Lakshmi Manchu-model of #MeToo open arms to Bollywood
Lakshmi Manchu, one of the six women behind Voice Of Women, on their year-long work, offering solutions and inviting complaints from film industries across India
"Tell your story. Shout it. Write it. Whisper it if you have to. But tell it. Some won't understand it. Some will outright reject it. But many will thank you for it. And then the most magical thing will happen. One by one, voices will start whispering, 'me too'. And your tribe will gather. And you will never feel alone again," Lakshmi Manchu echoes words by writer LR Knost.
Manchu — daughter of Mohan Babu, an actor, producer, anchor — took the Women In Cinema Collective (WCC) a step ahead. Along with actors Supriya Yarlagadda, Jhansi, Suma Kanakala, Swapna Dutt (producer), and Nandini Reddy (director), Manchu started core discussions on the welfare of the women in the Telugu film industry. The initiative that started with six women, now has 80 active technical wings. With the assistance of other volunteers, they formed a support group and panel, Voice Of Women (VoW), to help women in media and entertainment. The group aims to create gender awareness in workplaces and meet bi-monthly to discuss issues. They also plan to create a database of women technicians in the Telugu film industry.
VoW members raised voice against lewd remarks on women in cinema, condemned casting couch and harassment issues within the Telugu film industry. In order to follow legal proceedings in these issues, women activists even approached the High Court to intervene. With the directives from the court, the collective realised that the lack of a formal redressal committee for sexual harassment cases is a major issue. VoW played an instrumental role in formulating a panel at the Film Chamber of Commerce. This panel consists of members from the film fraternity, social workers, legal, medical and psychological experts. And now VoW is opening its doors to other film industries across the country.
In the wake of the Me Too movement, Bollywood found itself at a loss of moral consciousness and adequate organisational skills to replicate a similar body to address issues. "We started this [redressal committee] solely because women were facing backlash and were unable to get work after exposing culprits on social media. While addressing the issue, women need to feel safe and not be victimised," explains Manchu. "It's upon us women to take up the vigilante role. Abusers can't be allowed to settle back into a routine without admonishment. VoW is affiliated to all the subsidiary organisations of the movie industry like the Producers's Council, Writers's Council and Movie Artists's Association. We have red boxes [complaint boxes] at workplaces and have handed out email addresses where women can share their concern anonymously and we take it forward."
Manchu explains that their aim is to protect women's identities, so they can go back to work without fear. "Every complainant is required to name their perpetrator, narrate their story, list people who can corroborate the claims and find similar complaints. Now, it's upon us to stop the movement from fizzling out." Quiz her, if they plan to recreate the successful model in Bollywood and she says, "It took us a year to set up this committee. Now that we have Government recognition and it will be easier to create other platforms." But do Bollywood's leading ladies lack a similar pro-activeness to the issue? "It's not my business to prod them. Deepika [Padukone] got such flak for speaking about depression, but it changed the narrative around mental health. Bollywood girls are free to call us and ask us how to go about it. We are changing the industry we work in, but since the Hindi film industry is biggest in terms of its reach, it is their prerogative to mobilise women and set up something similar. Actors like Taapsee [Pannu], Rakul [Preet Singh] and Tamannah [Bhatia] are all committed to the organisation."
Manchu insists that new guidelines need to be formulated that better address issues in the entertainment industry. "Our society doesn't understand consent because of the pop culture influence. The Vishaka Guidelines [a set of procedural guidelines that was later superseded in 2013 by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace] don't apply to us." She says that women need a platform without being cornered, and eventually legal recourse will be required. Manchu's model suggests that more women need to volunteer. "Word about the organisation, the redressal method along with personal ids on vanity vans, make-up rooms, film studios need to be spread. Film crews must undergo workshops and sensitisation programmes to understand how to handle such scenarios. Hiring more women at workplaces ensure a more empathetic environment. The industry has been functioning on bro-code for far too long; it's time the girl gang rises."
Bollywood's stance in the #MeToo movement
Amongst the actors working in both industries, Manchu adds that Taapsee Pannu has been a pillar of support. When we asked the actor, what stops Bollywood from seeing a similar success story, she singles out the vastness of the industry. "The size is a major hurdle. Bollywood is consolidated in their circles, which is why access is a problem. There is a reluctance to break the circle. Lakshmi is a woman of power. She is thoroughly linked with the entire industry. In Bollywood, we need someone similar. I could start something like it, but I am not as well connected as her."
Pannu claims that women in Bollywood are still in their discussion phase. "We did get together to discuss female safety in the industry, informally. There were quite a few actresses involved. It was a discussion to understand the way forward." The actress is also a part of CINTAA where she actively works towards addressing issues faced by women in the industry. "This is a temporary solution until an all-woman body can be set up by someone in a powerful position like Lakshmi. It is essential to render a comfortable environment for women so they can come and talk safely."
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