ON FEBRUARY 17TH, an actor in Kerala was abducted, molested and brutally harassed for three hours in a moving car. The sexual harassment and rape of women, irrespective of age, has become so rampant that it barely shocks anymore. But this time the victim is a celebrity, a popular young actor in South Indian cinema who has won several awards and acted in more than 75 films. The assault on her shows that social status provides no protection from sexual violence. Even a famous person who lives a car-to-carpet life, it would seem, is at risk.
She was assaulted in a chauffeur- driven car, travelling from Thrissur to Kochi by National Highway 544 on February 17th, an ordeal that began at about 7 pm—defying the typical narrative that such assaults take place only in remote places at late hours.
The accused followed her in a Tempo Traveller, and deliberately crashed into her vehicle. After it came to a halt, four men forced the driver out, bundling him into the other vehicle, and one of them took the car’s steering even as the others got in. She was assaulted in this moving car for around three hours. They allegedly took pictures and videos of her, and then threatened to leak them online before they got off in Kochi at around 11 pm and escaped in another vehicle.
Injured and in a state of shock, she reached the residence of a director 5 km from the place they left her. The director, in turn, informed the police.
Inspite of the sensational media coverage, questions on what really happened and who masterminded it, remain unanswered. Several actors wrote Facebook posts in support of their colleague and friend. Wrote the actor Prithviraj Sukumaran: ‘The least we can collectively do at this moment is to respect the guts of this girl. I was supposed to start work with her in a week, and she told me that she’d like not to come back in front of the camera so soon..And so is pulling out of the film. I know this girl... I know how brave she is... if it’s affected her enough to make her stay away from what she loves the most. I can only imagine how harrowing it must have been.’ Rima Kallingal, an actor, condemned news stories that alluded to the ‘questionable character’ of the victim. She slammed the media for its voyeuristic approach.
Three people have been arrested so far, including the actor’s driver. The prime suspect Sunil Kumar, aka Pulsar Suni, a history-sheeter from Perumbavur in Ernakulam, is at large. Sources in the film industry say that this is not the first time an actor has been subject to an attack like this, but usually the victim is forced to stay quiet. This is a rare case, with the actor having filed a police report. “Those criminals might not have expected that she would go to the police,” says Aashiq Abu, a filmmaker and the husband of Rima Kallingal. He adds, “Rima met her on the very next day. She was shattered but soon regained her courage. She is not scared of sex shaming .The perpetrators of this crime might not have anticipated it.”
There is a criminal conspiracy. It has to be brought out and whoever masterminded the crime should be duly punished
Even as a few people rally around the actor, unconfirmed stories continue to do the rounds. It is said that it was actually a seven-member gang on hire; that they committed this horrendous crime for someone else; and that they did this on behalf of a leading actor who has been in the news for his personal life. As far as the official investigation is concerned, it is too early to confirm any of these stories or rule out any angle. “Every single aspect is under investigation. The criminal conspiracy will be unearthed, for sure, if there is one,” says a senior officer in charge of the investigation.
“The media is carrying baseless stories,” says Rajesh B Menon, the actor’s brother. In a conversation on the phone, Menon adds, “A driver and a group of his friends will not dare do such an act all by themselves. They must have had strong support from someone, otherwise they would not challenge her to go to the police if she dares.” He will not comment on rumours about the involvement of the other actor: “At this point of time, we cannot say anything, I hope the police are doing a good job and the real culprits will be caught.” But he scotches the rumour that his sister is withdrawing from her current film projects. “It will never happen,” he says, “she will not drop a single project. The family is with her. We will fight back.” He adds that her fiancé, a Bengaluru-based producer, is supportive of her.
“There is a criminal conspiracy. It has to be brought out and whoever masterminded the crime should be duly punished,” says Manju Warrier, a leading Malayalam actor. So far, she is the only industry person to have referred to a possible criminal conspiracy behind the incident. While addressing a gathering of film professionals in Kochi organised by the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists to extend solidarity to their colleague, she alluded to someone ‘bigger’ who may have had a role. Another actor, Vinay Fort, who is also a close friend of the victim, also smells a bigger game afoot. “There must be some conspiracy behind it. The whole incident seems well planned,” says Fort.
While film professionals blame the media for sensationalising the issue, the media in turn blames filmmakers for promoting and nurturing values of patriarchy and misogyny in their cinema. Despite the gender equality that Kerala has achieved in many facets of life, the portrayal of women in cinema continues to be regressive. Social media is awash with contemptuous remarks at film industry folk who support the actor. They say she is only a victim of the ‘rape culture’ promoted by the industry itself. There are also calls to look into the murky affairs of this industry, which is alleged to make wide use of criminals.
This incident has opened a can of worms, especially since many cases of the past are said to have been hushed up. G Sureshkumar, secretary of the Kerala Film Producer’s Association, has alleged that Sunil Kumar aka Pulsar Suni had tried to abduct his wife Menaka, a former actor, a few years ago. He claims that the police failed to act on the complaint lodged by him. A senior IPS officer in Kerala admits that this is not the first abduction and assault of a film personality. “This has happened many times before. We had requested them to file complaints, but they all roll back and prefer to hush up the issue.” Apart from nabbing the culprits and delivering justice to the actress, say critics, it is important to investigate the shady goings-on in the Malayalam film industry. Many believe it nurtures goons, uses black money and deals in drugs.
It is not easy to explain why violence against women is high in Kerala, given its impressive score on most Human Development indices. Professor J Devika, a feminist scholar at the Centre for Development Studies, observes that Kerala is at a critical juncture in terms of gender politics. “It looks like we Malayalee women are facing either grave danger or a full-scale revolution in gender norms,” she says, referring to a set of recent protests by women in the state against sexual discrimination. The latest instance is an agitation organised by female students of Kerala Law Academy Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. “This is what emerges from women protesting at universities and colleges— now an actress refuses to be cowed down,” says Professor Devika, “In each, women are resisting and fighting back against huge odds.”