Act of 1961 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, employers cannot discriminate against a pregnant women. The law makes it illegal for an employer to fire a woman from her job if she can perform to the best of the abilities. In the case of Rai, the media report the actress was keen on completing the movie on schedule, but the director added difficult scenes and extended the shooting period, effectively making it difficult for her to continue work on the project.
Ironically, Rai, who has been accused by many of being plastic, fake, and arrogant might have found staunch support with the average woman and mother. In a way, her contribution to bringing the issue of discrimination against pregnant women to the mainstream media, inadvertently might rival her artistic and social contributions. Now it’s up to the movie industry, corporations and lawmakers to ensure that discrimination against actresses and their less famous and affluent counterparts is prevented or redressed.
What do you think? Is this a case of unfavorable treatment of a pregnant Rai? Will it lead to any changes in how Bollywood treats its women?
*Aishwarya Rai is married to Abhishek Bachchan and she often goes by her full name Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
(The photo is by Georges Biard and is used with a Creative Commons license.)