Sorry, No More Hero Worship

Members of the Women in Cinema Collective after their meeting with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in May 2017
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A protest against sexism in the Malayalam film industry

WHAT IS MORE sensational in Kerala than a popular actor being abducted and molested in her car and the crime being filmed? Especially when it is speculated by the local media that a superstar is allegedly involved—or at least he is being investigated by the police for it. This murky episode exposes the rampant sexism in the Malayalam film industry, which has bent over backwards to support the male actor while ignoring the victim.

Actor Dileep—who ranks just below the reigning deities of Malayalam cinema, Mohanlal and Mammootty—was interrogated for 13 hours last week by the police. The victim was abducted on her way back home in February this year by a man called Pulsar Suni. Dileep claims to have no connection with Suni. While the police haven’t disclosed anything formally, sources indicate that they are looking into the relationship of Dileep and his friend, actor-director Nadir Shah, with Suni.

The Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), the all-powerful and the only organisation of Malayalam actors, chose not to wait for the verdict and declared complete support for Dileep. After a general body meeting on June 28th, a day after Dileep’s interrogation, its office-bearers stated that both the victim and the suspect are AMMA’s children. Dominated by male stars, the organisation also rallied against journalists who questioned Dileep. This reaction, which treated the male suspect and the female victim equally, is the latest example of sexism in the industry. After the attack, the AMMA had organised a meeting to condemn it. That’s when its president, veteran actor and Member of Parliament, Innocent, blamed the victim for travelling alone.

The only ones in the Malayalam film industry who reacted promptly in favour of the victim were the women. Manju Warrier, Dileep’s ex-wife, expressed her outrage and said that there is a criminal conspiracy behind the attack. In May, around 25 women—comprising actors, directors, scriptwriters, singers and editors—joined hands and gave birth to Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a first of its kind in India. “This is not an immediate response to this tragic thing that happened to our colleague. We had been thinking of forming a collective for a few years now. Molestation or demanding sexual favours is not the only issue we focus on. There is a wide range of problems that women face in this industry: we have to fight for equal wages and even for urinal facilities in shooting locations,” says Sajitha Madathil, a senior actor and member of Kerala Chalachithra Academy.

Rima Kallingal, an award-winning Malayalam actor, had a lead role in forming the organisation. “In our industry, women do not matter at all. The remuneration for female artists is abysmally low compared to that of men,” she says, adding that the industry is governed by the archaic values of patriarchy. A case in point is the banning of actor Nithya Menon for refusing to listen to a producer visiting her to talk about a proposed project. “What was her mistake? She was at a shooting location and was working. When that producer wanted to meet her to discuss a project, she asked him to meet her manager instead. These people just cannot take it. An actress having a manager and refusing to entertain the producer at his convenience is an unpardonable crime for them,” she says. Kallingal was herself banned from Malayalam cinema. “They restrict us from doing television programmes, saying that such appearances would adversely affect the viewership of films. If they think that we, women, have a viewership value, they should give us better remuneration. But they are not ready to do that; instead, they restrict us from doing another job and make money,” says Kallingal. On the other hand, male actors do TV programmes without any hassles.

Soon after its formation, the WCC met Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and submitted its demands regarding gender discrimination in cinema, asking for laws against sexual harassment at the workplace to be implemented in the field of cinema too. “Complaint committees stipulated both in Vishakha Guidelines and The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 have to be formed. For that matter, the very concept of ‘workplace’ has be redefined,” says Madathil. The Chief Minister promised to form a committee to study gender issues in Malayalam film industry.

“I hope this group brings some radical change in Malayalam cinema. There is absolutely no democracy in any of these organisations run by major players in the industry,” says Amal Neerad, cinematographer and director. However, most women in the industry are reluctant to join the WCC in fear of putting their jobs at peril. “We all face that risk, but cinema is basically a form of art. It will go ahead irrespective of all bans,” says Kallingal. The collective is now working on its bylaws in order to be formally registered.