FOR long now, the grapevine has carried news about harassment of actresses on and off sets. Of over-friendly co-stars, people who barge in uninvited into actresses’ rooms with a spare key and those who molest them in a crowd. All this would be dutifully printed in the gossip columns, and swept under the carpet. In October 2018, things changed. Inspired partly by Tanushree Dutta’s charge against Nana Patekar and the second round of the #MeToo movement which shook up the media, noises emerged from the South too.

In Tamil Nadu, singer-voiceover artiste Chinmayi spoke about harassment by poet Vairamuthu which happened more than a decade ago, and documentary filmmaker Leena Manimekalai said director Susi Ganesan had misbehaved with her, something actress Amala Paul said she too had been subjected to in her film with him, Thiruttu Payale 2. Actress Sruthi Hariharan, who works in Tamil and Kannada, accused actor Arjun Sarja of inappropriate behaviour during the shoot of Arun Vaidyanathan’s trilingual Nibunan. After the initial buzz, trolling and slut-shaming, there was silence from the industry.

Compare this with the Hindi industry where actors and directors such as Nana Patekar, Alok Nath and Sajid Khan were removed from films and a big name like Vikas Bahl was out of the credits of the big-ticket Super 30, and it begs the question: why this silence South of the Vindhyas? Is it because patriarchy raised its ugly head or because such incidents are easily “forgiven and forgotten”? There has been an effort to portray perpetrators and predators as regular, everyday men who deserve a chance; the accused have gone right back to work (Arjun has signed PS Mithran’s next with Sivakarthikeyan), while the survivors have been left to cope with the public rage against them and inaction towards their accusations.

Being a wronged woman in cinema
It was as if the rage was due to the fact that the complainants were women. The easiest thing to do was shut them down with vitriol; luckily, most did not cow down. It helped that all those who complained were women who have made a name for themselves as professionals. However, five months after the spark was lit, there is a perceptible change in attitude, at least online. When Vairamuthu posts something, at least a couple of voices demand an explanation for his behaviour. And, Chinmayi has received some support. It’s a different matter that the biggest stars of the industry continue to treat him like royalty at public events.

Every time this happens, the survivors brace themselves against anger. The women who spoke up have been gridlocked in many ways. Besides loss of earnings, there has also been a concerted campaign to malign those who complained. Chinmayi is among those paying the price for not staying silent, “because, I ended up being the only one in the industry naming my own predator and others’ as well”. Of being banned from the dubbing union, she says, “I am being made an example of.” Her translation company has kept her financially secure.

On reality TV shows, singer Karthik, who has been outed by numerous people, continues to be a judge, and another perpetrator, Kailash Kher, still sings to packed houses. But trolls prevented Mansore’s sensitively-made Kannada film Nathicharami, about the sexual desires of a widow (played by Sruthi Hariharan), from having a decent run at the box office. They also took over the comments section of online booking apps and trashed the film without seeing it, because Sruthi “dared to release a movie even after the controversy”. Only Shraddha Srinath and Prakash Raj were the big names who backed Sruthi. Shraddha tweeted: “I’m mildly curious. Where are the men… Say something. I just want to know what our superheroes think. That’s all.”

The deafening silence
The only mainstream actors in Tamil who openly backed the movement were Siddarth, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar and Samantha Akkineni, who urged the affected women to stand up and be counted. Even an outspoken actress such as Kushboo said she supported Chinmayi, but added a clause — why the delay in complaining?

Her reaction is not surprising, for the industry has been forced to confront a truth that has always been hidden from prying eyes. More importantly, the artistes who have been raising the allegations (theirs and others) are people hard to put down.

Women have always felt the need to put safety first at the workspace. Speaking about the physical and emotional safety of spaces where women work, powerhouse performer Aishwarya Rajesh says, “It is important to communicate what you feel, and as important that the team understands that. There needs to be complete trust when shooting intimate scenes. For instance, in Vada Chennai where I had three-four kissing scenes, the director ensured I was comfortable with them. Shooting in public spaces can be dangerous. And, you have to learn by experience as to what angles can be construed as vulgar.”

In the Malayalam and Telugu industries, artistes have banded together under the aegis of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC, set up in 2017 after an actress was abducted and brutally assaulted) and Voice of Women (backed by Samantha Akkineni, Nandini Reddy and Supriya Yarlagadda, among others). The Kerala Government allocated a sum of `3crore to help women in the Malayalam film industry and boost gender equality in the field. The Nadigar Sangam in Tamil Nadu has also been working to put in place a system so that such complaints are dealt with swiftly. An office-bearer says, “the idea is to sort out issues before the matter escalates. In this industry, slander is immediate, and we try to avoid that as much as we can”.

In Kannada cinema, those who complained have been ostracised or forced to apologise. Sanjjanaa Galrani ended up apologising to director Ravi Srivatsa and the team of Ganda Hendathi, besides the Directors’ Association, after she said she was forced to do obscene scenes in her debut film. Will Sruthi be able to be part of any mainstream commercial film? Only time will tell.

The sisterhood of vocal women
What #MeToo has also done is shown all stakeholders that they need a common platform to speak from. Says Rima Kallingal, one of WCC’s founders: “We realised we were saying the same things but doing so in isolated spaces. This coming together, this sisterhood, has invigorated us, shown us a new path”.

This sisterhood has also given complainants confidence to name their perpetrators. Amala says that she spoke up because she realised that “if I’d kept quiet, i would have felt guilty that I did not stand up for the truth, when it was time to”.

What might also give the survivors some hope is if the reigning stars speak up in an informed fashion, disassociate themselves from those who cast aspersions on the movement, and rein in their fans who also troll. The hope is that this coming together of voices across industries will help create a work environment safe from predators, and forge a space where talent thrives – that a movement which helped women break their silence will also end up restoring a more empathetic order in filmdom.

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