Thinky Post: Ali Zafar Update and How We Choose Who We Believe

This is the slowest time in blogville, holidays are getting everyone busy and stuff, so it seems like a good time for me to post something controversial. Only my old friends who will read carefully and thoughtfully are hanging around. You don’t have to agree with me, but I know the DCIB regulars will at least take me seriously and consider what I say.

I just finished the R. Kelly documentary, which was fascinating and very well done, and made me think about who we choose to believe as victims. Which has two sides to it, the women like those who survived R. Kelly who we do not listen to (because they are Black women in America), but also the ones that we believe so easily when we should not.

Vijay Raaz was just accused of sexual harassment, did you see that? And it is a completely ridiculous charge, clearly false. I am not even going to pretend to give credence to it. He grabbed a female crew member by her arm in the middle of shooting to have her move out of the way of something. She called the police and declared it was “harassment”. Everyone else (of the many people there because it was during a regular film shoot) said that he just grabbed her arm for a second. I guess I shouldn’t say “false”, I should say “wrongly defined”. In the middle of a crowded confused workplace, to grab a co-worker by the arm is not harassment. It is grabbing a co-worker by the arm. The fact that the woman filed a report for harassment because of this, and that the media is so quick to put up headlines and believe her, says far more about the status of someone working in the film industry like Vijay Raaz, and the perceived proper treatment of women in Indian society, than the incident itself. Vijay is an actor, someone with a semi-known name, but someone with no real political or economic power in India. So he is a target people like. And the idea of a woman being harassed in a co-ed workplace is a story people like. What happened to the story of Nawazuddin’s niece who was molested by her uncle, in her childhood home? Oh, that doesn’t play as well, that’s not as tidy, let’s report it and then shuffle it back under the rug. But a woman being grabbed by a stranger co-worker in the office! Oh, yeah, that’s a story we like, that’s a narrative about the danger women face should they dare to step out of the home, that’s something the police will investigate and we will all report. (citation: https://www.bollywoodhungama.com/news/bollywood/vijay-raaz-not-resume-work-sherni-molestation-case-eyewitness-recalls-incident/ )

Vijay Raaz responds to molestation charges, says his reputation has been  tarnished: 'Am I not the victim here?' - bollywood - Hindustan Times

Now, let’s look at Ali Zafar, again. This story first broke on social media back in the spring of 2018. It started with another artist, a singer Meesha Shafi, issuing a lengthy statement saying that Ali sexually harassed her during a “jam session”. This was followed by a long social media statement from a make-up artist generally talking about harassments without details. Another from a woman saying he had tried to kiss her cousin at a wedding. And a final one from a woman saying he had tried to kiss someone backstage at a concert and she witnessed it. Meesha herself just said “sexual harassment”, with no details as to what he actually did.

On the other hand, Ali’s current co-star issued a statement not saying she disbelieved the other women, but that she had experienced nothing even close to that herself or witnessed it. Ali provided witnesses to the “jam session” where Meesha Shafi said the harassment took place and even a video, everything consistent with his claim that he did nothing to her and was never even alone with her. And then, Ali sued her for libel, and not only did Meesha fail to show up to that court case, her LAWYER failed to show up. At the same time she was issuing vague accusations through social media and interviews, with no supporting witnesses or evidence or even specifics that could be checked, she was actively running from any legal situation in which she could be challenged, and possibly later brought to account for perjury.

I want to believe women, of course. I know that women accusers are usually disbelieved. And I am a woman myself, there is an instinctive desire to relate to them and think they are telling the truth. But there is also a prejudice towards believing certain people and following certain cases over other cases, and that is an important thing to challenge within ourselves as well.

I don’t want to believe that Om Puri, or Nawazuddin Siddiqui, are involved in familial abuse. But, they are. Om Puri was a wife beater. Nawazuddin Siddiqui chose his brother over his young niece who was being abused. Those are ugly things that I want to pretend don’t exist because I like Om Puri and Nawazuddin, I relate to their artistic films and sort of liberal educated sensibilities. I need to challenge myself, to read all the evidence in their cases, and force myself to respond with my head and not my heart.

Om Puri: An uncommon survivor's life & times - The Economic Times
https://www.huffingtonpost.in/2017/01/06/two-broken-marriages-a-domestic-abuse-case-a-son-caught-in-bet_a_21649068/#:~:text=Puri%20married%20Seema%20Kapoor%2C%20actor,d%20go%20on%20to%20marry.

And I need to do the same in the case of Ali Zafar. Yes, he has a very superficially macho image. Yes, he comes from pop culture, no classical training or anything fancy like that. Yes, he is a very very popular figure in Pakistan. But there is simply no evidence, no real evidence, that he ever sexually harassed anyone. The one woman who spoke up has avoided any legal situation at all. I’m not talking about police harassment or cross-examinations on the witness stand, I’m talking about simply sending her lawyer to sit in court and respond to libel charges. As soon as the courts became involved, she ran from any investigation or anything officially on paper.

We all paid a lot of attention to the initial flurry of accusations against him, it felt good to stand with this strong educated articulate woman against this scuzzy lower class macho guy. But let’s pay attention now too. Meesha Shafi has just been arrested. Ali did not run from the law, he spent two years painstakingly building a case. He also offered to pay all her expenses if she would just, FINALLY, show up to testify in court. And now he has presented his case. She threatened him that she would falsely accuse him and smear his name unless he helped her get a Pepsi contract. For two years, his team has tracked down “anonymous” social media accounts that Meesha helped set up to support her accusations. Meesha and 8 others have now been booked for creating a false campaign against Ali through social media. (citation: https://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/pak-singer-meesha-shafi-booked-for-smear-campaign-against-ali-zafar/story-oeFEsQ6Hfb7te83VT8F1cM.html)

Don’t look away from this! This is an important moment. This is a story that did not hold up to scrutiny from the start. I said back in July of 2018:

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.

https://dontcallitbollywood.com/2018/07/25/hindi-film-101-ali-zafar-sexual-harassment-post-before-i-review-his-new-movie/

But because Meesha used the right words, and because she (so easily! Only 8 people to help!) crafted a fake social media campaign, Ali’s name was dragged through the mud. More importantly, Meesha’s calculated campaign to please the public meant the the True stories were not given the attention they deserved. The truth is unpleasant and not perfect, the only way we will be willing to look at it is if there is no other option, if there is no perfectly crafted false story we can look at instead.

Yes, of course, you can still choose to believe Meesha. But believe her knowing that she has failed to ever testify in court in any situation, that the Pakistani police found the accusations against her valid enough to arrest her, and that Ali has witnesses (and video) to support every claim he has made. And believe her while considering if, perhaps, there is another story out there that you is less comfortable for you, and that maybe deserves more attention.

On the other hand, you are also allowed to change your mind. If you supported Meesha and hated Ali two years ago, it’s okay to read all this new stuff I am reporting and say “okay, now I see things differently”. That’s another trap, the story that seems so credible anyone would believe it, it is hard to come back and accept new information 2 years later and change your mind. But that’s allowed, we can always change our minds.

19 thoughts on “Thinky Post: Ali Zafar Update and How We Choose Who We Believe

    • You’ve lost me, which case? The libel civil case, or the police case for computer crimes for the faked social media campaign?

      On Sun, Nov 22, 2020 at 12:25 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • The libel case, especially. The other one is slightly more removed from it. False accusations don’t occur more often with sexual violence than with other crimes, but there is a global problem with underreporting and authorities not taking sexual violence seriously. If he seemed aware of that or tried to mitigate the effect of filing this case I wouldn’t mind it, but he doesn’t care at all.

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        • I think he held off on filing the libel case until after her claims had already been dismissed by some official committee, does that make a difference in your mind? Her claims had been found to be groundless, but she was still telling the story everywhere.

          On Mon, Nov 23, 2020 at 1:13 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yeah, and she was really aggressive too. It wasn’t like one social media post, it was a whole thing.

            On Mon, Nov 23, 2020 at 8:41 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. I’m not even going to comment on all this except to say I have almost no appetite these days for Bollywood films except for old classics and that really says something about the industry, the culture and the political situation in India. They are cutting their own throats and I wonder how it will all shake out when we are through the worst of the covid crisis.

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    • This particular twist today I find hopeful. Someone didn’t smell right to me from the start, and it played so well into an anti uppity film people narrative. And Ali just kept his head down and waited it out and things are slowly swinging his way. Two years ago I said to a friend “I really want to put up a blog post saying that Ali is innocent and this woman is clearly lying but I would get into SO MUCH TROUBLE”. I said the same thing about Hrithik and Kangana when that story broke. And by golly, now I can say “this woman is lying” without getting in trouble, and now I can say “Kangana is delusional” without getting in trouble. Truth is slow but sure. And maybe next time one of these stories comes out I will be brave enough to say what I really think right from the start, instead of skirting around and playing it safe until public opinion shifts enough to allow it.

      On Sun, Nov 22, 2020 at 12:30 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Sexual harassment really is such a difficult topic. I think the biggest problem is that it so often comes down to one person’s word against the other’s. And you kind of need to believe both sides at the same time.

    Because on the one hand, there’s a reason for the practice of “innocent until proven guilty”. And allegations of sexual harassment can really ruin someone. But on the other hand, it’s not just about wanting to believe the woman. You might also want to spare her a court case that might prove nothing and where she’ll always be at risk of being blamed herself, if for nothing more than being out in public. That’s got to be traumatic. Still, if you believe her, you want to warn others about working with this perv, without becoming guilty of libel.

    I really don’t think there is a solution, and that’s frustrating.

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    • The best I can come up with (and I am sure you know far more about these issues than I do as you are a journalist), is to take each case on its own merits. Especially now that the court of public opinion has so much power. In this case, it just did not feel like there was any substance here. Not even any “warning others” merit, there was no groundswell of similar stories following Meesha’s reveal, in contrast there were a series of very cautious “This could certainly have happened to other people, but it didn’t happen to me” stories.

      I keep coming back to needing to understand when a story doesn’t hold up to be able to properly determine when a story does hold up. If a similar story about a person is repeated again and again by multiple people, if the reveal of one story leads to other anonymous similar revelations, and if the story includes details that are confusing and perhaps embarrassing for the survivor, then I am going to believe it even if I really really don’t want to. Alok Nath for instance, that was an immediate avalanche of statements which no one wanted to believe but we have to. But in order to fully appreciate the meaning of all those indications in a real story, I need to appreciate the meaning of a story where those indications are just not there.

      On Sun, Nov 22, 2020 at 2:08 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. This situation reminds me a lot Kangana-Hrithik story. The guy has the proof of his innocence, the girl only her own words,but nobody cares about the truth because it’s a nice gossip to talk about. It’s so annoying.

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    • YES!!!!! It’s one thing when it is a he said-she said, but when it is a “she said something very detailed and specific/he said the opposite and provided proof against her statements” it’s something else.

      On Sun, Nov 22, 2020 at 4:00 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. The Ali case was so messed up,I was suspicious about it from the start.There were so many cross cases and and defamation cases going on,it was clear that there might have been some ego between the two.However sexual harassment seemed an exaggeration,a physical altercation does seem plausible at the farthest.
    Nawazuddin’s case is solved now, mostly.His brothers were taken into custody but his name was cleared as he provided alibi.There is a separate divorce case going on in a civil court,with a criminal intent being deemed baseless on either side.

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    • Yeah, the Ali case just sounded odd. When the accused is pushing harder for an investigation than the accuser, and the accuser is in fact actively running from an investigation, something is wrong. Same with Kangana and Hrithik, right at the start we learned that Hrithik had filed a police report months earlier and fully cooperated, and Kangana refused.

      Nawazuddin’s resolution doesn’t surprise me. But I still believe his niece who said that she went to him for help and he didn’t believe her. That’s not criminal, it might even be understandable, but I don’t like it.

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  5. I adore Indian film gossip. Right now I’m all into Boney coming out againat Arjun’s romance with Malaika. I take it as I do all movie gossip, with a grain of salt, and I have a rule of thumb about sexual harassment gossip in general. If it’s he-said/she-said, and the accuser asks for $$, it’s bogus. If all that’s wanted is punishment for the accused (loss of status, negative publicity, prison) than it’s true. I’m not using gender. Females can harass as much as males. And I want to add, that it’s my least favorite form of gossip; leaves a fishy taste and casts aspersions on an entire industry. But it hasn’t, and never will, turn me off to Indian cinema. Bolly, Tolly, Kolly, etc. will survive.

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    • That’s interesting, I am almost completely opposite in my reasoning for who is telling the truth or not. If you are a survivor of something, I can more easily believe that you just want money and to quietly try to restart your life, than that you would want to go public and try to destroy someone. Obviously, that’s a big sweeping statement that could change case by case. But I can completely understand someone just wanting the money and no fuss and moving on with their life.

      On Mon, Nov 23, 2020 at 1:25 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. Living under a rock when it comes to movie gossip is nice. I knew nothing, but now I know it is okay to like the Ali Zafar movies I already like. Sweet. Life without guilt! I should see Teefa in Trouble again.

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    • New theory: I should only report depressing gossip stories after they have been disproven. It’s the best way.

      And I love Teefa in Trouble!!!! Maybe that should be a Friday pick now that no one will yell at me about it? Or if they do, I can just direct them to this post?

      On Mon, Nov 23, 2020 at 6:18 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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