As is the case with many of the accounts that have emerged in the past few weeks about sexual harassment in the Indian advertising industry, the emails make for uncomfortable reading.
“He followed me to the bar and held my hand and wouldn't let go” states one woman in a message sent to Campaign Asia-Pacific. While we know her identity and can confirm her tenure at the agency, she has asked to be granted anonymity.
“He used to never leave a chance to come close to me, whisper something in my ears, trying to forcibly hug me and passing sexual comments such as 'you're looking very sexy today'" says another, writing to us under the same conditions about the same man.
Both women make their claims against Sudarshan Banerjee, co-founder and managing partner of the Mumbai-based independent agency Utopeia Communicationz, which was set up in 2012. Both also claim that they felt the position held by Banerjee’s wife, Paramita Banerjee, as senior human resources business partner at Utopeia, was a barrier to them seeking action.
The first woman, who worked at the agency for five months, writes of attending India’s Effie Awards with Banerjee. “Sudarshan got drunk and was constantly following me. Initially I brushed it off and started to avoid any interaction. Then he insisted we click some photographs for the official photographer, where he took every opportunity to put his hand around my shoulder and the hand would drop to the waist under the pretext of being drunk.”
She claims she tried to make excuses to get away, but Banerjee wouldn’t be deterred. “He asked me to get food for him and when I got my plate at the table he tried to put his hand around the back of my chair coming real close and asked me to feed him, I felt cornered and fed him.” Later, she claims, “He followed me to the bar and held my hand and wouldn't let go.”
According to this woman, the inappropriate behaviour was not limited to external parties. Banerjee would offer “head massages” on other occasions and during office parties, she says. In another instance when she was watching a game of carrom played on the office terrace, she says Banerjee “came up close and blew air down my neck”.
Feeling that this was the final straw, the woman approached one of the company’s other founders who urged her to speak to human resources, which she eventually did, despite her hesitation at the close connection between the HR department and Banerjee. “I was uncertain as HR happens to be his wife. The discomfort of telling people what you went through added by the fact that the other woman is his wife was stopping me from going,” she writes.
Banerjee was asked to apologise. His apology email, seen by Campaign Asia-Pacific, reads:
It has not been too long ago that we hired you at Utopeia and in these few days I have attempted to make your start as friendly as possible. However, if any of my actions have made you feel uncomfortable in any way, I would like to apologise to you and assure you that it was not my intention at all. Paramita & Mitali [Srivastava Hough, director and chief strategy officer] had a chat with me about the same and in hindsight, some of my actions might have been construed otherwise. I would like to assure you that I will be extra cautious henceforth so as to not make you uncomfortable in any which way. I am glad you brought it up and didn’t keep it bottled inside you and I assure you that at all times Utopeia will ensure you have a healthy and supportive work environment so that you could shine. Sorry once again.
The woman decided to accept this apology but says she still felt “very uncomfortable” around Banerjee. She also started feeling “singled out” by Paramita Banerjee and says she was accused of gossip and of creating fights, and on occasion was chastised for wearing a dress that ended above her knees, when she was told it was company policy not to wear short dresses. “It made it seem as if it was my fault” she writes. She left the company soon afterwards.
Her account of her treatment at the agency gets corroboration from an email written to Campaign Asia-Pacific by a second woman, who worked at Utopeia for 20 months and says she was wary of Banerjee from the start. “From the very first time, during my interview, he asked me very uncomfortable questions such as if I have a boyfriend or if I drink or not.”
“He would often give a very dirty stare and check you out from top to bottom, pass comments on the type of clothes you wear and look for chances to get chit-chatty with you when you're alone” she writes.
This woman also felt she couldn’t speak out because of Banerjee’s wife’s role at the company. “I never complained about this attitude and behaviour of Sudarshan while I was working at Utopeia because I felt I didn't have any proof and moreover his wife was the HR at the organization, hence no action would be taken.”
When Paramita Banerjee joined the company, this woman claims, a lot of new rules, “such as ‘dress-code’” were brought in: “She would point out on us wearing even mid-length dresses saying that people in the office stare at us. I very clearly remember and know for a fact that no one other than Sudarshan Banerjee would "check us out" top to bottom. Everyone else at the office was very well behaved.”
Others have also made claims against Banerjee, some sharing these anonymously on Twitter and Medium. One woman who has written publicly is Kamakshi Thareja, now planning director at J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, based in Malaysia. During Sudarshan Banerjee’s tenure at Mudra Communications, where he worked for three years prior to joining Utopeia, Thareja also worked there as an account planning manager.
In a post on Medium written on October 11 (see screenshot below), she wrote of attending the Mirchi Kaan awards night in “2010/2011”. Some hours into the evening, she says she was in a courtyard next to the ceremony hall with lots of people smoking. “I was sitting on a ledge. Up comes an inebriated Sudarshan Bannerjee [sic], someone who worked at my agency, but not a personal favourite or a friend. He starts making conversation and soon enough his hand is on my knee going up my leg. I’ve had some to drink and I’m confused, and also taken aback - my agency was not a place where things like this happened.”
The agency response
Utopeia Communicationz says it is investigating these claims. When the reports first started to emerge on social media, Utopeia put out this official statement:
We are deeply saddened by the reports that have recently come up in the #MeToo Movement, regarding incidents of sexual harassment at Utopeia. While we are very concerned about the seriousness of these allegations, we are also deeply distressed that there were people who felt unsafe and humiliated at our workplace. For the record, Utopeia is an equal opportunity employer and will not tolerate any kind of workplace misconduct or harassment towards employees. We are investigating the incidents mentioned, on priority and necessary and even punitive actions will be taken to address any wrong-doings as per the company policy. Team Utopeia.
Campaign Asia-Pacific contacted the agency for further comment having learned the specific claims above. We expressly asked for a response to the statements made by these two people saying that Paramita Banerjee’s position as head of HR as well as being Sudarshan Banerjee’s wife was a key roadblock for them to seek help. We received the following message from Sean Colaco (co-founder and creative head), Krishna Padhye and Krishnaraj Bhat (managing partners):
As already mentioned in the official statement from Utopeia, the allegations / ‘accounts’ that have been mentioned in your mail are currently under investigation in an objective enquiry. We would not be able to disclose any further, until the enquiry is concluded as it would not be fair to anybody involved.
In a separate email, Paramita Banerjee said:
The statement given by the organisation holds true and investigation is on. It will take some time.
Utopeia Communicationz started operating in December 2012 with the tagline '#BringBackTheLove'. Sudarshan Banerjee was one of four founding members including Ayan Chakraborty, Mitali Hough Srivastava and Sean Colaco.