“I am a heterosexual, single man and when I find a woman sexy, I tell her she’s sexy – but this is only done in my personal capacity. I compliment women in my personal space and not at the workplace. Is that wrong? Is every man, whose compliment a woman doesn’t like, a molester. Having said that, I am very particular about my behaviour – I will approach a woman, but never force myself,” TVF co-founder, Arunabh Kumar.
This frank statement, quoted in the Mumbai Mirror, comes within a day of multiple women coming out openly accusing him of sexual misconduct.
If it was Uber’s sexist culture that made global news in the last fortnight, TVF, unfortunately, seems to have clinched the Uber Moment crown in the Indian startup ecosystem.
The narratives are chillingly similar – both starting with a Medium post. In Uber’s case, it was former software engineer Susan Fowler who, in a Medium blog post, revealed how she had been propositioned by her manager. Similarly, TVF’s nemesis is an anonymous Medium user by the cheeky name of Indian Fowler, who accused Arunabh of molestation and harassment. After she raised her voice through her blogpost titled “The Indian Uber – That Is TVF,” nine more women have come forward and made allegations of sexual misconduct against Kumar.
The anonymous user stated that the abuse started in 2014 with Arunabh engaging in a lewd and inappropriate conversation with the writer over a red light area in Muzzaffarpur, UP.
Allegedly, Arunabh told her that he liked that particular area, stating commercial deals happened there. He then instigated Indian Fowler that she too had come to work on a commercial deal.
The blogger further alleged that Kumar grabbed her by the hand and asked her to indulge in a bit of “role play.” Subsequently, she said, Kumar would initiate inappropriate physical contact with her over her course of employment. And when she confronted Kumar threatening to approach the police, he replied, “Police to meri pocket me hai.” (The police are in my pocket).
Dejected, when she decided to walk out, the legal team intimated that she would be in breach of contract should she resign. In a scene similar to what happened with the original Fowler, when she tried to tell her immediate bosses about it, her concerns were laughed off. However, actor Naveen Kasturia, who has, in the past, worked in the web series, Pitchers, and has been accused of laughing off the victim’s accounts of harassment when she approached him, countered the allegations and told The Quint that he is “100% sure that the blog is fake”.
Ultimately, she quit TVF, last year.
Meanwhile TVF refuted her claims in a similar Medium post stating “…All allegations… are categorically false, baseless and unverified. We take a lot of pride in our team and in making TVF a safe workplace that is equally comfortable for women and men.”
TVF also added that they “will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations.”
And that’s probably when all hell broke loose.
More Victims, More Allegations
While the industry was still grappling with the veracity of the first post, a series of similar posts came up from more victims alleging the same harassment.
Case 1: The First Survivor?
One of the first posts was from Reema Sengupta who corroborated the Indian Fowler post stating, “To everyone doubting if this is true, know that this girl definitely isn’t the only girl he has been a sleaze to.”
She stated how, while working with TVF for a web series last year, she was inappropriately touched by Arunabh.
She further added that she had to choose “…Between keeping quiet and extending my support to a girl who has bravely spoken up. So I am choosing to do the right thing. TVF can release as many ‘official responses’ rubbishing these claims, as they’d like. This is my truth.”
Reema also invited the Indian Fowler to get in touch for help.
Reema’s step to go public with her story led to more women coming forward and speaking up publicly about their strikingly similar experiences.
What followed next was an anonymous post on the website Akkarbakkar.com again accusing Arunabh of sexual misconduct and slamming TVF for stating that they will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations.
Another Facebook user, Rafiya Khan then came out with her story of another alleged case of inappropriate touching by Arunabh, about two years ago.
Similarly, another ex-TVF employee Aayushi Agarwal also wrote on Medium in reply to Indian Fowler that she had to face a similar experience working there.
Co-founder Speaks Up
However, TVF co-founder Nidhi Bisht has refuted Aarushi’s claims stating that: “Ayushi Agarwal is from the Delhi office and her case has nothing to do with Arunabh. The guy involved in that case has been fired in January.”
On the issue itself, Nidhi wrote in a Facebook post that investigation is underway about the original blogpost and TVF has gone on record and said that no such girl has ever been associated with TVF.
She added “The official statement cannot possibly be a threat to the ‘victim’ because no such person exists. But if they do, TVF urges them to come out or have a representative take legal action and we promise to abide by every rule in the book to make sure justice is served.”
Nidhi also added that, “TVF has zero tolerance towards workplace harassment and an investigation will be conducted and appropriate actions will be taken. We have a Prevention of Sexual Harassment committee, backed by Legal and HR which deals with such issues.”
Case 5 & 6
The chat also stated that TVF does not have a HR team. However, Arunabh, in an earlier interaction with Inc42, had spoken of an HR team. Separately, we have also reached out to TVF for details on their HR policies.
As the day wore on and more details emerged, it was not just employees who came forward with accusations. Even a former IIT batchmate of Arunabh Kumar alleged of an instance of sexual misdemeanour by the TVF founder back in 2012.
In a Facebook post, Reshma Patra talks of an inappropriate conversation, wherein Arunabh had propositioned her to come to his place and suggested that “he would like to get naked & see me stripping & dancing *for him*.”
Meanwhile, The Quint published an exclusive conversation with a woman who formerly worked with TVF as a freelancer. The interviewee has alleged that Kumar had groped her during a meeting at his house.
Another female Asimah Mirza also came forward alleging of an inappropriate conversation with Arunabh while dealing with him for a guest lecture at Unilever’s office. She said that the conversation quickly turned weird in 10 minutes with Arunabh inviting her over for a yoga session in the night.
Reactions And Repercussions
The industry meanwhile is divided on the issue with many slamming the TVF culture for failing to abide by the mandatory Vishakha Guidelines or more accurately, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which aims to prevent and redress sexual harassment of women at workplace. Meanwhile, Biswapati Sarkar, another co-founder of TVF has rubbished the sensationalist claims which said that TVF has no HR and has acknowledged that its image has been tarnished. He added that he can vouch for the TVF work culture any day.
I'm proud to be a part of TVF team. And I can vouch for our work culture any day. https://t.co/MA5RiuFNk0
— Biswapati Sarkar (@ChhotaThalaiva) March 13, 2017
As mentioned before, co-founder Nidhi Bisht in her Facebook post also mentioned about a Prevention of Sexual Harassment committee, backed by Legal and HR which deals with such issues.
Aditi Mittal, a female comedian, in a series of tweets questioned the comedy community’s silence over the issue.
Silence from the comedy community is deafening.EVERYONE still"texting contacts"/"verifying facts" inspite of hearing stories abt it for yrs?
— Aditi (hot takes 4 koolkidz) (@awryaditi) March 13, 2017
Another comedian Sorabh Pant also spoke about the issue, adding that the issue needs to be properly investigated and the women who’ve faced this are treated with due respect.
Don’t care if you’re friend, foe, in the ‘industry’.
If this volume of women are coming out against you.
You may have a terrible problem.
— Sorabh Pant (@hankypanty) March 13, 2017
Similarly, AIB’s Rohan Joshi also took to Twitter to express concerns over TVF’s alleged failure to ensure to set proper HR guidelines around sexual harassment in place.
Actor Sumeet Vyas who acted in TVF’s web series “Permanent Roommates,” also came out in support of Arunabh in a Facebook post stating that “I have never seen Arunabh or anyone in TVF misbehave with women, if the environment in that office was not safe, it wouldn’t have a 60/40 ratio of male and female employees.” But he was backfired by numerous users.
Meanwhile, one Facebook user ( who is not a TVF employee) has also spoken about Arunabh delivering a lecture at IIM Bangalore laced with sexual overtures.
As the onslaught of testimony continues, terming the Medium post slander, Kumar told Mumbai Mirror that social media has already declared him as an offender. However, he is ready to address all the allegations against himself.
“I am open to receiving a police complaint so that I can respond legally, as well. TVF is bigger than me and if there is a remote chance that I have done any wrong, let me be persecuted,” he was quoted.
An IIT Kharagpur alum, Arunabh Kumar started his career in 2006. During first few years of his career, he worked as an assistant director at Shahrukh and Gauri Khan’s founded Red Chillies Entertainment, during the making of the Shahrukh Khan starer Om Shanti Om, which was released in 2007. Post that he started working as a freelancer, where he tried to learn the ropes of everything in content – from music videos to radio spots to advertising to film scripts. Later in February 2012, theviralfever.com was formally launched. Its first series, Rowdies (a spoof on MTV’s reality TV series Roadies) was released in the same month, which made TVF first website in India to make original web content – which went viral with over 1 Mn views. The Mumbai-based company has raised $10 Mn (INR 65.6 Cr) from Tiger Global Management and Temasek Boulevard in 2015, according to a RoC filing.
TVF is known for producing quality digital content for viewers from 18-34 years of age with many famous web series such as Qtiyapa, Pitchers, Permanent Roommates, Tripling to their credit. As per the company, its original web series have an average viewership of over 2 Mn to 5 Mn per episode. As per latest MCA filings for 2015-2016, revenues stood at INR4.22 Cr for TVF and in a recent conversation with Inc42, Arunabh claimed revenues has grown 5x for this financial year.
Their latest web series Bisht, Please! is about to launch on March 18, 2017. The platform is also known for its Girliyapa channel, a dedicated channel for producing strong feminist content.
But, with this controversy, TVF finds itself in the midst of a damning news spiral. While Arunabh’s rise to success and his efforts to make the platform a premium content destination are laudable and well-known, the allegations against him are a cause of grave concern for both him as an entrepreneur and for TVF as a brand. It also points to the growing sexist and “ol’ boy” culture at many startup organisations.
At the moment, it is unclear if the Indian Fowler or the other victims will take any legal action against Arunabh or not. While the original TVF response was panned as more of a threat than clarification, later, an investigation has been promised by co-founder Bisht. On the other hand, it is unclear if the controversy will have any bearing on Arunabh’s position as CEO within the company as well as his association with the TVF brand. But one thing is sure, TVF needs to act swiftly to ensure that its Prevention of Sexual Harassment committee takes appropriate and swift action and clears the air around this issue. For a brand that has built much of its content around female-centric issues, there is a lot at stake here.
Inc42 has reached out to Arunabh for a response, which was not forthcoming at the time of publication.
Sexual harassment is a matter of serious legal and public concern. We at Inc42 strictly condemn sexual harassment at the workplace. If you would like to share your story of facing sexual harassment at the workplace and want to bring light to the issue, please drop us a mail at [email protected].