After mid-day published the accounts of four survivors who faced sexual harassment at the hands of talent manager Anirban Das Blah, several women reached out to the newspaper to reveal the misdoings of Afsar Zaidi, co-founder of Exceed Entertainment, another big player in the field of talent management. The celebrity management agency currently boasts a clientele that includes Saif Ali Khan and Sonakshi Sinha, among others. Two survivors — who wished to remain anonymous — accused the entrepreneur of sexual misconduct and abuse of power.
The survivor, who joined the celebrity management company in 2014, recalls that though Zaidi asked her “strange questions” during the interview, she did not read too much into them. Her instincts kicked into action when he would repeatedly remark on her dressing. “He would make me stand in the middle of the office and ask everyone to dress like me. Initially, it was flattering, but after a point, it was systematic. On certain days, he would make comments like, ‘Are we showing too much back today?’ He would look me up and down,” she says.
The first blow, she says, was when she had to make a month-long official international trip. “We cracked a big deal with a celebrity and a major TV channel, for a reality TV show. I travelled with the CEO and met Ajit Thakur on that trip. It was then that I gauged how Exceed functions. I was told that Ajit was an ‘important client’, and we had to ‘keep him happy’. I tried to brush it off; I didn’t want to upset my boss, it was my first job in this industry. Also, I respected my CEO and didn’t know then what ‘keeping him happy’ really meant. But a few days later, I was asked to join them post shoot, for a few drinks at a popular street that housed multiple bars. I remember drinking a little, which agitated Ajit. Later, my boss took me aside and told me that Ajit wanted me to help him get women. I thought he was joking at first.
I was then asked to approach a few girls dancing at a distance and engage in conversation with them, eventually to convince them to join us for the night, with the hidden goal of Ajit taking them back to his hotel. When I timidly expressed that I wasn’t comfortable doing it, I was told , ‘Yeh sab karna padta hai.’ I discreetly told the girls that they should go someplace else before the men approached them Ajit continued the ‘after party’ in my CEO’s room where he repeatedly came onto me. I remember making an excuse to leave a little later, but I was followed to the beach by him where he got relentless. I made my unavailability clear at that moment, and went to my room.”
An office party, held in the city a few months later, proved to be the tipping point for her.
“Afsar has a terrace next to his cabin where he was hosting the party. I was told that Hrithik Roshan, Bipasha Basu, and Shilpa Shetty were to eventually make an appearance with their respective managers. Afsar was physically grabbing people and pouring drinks down their throats. While I kept dodging him, at one point, he grabbed me from behind, put his hands on my breast and forced me to down a drink. He did this a few more times in the course of the evening. He was drunk by midnight. It was then that he came to me again and started rubbing his penis up against my back.
There were 30 people around, yet they chose to turn a blind eye to what was happening in front of them. I froze and didn’t know how to respond. I remember him saying, ‘If you like it, push back harder.’ That’s when I pushed him with my elbow and angrily said, ‘Is it hard enough for you?’ He was so drunk that he didn’t register my rage. Instead, he got turned on and invited me to his room for sex. I ran to a colleague for help, but he kept following me. I tried mustering the courage to talk to the HR person, when a few minutes later, another woman came screaming out of Afsar’s cabin. She was hysterical and it turns out, she became his prey that night when I said no.”
The survivor goes on to recount how Zaidi, in an inebriated state, had tried to take advantage of another employee that evening. “She was three-four days old in the firm. I could tell immediately that he had tried something with her in his cabin. She was crying hysterically, ‘I am not that kinda girl’ after she ran out of his cabin. One of the employees helped her. She was then taken to a glass cubicle where the HR head joined them. The top officials, in their drunk state, held a meeting at 2 am in the presence of the girl and Afsar. It was evident that they were plotting a cover-up and were shielding Afsar. I wasn’t present there but I heard that the HR manager was constantly s**t-shaming the girl, and Afsar was trying to deflect blame. After seeing this, I didn’t see a point complaining about what happened to me.” The survivor continued to work there while desperately searching for another job, but was fired a few months later.
mid-day reached out to the second survivor separately, who then corroborated the incident from the 2014 party. Stating that it was an incident of “near rape”, the survivor — who has since moved out of the country — said it was horrific how no one in the firm backed her then. Two of our survivors backed out an hour before we went to press, fearing dire repercussions, after giving their entire testimonial.
When mid-day reached out to Zaidi, he said, “The allegations that appear to have been made are without basis, and are an attempt to malign me and defame my reputation and that of my company. The company has in place a policy for sexual harassment at the workplace. If the complainant has a genuine case, let her come forward and present it before the ICC constituted by the firm. This matter should not be one for trial by the media — there are systems in place in law and those should be used to ensure fairness and justice. I deny the allegations in entirety, they have been made without any basis or an iota of evidence. I plan to take appropriate legal action as may be advised.”