Kerala's Women in Cinema Collective: Why their fight is important to us all

Last Updated: Tue, Aug 07, 2018 14:28 hrs

The Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) is meeting actors Revathi, Parvathi and Padmapriya to discuss the grievances of the female actors against the organisation's decision to re- admit actor Dileep, who is accused of kidnapping an actress.

Ahead of the meeting, here's a primer on what led to this, the formation of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) and why the ramifications of this case go beyond Kerala.

The trigger
On the night of February 17, 2017, a young actress who was travelling after a shoot was sexually assaulted in a moving car by a group of six men. The men filmed her and threatened to leak the videos if she complained to the cops.

The threats didn't deter the actress, who went ahead and filed a police complaint.

This one act of courage is what inspired members of the WCC to come together as a collective that would support the Survivor in her fight to get justice and to speak up for equal opportunity, inclusivity and security for women in a male-dominated industry. They have been opening conversations on gender-based pay gap in the industry, sexual harassment, sexism on screen and the safety of women who work on the sets of a film.

During this period, in a twisted gesture, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes extended their support to both the victim and Dileep, because they were both “children of AMMA.” Senior actors lashed out at reporters for asking "uncomfortable" questions about Dileep.

Dileep was remanded to judicial custody, and then jailed. He was booked under several sections of the IPC, including 376D (gang rape), 366 (kidnapping) and 120B (criminal conspiracy). He spent 85 days in jail and is currently out on bail.

While he was under arrest, all the industry bodies that had him as member suspended his membership and the Actor's association AMMA expelled him.

In June 2018, the same Actors' Association reinstated his membership with great pomp.

The WCC, and many in Kerala, hit back. The Survivor resigned from AMMA in protest. The Survivor's statement read: “I am resigning not just because the accused actor has been taken back into AMMA. Even before, this actor has scuttled many of my acting opportunities. When I complained against this, AMMA had taken no action. Now, when such an unfortunate incident happened in my life, the organisation again tried to protect the accused. I resign from the organisation having understood that there is no purpose in being part of it.”

In solidarity with the Survivor, three more members resigned from AMMA, all of them were WCC members.

Some of the questions they publicly asked were: “Isn't there an anomaly in taking back a rape accused to the association even before the investigation is over?” “Isn’t the decision to reinstate Dileep into the association of which the Survivor is still a part of, insulting her?” “Can women expect support from male-dominated associations?”

Three other women members of AMMA, again WCC members, have asked for a dialogue with the Association to discuss the moral stand taken and to focus on the importance that should be given to the Survivor, her fight and the safety and security of women within the industry.

The WCC fight is for basic rights
A 2014 report by The Guardian said women made up less than 22 percent of the crews of the 2,000 highest-grossing films of the previous 20 years. Sexual harassment and locker room talk was considered part of set culture. The attitude so far has been: "Deal with it or get out".

But as women take over larger roles in the making of a film, it's only collectives or guilds like WCC that can drive film industries across India to follow the basic laws and rules that make it possible for women to work: A workplace culture that doesn't encourage harassment, a safe commute after work, more representation, processes to report sexual harassment and a space where women's voices are heard and grievances are taken seriously.

The issues raised by WCC in the last one year has made people look afresh at casual (and lethal) sexism in Malayalam cinema.

Actor Prithviraj apologised for mouthing misogynist lines and promised that he would never let disrespect for women be celebrated in his films.

Director Renji Panicker, whose movies celebrated the macho, patriarchal hero, expressed regret for writing sexist dialogues. About a misogynist dialogue from his film, The King, Panicker said: "When I wrote it, I never thought of belittling women or even degrading the gender, it was just contextual for the film. Those who clapped for those lines have later found it disturbing.... Definitely I regret it."

Late last year, Parvathy, one of the most popular actresses in Kerala, was viciously abused on social media for her comments on misogyny in a superstar's film. In an open letter, acclaimed Malayalam screenwriters Bobby and Sanjay came out in support of actor saying, "Here we were, peacefully going about our business and now you have forced us to rethink what we write; reminded us to reconsider from a woman’s perspective and pushed us into self-analysis and critical soul-searching."

Kerala has been the birth place for many revolutions, in cinema and out of it. This revolution, based on the spirit of one woman who found the courage to speak up, has the potential to help women looking to work, and make a difference, in film industries across the country.