Groundbreaking gender revolt in Malayalam Cinema

From left: WCC members Parvathy, Revathy, Sajitha Madathil, Geetu Mohandas and Rima Kallingal

A group of Indian female actors started as a WhatsApp group to support a friend from cinema, who was abducted and sexually assaulted by their male colleague. The informal gathering of women, which organically transformed into a woman collective, it called for safe working conditions for women in the industry.

The Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a body of female actors and technicians formed in the backdrop of the sexual assault of a leading South Indian female actor, commemorated its two-year anniversary on Friday. Two years OF WCC witnessed a rise of gender consciousness in Indian Cinema. The formation of a women’s collective and initiated a conversation about the gender issues in cinema space.

On Feb 2017, a famous Malayalam movie actor was abducted on her way to work, sexually assaulted and videotaped in the small town of Kerala. Subsequently police arrested her coworker and actor Dileep, who also holds many executive positions in the Film Industry thus making the accused in an influential position over the sexually assaulted woman. But the film actor and her immediate friends and well-wishers are fighting back along with her.

Kerala, a quaint southern state in India, with a tourist slogan as ‘God’s own Country’, known for his high literacy rates, its pro welfare system and an exceptionally high newspaper readership, is undergoing a remarkable gender movement in the history of Indian cinema.

Dileep, one of the most popular actors in Malayalam cinema, had spent 85 days in judicial custody and is awaiting trial over masterminding the kidnap and sexual assault of a female actor.

When the police arrested Dileep last year, Association of Malayalam Movie Actors or abbreviated as AMMA, dismissed Dileep from its Executive positions. But after a year of the arrest, and months after the actor is out in bail, the organisation reinstate the actor quietly on June 2nd in a general body meeting. Media reported that a large majority of the actors voted in favor of Dileep.

AMMA consists of 485 members, more than 100 female artists, and yet only three women were there in the Executive Committee. Immediately after the decision to reinstate Dileep to the organisation, 4 female actors resigned from the organisation in protest.

A provincial industry the size of US$210 million( ₹14 billion ) gross box office and 150 feature films produced per year on an average, calls itself Mollywood taking after Bollywood  in Mumbai. Unlike other vernacular language movies, Malayalam cinema have long known for setting trends, with its unique and distinctive creation of cinema. Hardly a year has passed without an actor or director from Kerala not winning an award at national level and receiving achievements in the International circuit of film festivals. A film-literate community, Malayalam films have been throwing in numerous “first” to the Indian Cinema.

Some of the male members of the 25-year-old organisation, representing the film actors, including Vice-Presidents and former president are also members of Legislative Assembly of the current government in Kerala.

The government is headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who, through proxies runs a television channel whose chairman is Mammootty, an award-winning, powerful superstar and former general secretary of AMMA. The CPI (M), meanwhile, issued a press statement, which suggested nothing other than all parties settle the issue amicably. Not a word was said against the accused or the people perceived to have protected him. They were also silent on the gender issues.

Dileep, one of the most popular actors in Malayalam cinema, had spent 85 days in judicial custody and is awaiting trial over masterminding the kidnap and sexual assault of a female actor

Resignations and Protests

But it was not an internal matter of AMMA as it would later prove; activists, academics, and members of the neighboring movie industries including Kannada and Tamil movie industries protested. 

After the reinstatement of the male actor, in her resignation statement, the sexual assault survivor alleged that the organisation had failed to intervene after her earlier complaint that the accused actor had “scuttled many of my opportunities in film industry” in the years before the assault.

“When I had complained at that time, AMMA did not act seriously on my complaint. And when such a terrible incident happened, AMMA, that I am also a part of, tried to protect the man… Realising that there is no purpose in being a part of such an organisation, I hereby resign,” she said.

I approached for a comment from the accused actor, but the actor refused to comment. “He is really not ready to discuss this with you right now,” stated the office of the actor.

Earlier, 14 actors issued a statement, through the official Facebook page of the WCC, which expressed their lack of faith in AMMA. “We are aiming at the creation of a space that approaches cinema as a medium and an art with ever more attention, respect and trust,” said the signatories.

Actors said that they lost trust in the AMMA which insensitively dealt with the issue of sexual harassment of their co-worker.

Over 130 members from the Malayalam film community filed a joint statement demanding justice for the survivor. They denounced the decision of AMMA to put back the accused and extended solidarity to the four women who resigned from AMMA.

Prominent members of the Kannada film industry including Prakash Raj, Sruthi Hariharan and Chetan sent a signed letter to AMMA, demanding the association to withdraw its decision favouring the accused.

Following these protests, more actors joined in support of the sexual assault survivor and protested against the misogynistic workspace in the industry.

With all its credentials, the industry is also notorious for the low wages to the female actors, very few female oriented characters or plots and would quickly fail a bechdel test in its movies.

Women actors are paid one-third of that of their male counterparts is most disconcerting, said Rima Kallingal, current box-office favorite of Malayalam movie in a TEDX talk in January 2018. 

 “The Visakha Guidelines are not followed in the industry despite paying 40 percent entertainment tax to the government.” “Male actors in between say 20 and 70 years, whether married or unmarried, with or without kids and grand-kids, are given a platform to explore their craft, to excel in roles that are exclusively written for them; to grow, to evolve and to see their career take off when they are in their prime. And that is the way it should be. And I am so happy for them as an artist. But not so much for a female actor who takes every decision in her personal life and it affects her career: getting married, getting divorced, and getting a baby, if at all her career gets till there. Everything that she does affects her career.” Rima said.

Gender pay disparity is an issue the world over, be it in any industry.

Coming to the Indian cinema industry, while Bollywood’s highest paid actor, Salman Khan earns around eight million USD for a movie, while figure for the female actors till last year, Deepika Padukone was only about 1.5 million USD.

Earlier in an interview on a talk show hosted by Crosspost Network, national award winning actor Parvathi recalled her struggling days, when she faced difficulties in signing a film because she refused to give into lecherous demands made by some of the Malayalam filmmakers.

She also revealed that women actors of Malayalam cinema are routinely asked for sexual favors. Actor, MP and the then AMMA’s former President Innocent’s response to Parvathi’s statement where he said that bad girls might have to sometimes sleep with people to get roles is in itself a case of sexual harassment.

The impact of these incidents have made screenwriter RanjiPanicker and actor Prithviraj Sukumaran to declare that they are now being remorseful in writing scripts laced with sexist content or acting in the same.

“All art will be scrutinised again and again in history. All art reflects the times we live in,” Rima Kallingal, the actor and founding member of the WCC, responded to the ‘confessions’ while calling it the beginning of a new wave.

Women in Cinema Collective

The Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) was formed in May 2017, in response to the sexual assault incident. It called for safe working conditions for women in the industry in the backdrop of abduction and rape.

This is the first of its kind in the Indian cinema industry, the second one in the world.

WCC’s first appeal to the Government of Kerala in May 2017, signed by 21 women who worked in the film industry including actors, directors, technicians, and singers suggested that an ICC for sexual harassment be formed for every film that was made.

An ICC is an Internal Complaints Committee set up for the prevention of sexual harassment and to redress complaints of sexual harassment. It asked the government to make sure that films were not allowed to be made if this criterion was not met.

Members of the Women in Cinema Collective interact with the media during an Open Forum at IFFK

‘Well defined rules can be put in place only if the government recognises cinema as an industry or as a wing of the department of culture. Even though cinema is called an industry, from the state’s point of view, cinema is not one. And in cinema, the workplace is not defined.’  Filmmaker Asha Achi Joseph, one of the founding members of WCC said.

The ICC for sexual harassment, which is compulsory in all workspaces according to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, is not existent in Malayalam cinema industry.

88 years after the release of the first Malayalam film, it is only in 2017, through WCC, that such a demand raised for the first time.

As for the Bollywood, which is more than a hundred years old, the demand has not been made yet.

Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce and Kerala Film Producers’ Association, the apex bodies of Malayalam film industry, established in 1956 do not have even one woman in their executive committee or as office bearers.

Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA), the association for technicians from the Malayalam movie industry, has thousands of members, both men and women.

As the impact of the formation of WCC, FEFKA has launched its women’s wing, with popular dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi as the Chairperson in February 2018.

Vidhu Vincent, the first women director to have won an award from the Government of Kerala, is one of the founding members of WCC.

She recalls an incident: “I was attending an event somewhere and suddenly a lady came to me, saying, she recognised me as a member of WCC. That’s when I realised the social impact of this nascent organisation and was pleasantly surprised.” Years of experience in the mainstream media and aware of the inner workings political organisations helped her contribute to the political mapping of this new organisation.

From the start itself, she was clear that the WCC has to be a ‘grassroots’ organisation, bringing the stardom, an unattainable space in the common man’s eyes, to the basics of labor and frame it within labor laws. Despite many disparities within the team, the members bonded together, with the politics of gender rights as their common denominator.  

She sometimes feels that it was unfortunate that a sexual assault had to occur to be the catalyst. Nevertheless, the urgency, the camaraderie and the teamwork wouldn’t be the same, without that unfortunate misery of the colleague.  

She, like her colleagues, is well aware of the precarious path they have to take, but believes the future generation will benefit.  

“The culture, the politics, and the state structure are all immersed in patriarchy. The challenge for women is to educate themselves and set new precedents,” she said.

RemyaNambeesan, a young female actor and a playback singer, quit AMMA soon she heard of Dileep’s reinstatement. She didn’t have to think much as she realised there is no more space for equal rights.  She has been part of AMMA for 10 years.

The actor confirmed that she had faced many difficulties whenever she demanded equal pay and equal workspace. Even getting a written screenplay in advance was too much to ask for. “Many women dream cinema and want to be part of the industry, but are not able to enter because of the gender discriminations,” she said.

She says she derives support and strength from her family, especially her father, for the risk she is currently taking as a whistleblower. With the support, she’s always been able to refuse to do things which she deemed wrong.

She added that the WCC movement is a “beautiful movement” where many different ideas, personalities, debates, plans go in.  “And the genuine belief every member has in it makes it strong, full of camaraderie.”

This is the first time a harassment case is reported and discussed in full public view.

Revathi, a national award-winning veteran actor recalls the initial days. “When the assault happened, I rang up Rima (Kallingal), and our conversation turned into a WhatsApp group initially for the support of the victim and then into the organisation”.

She feels the “breakdown of support systems, the environment of rapid communication with zero responsibility, are all catalyst to such a shocking assault in workspace”, which is the first incident she has ever heard of in her memory.  “No curbing of emotions going to help, rather it would only help the culprit.” 

Asked why senior female actors are silent, Revathi said the “normal thing to do has always been to avoid controversy”. Just to name a person, accused, had been unthinkable earlier, the industry veteran of more than three decades said.  

She is the advisor, and the ‘diplomat’ in the WCC. When the debates are emotional and heated, her counsel patience to sway the women back to focus, what is urgently needed to be done. Respecting each other and everyone’s opinions regardless of age and experience is “the number one binding factor of this all-women group, which is setting an example for other women groups.” The impact of this collective is seen in the industries of vernacular languages and also in the media, she added.

Indhu VS, a young director and writer, recalls the situation in 2010 when she entered the industry. “I was surprised to know how I, as a technician, a lone woman, was left alone in in many occasions at workplace. At that time, I was confused as to whether my gender issues would be addressed adequately, or if it was a favor or right.”  Now with the WCC technicians like her has a body to look for help and support.

New technician entrants would benefit immensely, she said. Earlier there was a culture of silence, which is now disrupted. As a technician behind the scenes, she could contribute to the issues related to the menial work which is entirely different from that of an actor’s work.  Even if all her wishes are not going to be materialised through the WCC she believes the way to raise a question is now framed and formatted, to say the least. 

Padmapriya, Parvathy Thiruvoth and Revathy addressed the press about AMMA’s decision regarding Dileep.

Amidst the hectic schedules and different physical locations, these women, out of commitments and passion will together create a change for the future generation of movie aspirants.

“Though Women’s rights movements gathered momentum across multiple arenas of the world, it had its least resonance in Cinema – where in a masculine vicious circle existed akin to modern day slavery. The power relations were forged exclusively by the male posing threat to women’s employability and ability to vocalise her rights. Though Smitha Patel, Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi have been imperative on their takes on women’s agency within the Indian Cinema it was through Women in Cinema Collective in Kerala wherein the feminist interventions received its formal organised structure reaching out to public and formulating their demands.” Mridula Devi S, a Dalit activist, poet, and film critic said.

“Despite the challenges – of greater power inequity and scare members- WCC as a collective feminist movement shall stride the tracks of justice and solidarity.”

“WCC is brought in as an alternative space – and like any spaces of dissent its subversive potential is incessantly under threat. Mega Stars of the industry are silent to the greater solidarity and struggle these women brought in – the deafening silence akin to fascism.” She added 

Since the last year, women from all over the world began using #MeToo on social media to share their own experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Following the #metoo movement, Hollywood was hit with a series of allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein on sexually assaulting and harassing numerous women over several years.

In Malayalam cinema, it started earlier. A woman is set out to fight against the injustice meted out but the Goliaths. She continues her struggle without a hashtag.

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