I hate these controversies, because everyone gets very excited by the first statement, and then forgets to follow the story and loses track of the follow-up. And I don’t want my review of Ali’s new movie (which I LOVED) to get bogged down in going over and over and over this stuff. So let’s get it out of the way first.
Ali Zafar is Pakistani, born in Lahore, both his parents are professors at the University of the Punjab. Ali went to college and then arts school, then worked as a sketch artist for a while, got a job acting in a soap opera, and also started a band around the same time.
He slowly became more and more popular both as a singer/musician/composer and an actor. And then his first full album and music videos came out and he rocketed to the stratosphere in popularity in Pakistan. He was the first of the recent batch of Pakistani actors to cross over to Hindi film with the brilliant sleeper hit comedy Tere Bin Laden, followed up by smaller roles in films from major studios like Yash Raj. And he kept writing and singing music at the same time, doing soundtrack songs for multiple films and issuing another album. Oh, and also keeping up a punishing performing schedule. In the middle of all of this, he got married to his long time girlfriend in 2009 (weirdly, she is a distant relative of Aamir Khan). And had two children with her. Now, in 2018, he is releasing his first Pakistani film as a lead actor, and also producing it.
(Ali Zafar, wife, and ADORABLE son)
Meesha Shafi is also Pakistani. She is a second generation performer, her mother was a TV actress as well. Her grandfather was an influential writer/columnist. She started as a model, eventually transitioned to singer/actress/personality. She has several successful songs from the popular Pakistani music show, “Coke Studio”, and has written songs for the soundtrack of films she performed in.
(Meesha Shafi, two adorable children, and I very much want those shoes)
So, these are our players. A middle-class boy who became phenomenally popular and successful, and a woman from an artistic family who is also successful and talented, but less popular and successful. Not necessarily less talented, there are a lot of factors that could lead to Ali having multiple record breaking popular records and a cross-over career in India while Meesha appeared in a few films and has no record deals.
In April of this year, Meesha dropped a bombshell on twitter:
She later gave specifics of the incident (link here):
“The first time it happened, I didn’t react and just left,” Meesha recalls in an interview with Instep. “I told my husband but also asked him to not react; I’m a public figure and so is he (Ali Zafar). My thought process was who I am and who he is and what that’s going to lead to. Being ready to talk was far off because it had just happened. I buried it.”
It happened for the second time, Meesha tells Instep, late last year or last quarter of last year. And in both instances, they were not alone. The second time it happened in a jam room.
“I got booked for a concert,” she says. She and Ali Zafar were billed to perform on the same concert. Why did she say yes to the gig in the first place, I ask her, playing devil’s advocate? “It is my bread and butter, it was work coming my way,” she notes.
It eventually resulted in them preparing a song that they could perform together. “I was jamming with my band in Lahore and the organisers insisted that he was trying to get in touch. It started turning into a thing, and I was being seen as difficult or a diva, I got such feelers. I was avoiding him. I was asked to jam, figure out songs, scale and it happened while we were jamming.”
As she recalls it, this was not about a hug that went on for too long, a greeting that went on for a little too long or a lingering handshake. “Women who feel that that’s inappropriate and speak-up and feel harassed, that is absolutely their right and not to take away anything from them in any way but it was more than that and that people need to know.”
And then more stories came out.
From Ali’s side, he provided witness statements from his band and others (including two other women) present at the “jam session” and also offered to provide video of the session (link to source for this info here). And he filed a defamation suit against Meesha, while refusing to comment in any other forum on the case beyond an initial statement. Although friends and others clearly commented on his behalf on social media. For example, this statement from his co-star in his new movie, which also quotes his original statement:
Other non-involved parties also spoke up in support of Meesha, for instance Nadia Jamil, a TV actress who had recently revealed her own history of childhood sexual abuse.
Ali’s case against Meesha is currently pending. She, and her lawyer, have twice failed to appear in court or reply in any way to his charges. She currently has a notice from the court posted outside her house for failure to appear or respond. She has also received notice to refrain from derogatory remarks against Ali until the case is settled (link here).
Meesha’s lawyer states that before she made her public statement, she had already filed a report for sexual harassment, which was rejected (link here):
Before our client went public, a complaint was filed under the aforementioned Act. Our complaint was dismissed since ‘there was no contract binding the two. A workplace harassment case didn’t make sense.’ What we fail to understand was the two have a history of working alongside. Does that not constitute a work environment? Once dismissed, Meesha took to social media.
Ali just a few days ago gave his first interview on the topic, in the context of his film promotions. Saying to BBC Asia:
“People will find out in time. With time everything comes out and the truth unveils itself,”
“I, since day one, said that I will not fight this over social media as I will take the professional course and I have sought professional remedies and the due course of law shall give justice in time.”
“No. Never could that have happened because if it did she was a very close family friend, she used to come to our house, she was my wife’s friend.
“We had a concert together, and the jam that she’s talking about, that has a video and there were 10 witnesses and two witnesses out of that jam were women. They came out in the open and said that ‘we were there how could she event think and say this?’
“That is why I was more hurt, because I’ve been working towards women’s empowerment.”
And now his movie has released, it is light and bright and delightful and has a truly wonderful heroine role and a brilliant timely feminist message woven into it. And it also released to a few minor protests related to the accusations against Ali.
I knew when I chose to watch the film, and therefore review it, that this situation would be a concern. There are 3 ways that an artist’s personal life affects their work, and I don’t believe in separating art and artist, not fully and not across the board, so I considered all 3 concerns:
- Sometimes an artist’s dark spots of the mind will seep into their work, and in that case their personal demons must be acknowledged as demons that also haunt their creations.
- And I also believe in financial boycotts, bringing justice with my wallet as it were, punishing through withholding money. In this particular case, Ali wrote, produced, and starred in the film. My ticket money is going directly into his pocket. This is not a case like Dileep’s film, where he was cast before any controversy came up and any damage to the film would only hurt others, not himself.
- Finally, certain real life behaviors are things that, for me personally, I cannot forget and will stop me from losing myself in the film, no matter how hard I try. This is why I cannot watch Shiney Ahuja movies, it’s not that what he did is objectively worse than what someone else might have done, it is that I find it personally so repugnant that I am unable to set it aside and enjoy the film for itself.
I went into writing this post planning to finally fully research the situation and come to some clear conclusion. And I just can’t. There is still too much floating around, still too much happening. So the best I can do is clearly lay out all the information I was able to pick up and let you make your own conclusions as to how you feel about the situation. I will say, in terms of this particular film, this is where I have landed as a moral person, a film critic, and someone with basic gut feelings:
- Ali’s recent film, and all of his work that I have seen before, is witty and self-deprecating and particularly concerned with making fun of masculinity and all its posturing. And extremely empathetic to female needs and desires. If he is a predator in real life, he is very very good at keeping that out of his art.
- I know my $10 for a ticket isn’t going to make or break Ali, but I take this decision as seriously as though I were judge and jury. Right now, Meesha has failed to appear in court multiple times and her initial complaint was rejected as not meeting the criteria for harassment. The additional stories have not reached the point of actual legal cases, in some cases are based on hearsay. Based on the information I have now, I do not yet find enough evidence of Ali’s guilt to justify my withholding money from him that he would otherwise have earned. I already wanted to see this movie just as a movie and I don’t see enough evidence of guilt to change my mind.
- This is a purely personal gut feeling, it’s going to be different for everyone. For me, what is described over and over again related to Ali, is behavior that I would find unpleasant if it happened to me, that I would call someone out on personally and ask them to stop, that I might even warn a friend about. But it does not cross my own internal line into behavior that makes me physically ill to think about, distracts from my ability to enjoy someone onscreen because of what they have done off screen.
I can’t leave without also pointing out a few oddities in the women’s statements. Not things that make me necessarily disbelieve them, not at all, just things that are worth mentioning as part of a general discussion of these kinds of accusations.
First, there is no specifics of behavior. General talk of misbehavior, of being worse than a lingering handshake, but nothing explicit like “his hand moved and cupped my breast”. This could be because the woman are carrying with them such an inborn sense of modesty that they cannot bring themselves to be specific in writing. Or it could be because they are trying to protect their own honor and social value in some way by not giving specifics. Or, and I am not saying this is the case but it is possible, it is because the specifics of the behavior are not terribly impressive, it was more a matter of how they reacted and felt in response than exactly what he did.
Second, there is a lot of hearsay here. One woman speaking on behalf of a cousin, another on behalf of an unnamed volunteer. And Leena Ghani’s is the one that I find most confusing, she references extreme physical behavior, but then ends by saying “the memories of times Ali thought he could get away by saying vulgar things to me still disgust me”, so perhaps she only has memories of words, not actions? It’s just the general blurring of evidence and reports that can happen on social media, when you are able to create your own narrative without the filter of a journalist, an editor, or a lawyer.
(Leena Ghani, make-up artist)
One final note, I found the report from Meesha’s lawyer on her failed attempt to bring sexual harassment charges very interesting because it got to the heart of something that I have noticed over and over again with these stories, a confusion between sexual harassment and molestation and rape. It all gets to a woman’s ability to say “no”.
In the case of sexual harassment, a woman cannot say “no” because there is a direct consequence to it, a power that the harasser has over her. Your boss, your co-worker, someone else with authority over you is enjoying their ability to do these things without you being able to protest. What Meesha, and the other woman, are describing is not sexual harassment. They could say “no” without any direct consequences, could talk to Ali about his behavior, could tell others about it.
Molestation is unwanted sexual behavior that is not rape. Something happens before a woman has the opportunity to say “no”. Or she puts up with it and doesn’t say anything because of fear of indirect consequences, social stigma, learned behavior, not wanting to make waves, wanting to be “nice”. And yes, there is power there, a man in a society has more power. Certainly a family member or a friend of the family would have power over you. Even two people who are not directly working together but are in the same field, one might have the ability to affect the other. But it is not direct power being used to keep them quiet, to force them to stay silent. Sexual harassment is not about an “Act”, it is about the situation surrounding that act. If Ali had done everything he was accused of to his costar in a film and told her she would be fired if she complained, that is sexual harassment. Doing those exact same things to a fellow guest at a wedding, or to a fellow performer at a show, is not, it is molestation. And it has a different legal category and (for me at least) a different moral category.
And then there is rape, rape and attempted rape, sexual behavior that crosses the line into intercourse by force (physical or other consequences used to force a woman) or attempted intercourse by force. The story that stands out for me here is Ali forcing a woman into a bathroom at a wedding. That could be attempted rape. Or not, there really isn’t much to go on. But it is a very different thing from feeling up a fan while she has her photo taken, or surprising a backstage worker with a kiss. I wonder if perhaps the use of “sexual harassment” rather then “molestation” or the traditional “eve teasing” is to try to hint at the seriousness of the behavior without using the word “rape” even in the context of “attempted rape” and bringing on a higher level of scrutiny to the story?
Phew! That is a WHOLE LOT to discuss! Hopefully we end up discussing the big ideas part of it, rather than descending into picking sides on this particular situation. But either way, I am looking forward to hearing what you think.