Women in cinema protest against misogynistic practices in film industry

Jul 08, 2018, 08:24 IST | Benita Fernando

As female film practitioners across India protest the Malayalam industry's 'anti-woman' decision to reinstate actor Dileep, another #TimesUp wave is fast spreading beyond Kerala

Women in cinema protest against misogynistic practices in film industry
WCC members with Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan last year with a petition for speedy inquiry

If all one needed was a sign, then the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) has found hundreds of those. This past week, women film practitioners have come forward from across the country, genres and departments to participate in signature campaigns to support the WCC, strengthening its protest against misogynistic practices in the Malayalam film industry. The protest will mark an important moment when the history of Indian cinema is told; the signature campaign itself a show of strength — the mere number of women who work in the industry, and, consequentially, the pressing need for fairer and safer practices.

On June 29, eight women film practitioners from Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata co-initiated a signature campaign on social media to protest a move that has been slammed as "anti-woman" by the WCC. Their statement read, "As women working in film across genres and industries in India we received the news of AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes) reinstating actor Dileep, who is an accused in the abduction and molestation of an actor, with shock and deep disappointment." With this ongoing campaign, which has 290 signatories so far, and a letter of solidarity from the Kannada film industry, the WCC's effort is no longer a lone movement in regional cinema, but one of national concern. The WCC was formed last year, in November, after prominent women from the Malayalam film industry petitioned to the chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, requesting prompt action in the case. Actor Revathi, a prominent figure in Indian cinema, is one of the founding members of the WCC and says that while one has heard of several incidents of violence against women, she couldn't believe that "an incident as horrendous as this has happened". "It is unbelievable what our colleague had to go through. It shocked us so much that it gave birth to a movement," she tells us over a phone call.

Actor Padmapriya  has voiced her protest against the reinstatement of actor Dileep
Actor Padmapriya has voiced her protest against the reinstatement of actor Dileep

A redressal system
From great shock, came the most natural outcome, to group together, first on WhatsApp, and then formally. Actor Padmapriya Janakiraman, one of the first 15 founding members of WCC, says that this is not merely a case of choosing sides. "Your association with either of them, Dileep or the assault survivor, has limited reasoning for the stance you take as an organisation," she says. "While they must be lauded for their achievements, that is precisely the reason why they must uphold standards, too. Given that there has been much public outcry, AMMA has a moral obligation to suspend Dileep until the case is resolved," she tells us. If women are not coming forward with their concerns, it is because the industry lacks a redressal system. "There are so many women here — not just actors, but technicians, who have gone against their families to pursue their careers. Thus, when these women are faced with discrimination or harassment, they have no one to turn to," says Padmapriya.

Investing in women
In 2007, a director named Samy slapped Padmapriya on the sets of a Tamil film. Reports suggest that the director had turned violent after Padmapriya "failed to perform well in a scene where she had to cry". The Federation of Film Employees of South India (FEFSI) and the Producers' Council banned Samy from making films for a year. "Just because it is not sexual doesn't mean that it is not grievous," says Padmapriya, adding that the crew did not step forward as witnesses to the incident. Among the practitioners and actors we spoke to, both mainstream and independent, the consensus is that along with big capital comes the potential for sexual harassment. "Across the board, the need for glamour leads to exploitation of women. Ultimately, it is about capitalism and the woman's body gets usurped by it," says Nalini Malani, one of India's pioneering contemporary artists and a signatory in the WCC solidarity list.

Mohanlal, new president of AMMA
Mohanlal, new president of AMMA

Film editor Jabeen Merchant of Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) and Anaarkali of Aarah (2017) fame, is also a signatory in the list. Merchant feels it is hard to generalise discrimination and harassment in the industry, but every job profile comes with its own set of problems. "I feel comfortable hiring women, and working with them through crazy deadlines and night shifts. It is true that if you have men working on an edit team, then you don't have to worry about how they will get home. With women, you want to make sure they are safe. It is about making that extra effort," she says.

Creating alternatives, therefore, to the powerful male triad of director-producer-actor, is an achievement that is pending. Where are the women decision makers? "People do not invest enough in the creativity of women," says Malani. In 1969, she had made five films, but didn't feel that she could show them until last year, at the Centre Pompidou, Paris. "I can't quite explain that period of waiting. You could go on working as long as you were quiet, but if you spoke up, then you were labelled a brazen, aggressive woman. It wasn't a pleasant experience," she says.

In her memoir, actress Rose McGowan accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of raping her
In her memoir, actress Rose McGowan accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of raping her

Harassers are harassers
The solidarity list, which has 111 numbers from Mumbai alone [of a total of 269], is therefore, important. If you look it up on social media, you will find that most names are of documentary filmmakers, film editors, set designers, and so on. "The list shows the number of women working in the film industry. Be it film, TV or advertising, there is hardly a place where women are not involved anymore," says Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker, Surabhi Sharma, one of the co-initiators of the list.

The so-called "big voices" from mainstream Bollywood are largely absent here, save for Nandita Sen, Aparna Sen, Ratna Pathak Shah, Renuka Shahane and few more. But Sharma says, "I wouldn't create a hierarchy. The film industry in Mumbai is more scattered. Perhaps news about this list hasn't reached our mainstream women actors and directors. They may shy away, precisely because the stakes are that high. But, you cannot decide at what moment a woman is allowed to say: I am going to speak out."

Nishtha Jain, who made Gulabi Gang (2012), says that as a filmmaker, she hasn't faced sexual harassment, mainly because she is able to choose who she wants to work with. But, predatory men are everywhere, she points out. What was Harvey Weinstein if not the producer of several indie films? Last year, Jain came out publicly with how her classmate from FTII, Arghya Basu, had allegedly molested her at a party which was attended by several friends and colleagues. Basu, a former faculty member at FTII, was added by her, last year, to Raya Sarkar's cautionary list of professors who were allegedly sexual harassers. "No one saw him attack me. I was stunned and I left the party immediately after, more so because I didn't want to be a party-pooper, and for the consideration of his wife who was also present at the party. I wrote about the incident and was surprised to find that there were two other complaints against him by FTII students. I wanted him to apologise publicly. But none has come."

Jain recalls another incident when she was a student at the film institute. "I was a target of a violent attack by a drunken male classmate. This was in front of several friends, including my brother who managed to restrain him and save me from permanent harm. We didn't report the matter to the police because we didn't want to destroy his career. But he, too, never apologised," she adds, "it's been 20 years since the incident." Jain says that even the "sensitive" men carry a sense of entitlement. "And we, women, carried the absurd idea of 'goodness' and easily gave under the unsaid pressure to move on. Today, there is more clarity, and we realise that every such act of pity emboldens perpetrators and endangers women. The #metoo movement emboldened me to speak up," she says.

Time's up in India?
With the formation of the WCC, and other initiatives such as Indian Women Cinematographers' Association (IWCA), there is the chance for women in the industry to find a sisterhood and a redressal system. Revathi and Padmapriya also believe that while every case doesn't have to go to the media or to the police, and can be resolved within the association, it is important to create clear routes for redressal.

"If an actor gets b***-slapped on a set, a film association cannot say, 'please adjust'," says Padmapriya. She adds that the intention of WCC is not to position itself against AMMA, but to work with them, and create change from within. "At the end of the day, we all want to work in cinema. This is what we love to do," she adds. Merchant says that the Dileep assault case should not be seen as part of the 'casting couch' phenomenon. "It is a criminal case of kidnapping and sexual assault, for which Dileep was arrested and is currently on trial. He is a huge star, and that seems more important to AMMA than the need to support the survivor who is also a member of their association."

Padmapriya echoes these thoughts when she says that the AMMA has only been concerned about what Dileep's status is. Have they done enough to make the assault survivor feel comfortable again, either while attending meetings or working in the industry? They haven't asked enough questions — mainly because they don't know they have to, says Revathi. "She is now married, and is taking a break from work. She is also caught up at times with the case, and you can only imagine how emotionally exhausting it is to recount the incident," says Revathi.

So, is the day of reckoning for the Indian film industry near? The actors and filmmakers we spoke to say that it is important to recognise our own feminist history and the fact that WCC was speaking against AMMA even before #metoo. Sharma says that what the leading female actors in Kerala have done is the most significant step so far. "They have stuck their necks out, not fearing a backlash. They have risked their careers," she says.

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