Just recently, I came across a video posted by celebrity, Ali Zafar. It was an old one, him paying tribute to the legend Amitabh Bachan on the set of Bachan’s program, Kaun Banega Crorepati. Zafar sang a brief medley of Amitabh’s hit tracks and Amitabh was visibly touched.
For more than a moment, I felt pride and joy at the commendable gesture of peace and friendship made by a Pakistani singer for an Indian actor. The vision of Ali Zafar, dressed smartly in a suit, confidently strumming his guitar and looking into the eyes of the very Amitabh Bachan, singing live the songs Bachan had lip synced in his hey days, was quite a treat. And then, as if as a flashback, visions and images of another Ali Zafar flooded my mind.
An acclaimed singer, model and an actor, Ali Zafar is now rather ill-famed for a different reason: his alleged harassment of fellow singer Meesha Shafi. Now, Ali’s success, fame and talent are mired with a possibility, that he may have acted improperly with at least one of his colleagues. For when Meesha alleged Zafar with his harassing act at a musical performance, saying that she could not hold back any more, she also claimed that there were may others like her. Quite a few female entertainers endorsed Shafi’s claims. But there have been far many who refuted the allegations.
Undoubtedly, Meesha’s proclamation has proved to be the start of the #Metoo movement in Pakistan. She has been both hailed for bravely coming out with her allegation as well as criticised for what people claim, a vindictive move against Ali Zafar. While Meesha has gradually stepped away from limelight, making occasional appearances and statements, as and when required, Ali Zafar has been in tears over the ‘harm’ Shafi has brought to his career. Zafar’s appearances in screen and at occasions have also dropped, with few Pakistani artistes boycotting the prestigious Lux Style awards this year over Ali’s inclusion in an award category.
This brings up many questions: If it is proved that Ali Zafar had indeed, harassed Meesha Shafi as claimed, does he, as a result, not hold the right to perform an act of singing or acting? If previously, he held good chances of representing his country in events abroad, presently, should he be denied those chances? In short, should Ali Zafar be judged in his professional life for a personal move he may have made?
For the love of talent and entertainment, one may be prompted to say that keep his personal and professional lives separate. But then if a person does not adopt ethical behaviour in a professional domain, how can that be ignored? If there is even a shred of allegation and doubt, how can an entertainer keep performing undeterred?
Take the case of the famous Hollywood actor, Kevin Spacey. Global media is racked by a similar crisis as here in Pakistan. To quote, “The news that criminal charges against Kevin Spacey in the Nantucket groping case have been dropped raises an inevitable question: does this mean he can claw his way back into Hollywood’s good graces? Or maybe more importantly: should it?”
Addressing Spacey’s popularity as a past phenomenon, the comment in an international publication, Variety, goes on to say that Spacey ‘was’ a beloved actor whose roles in everything from “The Usual Suspects” to “House of Cards” made him a pop cultural icon.
“That all changed when actor Anthony Rapp gave an explosive interview to BuzzFeed accusing Spacey of assaulting him at a party when Rapp was 14 and Spacey was 26. What were once whispers about Spacey’s impropriety towards younger men suddenly became insistent shouts. The case that was just dropped emerged shortly thereafter as a man who was 18 at the time accused Spacey of groping him at a Nantucket bar in the summer of 2016. Spacey tried to get ahead of the damage by claiming that the accusations against him were rooted in homophobia……. but the damage was done.”
The damage which was done was, Hollywood Director Ridley Scott replaced Spacey with Christopher Plummer from his 2018 feature “All the Money in the World,” despite the fact that filming had long been completed. Netflix’s “House of Cards” finished the series without him, killing his character offscreen — a huge move that clearly stated the show must go on, without him.
However, earlier this year, screenwriter Paul Schrader wrote “Spacey should be punished for any crimes his actual person created. But not for art……..All art is a crime. Punishing him as an artist only diminishes art.”
And now that the criminal charges brought against him are dropped, Spacey would try to find a way back into the industry that has so far shunned him. But how much is he accommodated or supported, as the need is claimed by Schrader, is a development to be observed.
This development would help Pakistan learn how to tackle its own cases of sexual assault – a crime prevalent since long, but spoken about only recently, thanks to some influence and enlightenment from the west.
Coming back to Pakistan, taking a long breath and considering the case with which this debate began, it would probably be hard to validate a person’s professional success, if his personal life is shadowed by allegations. Let the whole story come out and then decide? Well, until then, are we willing to take the risk that more harassments may take place? For if we brush aside an allegation until proof, we may inadvertently be sending a message to a molester, that unless a crime is proved, it can be committed. Until then, we cannot guarantee a safe working environment in any industry, whether entertainment or any other.
It would be better, if a criminal admits to his crime, or takes the long way of being proven guilty, undergoes penitence and comes back clean with a vow not to err. Under watchful eyes, the world should then accommodate a talent and not let it go to waste.
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