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Girl Power Steals the Scene

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The struggle for dignity and civility

THE ASSOCIATION OF Malayalam Movie Artists, popularly known as AMMA, enjoys unparalleled authority in Kerala’s film industry because its leading stars, overwhelmingly male, are at the helm of the body. This reflects the state of Malayalam movies too, where sexism has long been casual and rampant. But over the course of the last two weeks, there has been a subtle shift in the power equation. After AMMA invited back to its fold Dileep, a superstar accused in a conspiracy to sexually assault an actress in February 2017, a group of actors who had banded together as Women in Cinema Collective got the move stalled despite their scant numbers.

Dileep had been expelled from its primary membership after being arrested in the case last July. A year later, AMMA, under its new president Mohanlal, decided that he should be reinstated as a member even though the trial is still underway and there is little new evidence of his innocence. Almost immediately, the rape survivor announced that she disagreed and was quitting AMMA, adding that even before the assault, Dileep had tried to ruin her career and her complaints to the organisation had gone unheeded. Three other actors, Rima Kallingal, Geethu Mohandas and Remya Nambeesan, who are core team members of WCC, also resigned from AMMA. They did it on Facebook, and Kallingal, a founding member of WCC, explained why they gave up on the courtesy of informing AMMA in private, ‘Despite being members of AMMA, we came to know the decision to reinstate Dileep through the media. Then they also deserve nothing better.’

Their resignations won support and stoked public outrage. A statement signed by 90 eminent personalities, including scholars, activists and mediapersons across India, expressed solidarity with the rape survivor and her colleagues who quit. Kerala’s ruling party CPM’s seniormost leader and former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, Politburo members Brinda Karat and MA Baby and ministers in the state cabinet too criticised AMMA’s decision. Three other core WCC team members, Revathy Asha Kelunni, Parvathy Thiruvoth and Padmapriya, who had remained in AMMA, gave notice to the association demanding an urgent meeting to revoke the decision reinstating Dileep and to redo the bylaw of the organisation to ensure gender justice. Males in the Malayalam film industry were conspicuously silent barring a few exceptions like directors Aashiq Abu and Dr Biju. Fraternity from other languages were more vocal. A statement signed by 50 actors, filmmakers and writers from the Kannada film industry condemned AMMA for reinstating Dileep.

REMYA NAMBEESAN WAS among the most vocal against AMMA’s soft-pedalling of the rape incident, and her own career is an illustration of how women are treated in the industry. Remya, who began with a handful of leading roles in commercially successful films, was silently forced out of the industry. “I have not done a film since four years in Malayalam. I have been doing films in other south Indian languages. I used to ask for a script, which was treated as a gesture of arrogance. Women demanding the script in advance is something very unusual for them. Women are not supposed to go for any kind of negotiation, either on the story or the remuneration. We should get what we deserve. Is it a crime to bargain for decent pay?” asks Remya.

“We expect Malayalam cinema to offer us better space, considering that Kerala is far ahead of other states on social development indicators” - Padmapriya, actor and member of Women in Cinema Collective

Vinayan, a controversial director of C-grade thrillers who was once the general secretary of Malayalam Cine Technicians Association (MACTA) in 2006-07, shares a few observations on the sexism prevalent in the industry. “It is completely the prerogative of a (male) superstar to choose the female actor. This might have changed with the entry of young filmmakers supporting the women in their battle,” he says. “Once a director approached me with a complaint that Dileep is insisting to change an actress only because she was selected without consulting him. It was not even an important role. I raised this issue in the association and asked them what if these actors start insisting to meet the women sitting in our homes as a condition for giving their dates. The superstars got furious at this.”

According to Vinayan, there are only one or two female actors who get more than Rs 15 lakh in Malayalam movies. Even well-known female names get less than Rs 10 lakh. Those who do supporting roles get anywhere from Rs 25,000 to Rs 3 lakh. A senior female actor who supports the WCC in their present fight compares these meagre amounts to the crores that superstars get. “Even an actor who is in the second or third rung gets Rs 35 to 75 lakh only because he is a male,” he says.

According to women, there are certain unwritten codes for them in Malayalam cinema:

• They must not suggest any correction in the film’s script.

• They are not to demand the script in advance.

• If they complain about a sexist or misogynistic joke, they take the risk of being eschewed from future projects.

• If they are not ‘docile’ enough, they soon get stamped with the reputation of being ‘arrogant and tough’.

• They are not supposed to have managers and must dedicate time to speak to producers in person when they approach them with a new project. “It is considered a sign of arrogance to have a manager. I know women who were expelled from the industry only for this reason,” says a prominent woman actor who did leading roles till a few years ago.

“Women are not supposed to go for any kind of negotiation, either on the story or the remuneration. We should get what we deserve” - Remya Nambeesan, actor and former AMMA member currently with WCC

The WCC says that even basic amenities are absent for women in shooting locations. “Often, we use the toilets in the houses being used for shooting but the production unit rarely employs someone to keep it clean. If the shooting is in a street or a forest area, women are not even provided with a toilet facility,” says actor Padmapriya. Male superstars have caravans but no one else is permitted to use the toilets attached to it. “I always tell the women [on the film sets], irrespective of their role, to use my caravan when they need a toilet,” says actor Parvathy Thiruvoth.

The WCC wants to bring in due process in the making of a cinema. “One of our main demands is to establish sexual harassment complaint committees, as stipulated in the Vishakha Guidelines and the relevant Act. There should be a regulatory mechanism for every project to ensure transparency,” says Deedi Damodaran, a scriptwriter and a core team member of the WCC.

Padmapriya doesn’t hold the view that these problems are endemic to only the Malayalam film industry. “Every industry runs on the patriarchal social order. Problems are there everywhere, but we expect Malayalam to offer us better space, considering that Kerala is far ahead of other states with regard to labour rights and social development indicators,” she says.

The Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) is another organisation that controls the industry and usually goes along with AMMA in its actions. Director Aashiq Abu, who is also the husband of Rima Kallingal, says the alliance between AMMA and FEFKA’s leaders is the prime reason why unhealthy practices continue in the industry.

Vinayan remembers that male stars earlier would not even honor agreements and when he tried to bring in written agreements, they resisted. “There was no practice of signing an agreement a couple of decades ago. The superstars would take an advance payment of Rs 40 to 50 lakh from a producer and commit dates. Then another producer would come with a better offer and he would take an advance from him too. They would violate the oral agreement made with the first producer delaying his project. They cited lame excuses like the director is not good, etcetera.” This practice game came to an end when signed contracts were introduced but it was not without consequences for him.

“Despite being members of AMMA, we came to know the decision to reinstate Dileep through the media. Then they also deserve nothing better” - Rima Kallingal, actor and former AMMA member currently with WCC

FEFKA was born as a result of a split in MACTA about a decade- and-a-half ago, and Dileep had a role in it. He took Rs 40 lakh from a director as an advance payment and committed his dates. Later, he violated this contract and refused to pay the money back. Vinayan, who was the general secretary of MACTA then, tried to settle the issue and because he sided with the director, Dileep engineered a split in MACTA, and thus FEFKA was born.

FEFKA is a federation of several unions—of directors, editors, production executives, drivers and so on. Its membership fee varies arbitrarily; a director, for example, has to pay Rs 10,000 whereas a driver has to pay Rs 150,000. A production executive has to pay Rs 2 lakh for entry to FEFKA. Production boys are the lowest in the ladder of cinema jobs and they have to pay Rs 2 lakh for membership. “They squeeze people to make money. A production boy, who is washing dishes and serving food for them, has to pay such a huge amount. There is a limit to everything. It is high time for change,” says Girish Babu, a production executive and member in FEFKA.

Rajeev Ravi, director and cinematographer, quit FEFKA long ago. “It is nothing but a club protecting the interests of superstars,” he says. A filmmaker cannot engage an editor, cinematographer or even a production boy of his choice unless these technicians have FEFKA membership. “They don’t show authoritarianism to me, maybe because of my work in Bollywood, but that’s not the case with a filmmaker who is not powerful enough to negotiate,” says Rajeev Ravi.

Dr Biju, a national award-winning director, who also doesn’t listen to FEFKA or AMMA diktats, is able to get away with it because of the stature that comes with having an audience at international film festivals. He believes these associations impede filmmaking instead of helping. “The first thing to do for a producer is to submit a budget to the Producers’ Association that is affiliated to FEFKA. The decision makers in these bodies are the cronies of superstars and they try to change his mind if he wants to do an art house movie. They also show disregard if this producer wants to make cinema with actors or directors who are not in their good books,” says Dr Biju.

“If the film shooting is in a street or a forest area, women are not even provided with a toilet facility” - Parvathy Thiruvoth, actor and member of WCC

To be a member of AMMA, an actor has to pay Rs 1 lakh as membership fee. WCC members say women in Malayalam cinema are not paid enough to afford such a large sum. “This is an indication that they welcome only male actors who are better paid,” says Sajitha Madathil, another core team member of WCC and a professor at KR Narayanan Film Institute in Kottayam.

FILMMAKER KAMAL, WHO is the chairman of the Chalachithra Academy of the government of Kerala, also disagrees with AMMA’s welcome of Dileep. “My heart is with these women who are challenging the patriarchal order in the industry. I have a lot of differences with the way these organizations (AMMA and FEFKA) function,” he says.

“I am in complete solidarity with the artists who have left AMMA or joined the protests, including the artists from Karnataka,” says poet K Satchidanandan. He does not count it as an issue of a single woman actor being attacked and molested. “If so, the courts can well handle it,” he says, “The issues involved are deeper: the cult of megastar -worship popular even in ‘literate’ Kerala and the impunity it gives to those stars and their henchmen; the patriarchy deeply entrenched in Kerala’s mainstream film culture, both in the industry and the films it produces. This is only one form of discrimination it practises: Dalits, Adivasis, servants and minorities are also often stereotyped. Women actors are paid less; abusing—even beating— women, wives, beloveds, sisters and others is not uncommon, and the audience that applauds those moments of male triumph over a questioning, defiant or rebellious woman proves how patriarchal domination and violence are deemed ‘normal’ by the society’s ‘common sense’. This goes well with the ‘macho’ culture propagated by the present ruling elite. The battle has only just begun; there is a lot more to fight for and fight against. The entire cinema culture and attitude need to be transformed. I have faith in the younger film artists and filmmakers who are less prone to hero-worship and commercial considerations. I welcome the move for alternative platforms of film artists, directors, cinematographers, music composers, singers, technicians and film critics and viewers free from the cult of patriarchal and other forms of violence and the world view that underlies this murderous cult.”

While a number of leaders of the ruling CPM have supported the protesting actors, its State Secretariat also made a statement that the party does not approve attempts to destabilise AMMA even while supporting the rape survivor. This, some believe, is the result of the influence of superstars on decision-makers in the government. Meanwhile, AMMA’s officials and its male superstars are unavailable for comments.

Dr Biju finds the absence of government regulations the prime cause for the industry’s ills. “In the present scenario, the government’s role comes only in the stage of censoring. There should be an independent mechanism to regulate the production process of a cinema right from the beginning. Bringing transparency is the only solution to curtail the arbitrary and inhumane practices in the industry,” he says.

The present rebellion of women actors might possibly be a harbinger of change. Aashiq Abu says that the age of the industry being run on the whims of a few superstars is over: “Malayalam cinema is entering a new era.”

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