This incident, that took place almost two weeks ago (on 10 October) in Chandigarh with me, does not involve sexual harassment, stalking or a gun being whipped out. But it is a chilling reflection of what our society is today.
At PVR, Elante Mall, Chandigarh, my father and I were watching the 3.10 show of Andhadhun. About 20 minutes before the interval, a mobile phone came on 3 rows diagonally in front of me, the glare of which I just could not escape regardless of what position I took. For 20 minutes (!), someone kept composing an email on that phone, which was still on when the lights came on during interval.
I got up, went ahead and discovered it was a young woman; I asked her why she could not follow basic civilised norms of watching a film in a theatre, especially when they carried a slide at the beginning of the screening to switch off mobile phones. Aggressively and self-righteously, she retorted that she had an “important work email” to send. I asked her why she did not step out then and come back after finishing it, to which obviously she had no answer.
Now, her muscular male companion (MMC, for easy reference) then typically changed tack and asked why I was not being “polite” to which I said that anti-social rule-breakers like them should not expect politeness from objectors, and went back to my seat, before I further lost my cool at the unfolding moronity.
My protest was clearly registered; the matter was over for me. So far, this was par for the course. Such low IQ and uncouth theatre-going behaviour can unfortunately be found everywhere in India (though 20 minutes of phone disturbing was unprecedented, for me at least). But now came the North Indian tadka.
After a few minutes, MMC came up to my seat and started exhorting me to come out, flinging his arms about aggressively. I remained seated saying I had come to see a film, not get into fistfights. Manhood clearly hurt, sanity very rapidly escaping him now, he started getting physical, putting his hand into my shirt pocket, looking for my "ID", he said – as he wanted to know who I was.
He cried out that he would tear my eyes out and asked (no one in particular) why my upbringing hadn’t been good enough. My father told him he was going too far, but MMC roughly pushed his hand aside. The woman too now came near my seat and started screaming hysterically, essentially saying on loop –“how dare he behave like this with a woman”.
Unfortunately for her, MMC was dragged out by the theatre staff, shouting and screaming abrasively, so she had to follow suit. While being taken out, MMC threatened them with these exact words – “ Tu jaanta nahin hai main kaun hoon! Teri naukri kha jaaoonga main!” (“You don’t know who I am, I will eat up your job”.) It led to titters in the audience.
As soon as these two were unceremoniously ejected, on cue, the post-interval film resumed, to everyone’s relief. Someone even remarked, good riddance, now we can see the second half in peace.
This had almost been like a set-up skit to entertain the crowd at interval – a media innovation for these low attention span times. But instead of this episode being over, the really disgusting part began now.
About 20 minutes after the film commenced, a policeman came up to my seat and asked me to come out as “an FIR has been lodged”. I smirked at the use of “FIR”, convinced it was some kind of prank, and asked him to go out and wait till the end of the film, as I had paid for my ticket.
Looking bewildered, he actually turned around and left. A few minutes later, a burlier policeman arrived at my seat and asked me to come out as “a government official had complained” against me. At this point, my father told him that he was retired-IAS, which made him promptly turn around and leave. This had already turned a bit surreal, and no slur on the film, but this plot was beginning to intrigue me more.
About 15 minutes later, a third, more distinguished-looking policeman came over and actually was more interested in my father – and asked him who he was. On being told he was ex-Home Secretary, Haryana, he very politely said we could meet them after the show, no problem.
When the show got over, the policemen were waiting near the door. I was now surprised to see the support from the patrons, many of whom were disgusted by what they had seen unfolding. A few offered any eye-witness account I might need. I called out to the distinguished-looking policeman across the room to ask if the woman had made a sexual harassment charge against me as it was inconceivable to me what other charge could possibly involve the police in this instance.
I figured these patrons of a houseful show could provide the cops the true picture there and then. But the policeman shook his head and said it was nothing like that and respectfully asked me and my father to come to the PVR office.
There, he showed me a handwritten letter (in rather indifferent grammar) written by that woman named Isha Kamboj, who is an HCS (Haryana Civil Services) officer, accusing me of bad behaviour and causing her ‘mental harassment’, and claiming I did not know how to conduct myself with women. I was requested to give my account in a letter too, which I did, since there was nothing about what caused the skirmish in the first place. Apparently, Ms Kamboj intended to take this matter to court!
I asked the policeman two things. If my father had not been there, or hadn’t revealed his credentials, what would they have done – drag me out? And what does a common man/woman do in these circumstances when a public official decides to bully him or her for something so flimsy? He was silent.
I then asked him how he felt about two hours of his time, and of two other policemen, being wasted on such a nonsensical charge. He shook his head ruefully and said he had no choice but to attend to the complaint of a government officer. Despite that, he said he had tried hard to convince the woman and her male companion to let this go, but they had not agreed. He assured me that this would not go to court. I assured him that I would be delighted to see this go to court because this would truly become worthwhile news then, which is what these two characters deserve.
What kind of entitlement and arrogance do these young entrants to the civil services have these days? They break the rule of a theatre, get belligerent when it is pointed out, give an irrational and inadequate reason for it, pick up a fight and even get physical with the one who admonished them for their behaviour (who is probably twice their age), blatantly threaten theatre staff and more than anything else, proceed to abuse state machinery – the police’s precious time and energy (who were palpably irritated at having their time wasted like this) – all this to stroke their pathetic, fragile egos? And now this woman wants to waste the court’s time with this? Is this the training she received at Mussoorie (for IRS, where she was before this apparently)?
What was a government officer doing on a Wednesday afternoon in a film theatre anyway? And then she claims to do “urgent official work” on her mobile phone while the film is going on? Equally significantly, who was her muscular male companion –who behaved like an illiterate common thug and escalated the matter – is he employed by the Haryana Government too? Is this their idea of code of conduct for public officials?
Besides shamelessly misusing government machinery, she then had no hesitation in playing the woman card, despite knowing very well that she was wrong. What message did it give to the couple of hundred people who saw all this unfold? Does this not do damage to every single movement that attempts to reclaim ground socially for women? Perhaps this was the reason why the majority of people who offered their help after the screening were women? Does this not set society back collectively?
Given his out-of-control behaviour, if MMC had carried a gun with him in the theatre, is it inconceivable that he might have fished it out and perhaps even used it? Given how these two desperately used governmental machinery to assuage their ego, is it so implausible that they would not have hesitated in falsely accusing me of molestation or worse, if there weren't so many witnesses in the theatre? If I lived in their city or state, it is hard to believe that they would not have me stalked and harassed, if they could?
Are these kinds of people representative of the millennial entries to the civil services in India today? Tied to old feudal mindsets, nouveau riche with power, in the age of social media when VIP culture is absolutely abhorrent to the common public?
Behaviour like this, made public in this day and age, would result in sacking in every single field I can think of (or at least the strictest censure), including in the private sector.
But here, my father’s letter to the Chief Secretary about the incident remains unanswered. And despite my personally intimating a very senior Haryana Government official in the Chief Minister’s office about what happened, there is complete radio silence.
These people are supposed to be ‘government servants’?
The only reason I am not letting this go is because all of us, who have some social capital (that's all of us in this space, really) – is it not our responsibility to use it occasionally to make things a little better for those who have less of it or none at all? Or will such vulgar bullying always have the last say?
Jaideep Varma is an Indian writer, screenwriter and filmmaker with projects like ‘Leaving Home – the Life & Music of Indian Ocean’ and ‘Hulla’ to his credit.
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