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Changing script: What happens when heroines speak out

By Anantha Narayanan K | Aug 11, 2022

Born After The Dileep Assault Case, Women In Cinema Collective Is Battling For Safety & Sensitivity At The Workplace

Are you a feminist? Of course, you are. Almost every Malayalam movie in the last decade, whether explicitly feminist or not, has echoed British writer Caitlin Moran’s dictum that women should be as free as men, no matter how deluded, brilliant, badly dressed or smug the former may be.

Sadly, artistic licence is one thing, workplace reality another. Within the Malayalam movie industry, male privilege and predatory patriarchy have reigned supreme. From grossly unequal wages, poor safety at shooting locations to allegations of the casting couch and unofficial bans and boycotts, women artistes and technicians face rampant discrimination.

But in mid-March, the Kerala high court made it mandatory for every movie unit employing more than 10 people and comprising women members to have an internal complaints committee.

The complaints committee under the Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act was a given in most Indian workplaces though not in the Malayalam film industry and the verdict was a milestone, a moment made possible in large measure because of the relentless activism of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a one-of-its-kind group in Indian cinema that is headlined by some of the most well-known names in the Malayalam industry.

The WCC as an idea was perhaps gestating for a while but it became a reality after a particularly traumatising incident. On February 18, 2017, Keralites woke up to the horrifying news that a young and established actress in the Malayalam film industry was abducted, sexually assaulted and filmed in a moving car the previous night in Kochi.

The police arrested the attackers soon but the criminal case snowballed into one of the biggest controversies in the history of the Malayalam film industry. Dileep, a leading actor, influential producer and distributor, was arraigned as an accused. He was alleged to be the main perpetrator, leading to his arrest and judicial custody for three months.

A group of 18 women from the film industry came together to stand by the survivor and decided to take the fight forward. Five years down the line, the actor assault case, which was the main trigger for the formation of WCC, is now at a crucial juncture.

Over these years, the WCC, which initially was a support group with a focus on dealing with sexual harassment in the industry, has transformed into a platform where untold experiences of women in cinema have found a voice. Besides keeping the cause of the survivor alive in the media and drawing the attention of the government to endemic issues faced by women in the industry, the WCC has been conducting research and study of the legal provisions that protect gender equality and the rights of women and vigorously championing the same with industry bodies.

“There is now a vocalisation of the issues faced by women in the industry and WCC is considered a watchdog and an advocacy group. People are aware of our existence. We have worked hard towards sexual harassment complaints and the implementation of the POSH laws in the industry. We have seen a shift from the notion of a victim to a survivor, which is a very important thing. The WCC has made some inroads in an area which was totally impervious to these issues,” Bina Paul, a prominent film editor and WCC volunteer, said. The survivor spoke up for justice and people from within and outside the industry began supporting her.

However, the entire episode and ensuing reactions highlighted the challenges faced by survivors while pursuing justice and fighting the backlash. Some WCC members openly confronted the leaders of the Association of Malayalam Movie Actors (AMMA) over the way the actor assault case was being handled.

The WCC alleged that AMMA has not supported the survivor, whereas Dileep had got its backing. Following this, some WCC members quit AMMA. Some of them even had to face issues like fewer work offers in the industry.

“Over the last five years, people have witnessed how the WCC has been consistently highlighting the problems faced by women. But this doesn’t make us popular and nobody will like the ones who are calling out the problems and issues which have not been resolved. So, this has affected our work opportunities, but those of us who are continuing the resistance have clearly prioritised the need for the fight over our individual career growth,” filmmaker Anjali Menon, another WCC volunteer, said.

When asked why many female actors were still hesitant to join WCC, Menon said they are a collective that questions existing norms and power practices and often had to face backlash and negativity.

“We are not expecting everybody to jump onboard, compromising on their time and peace of mind. Only those people who are committed to the cause can be volunteers. That goes without saying that there will not be too many of them,” she said. The WCC members said that there have been many male actors, technicians and others in the industry who supported the group in private conversations but preferred not to be vocal about it. “There is an all-pervasive silence and when people don’t speak up, they are actually empowering perpetrators, not survivors. It is not enough to simply share the survivor’s Instagram post five years after she has gone through her journey all by herself, struggling in pain. Solidarity with the survivor should not come from that but from prevention of such situations,” Menon said.

One of the main achievements of the WCC was in 2018 when the state government appointed a three-member commission headed by a retired high court judge, Justice K Hema, to look into the problems faced by women in the Malayalam film industry. The commission in 2019 submitted a 300-page report which reportedly pointed to glaring testimonies of sexual abuse faced by prospective entrants and the presence of a casting couch in the film industry. However, nothing much has been done by the government based on this report and they are yet to make the report public, which the WCC has criticised.

“The WCC facilitated a lot of the work for Justice Hema which included identifying people and arranging meetings with them because we believed it was an effort towards the betterment of women’s workspace in the industry. But her insistence that the report has to be kept away from the public was a betrayal of our trust. On the whole, the Hema committee chapter was a bit disappointing but we still believe the government must call the stakeholders and implement the suggestions made in the committee report,” Bina Paul said.

Paul said the biggest challenge the WCC faced was the deeply ingrained patriarchy and feudalism that exist in the industry, which is always portrayed as a place of camaraderie.

“We very well know that there is no equal place for women in this camaraderie. The lack of recognition of this problem is our biggest challenge. We continuously face questioning of credibility and professionalism and mockery when issues are raised. But I think we are slowly overcoming it through the implementation of the law which protects women,” she said.

Actor Padmapriya said the WCC had support from the film industry in other states. She said that the WCC was technically registered as an all-India society with the intent to work for the cause of women in cinema, not particularly in any language or geographical area.

“We made a report on the status of women working in cinema in four southern states and many from Tamil, Kannada and Telugu were part of it. They made recommendations regarding their respective industries. Issues exist across the industries in India and there can always be cross-learning and sharing. What is important is to see that equal space and opportunities are available and there is enhanced solidarity among the fraternity towards the issues faced by women,” she said.

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