When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment

Last Updated: Tue, Jul 30, 2019 13:41 hrs
Bigg Boss Tamil

This weekend's Bigg Boss Tamil was much anticipated. There had been an uproar the previous week – director Cheran had been accused by another housemate, Meera, of "manhandling” her during a task. She said he had held her by the waist and pushed her aside. At the time, Cheran confessed to pushing her aside in the heat of the moment, but took offence when she said he had touched her "in the wrong place".

The arguments in the house took on a different tone – the woman had brought up consent. Two people, including a female housemate, asked her why she had not spoken about it in private. Another woman asked why she had a problem with his touching her when she had danced with other men. Yet others pointed out that she had been laughing and behaving "normally" after the incident.

What would Kamal Haasan say?

As it happened, he endorsed harassment – on three counts.

He said he would play the video, but first took Meera to task, speaking of how reputable a director and pleasant a person Cheran was. If she was allergic to touch, he said, she could never travel by bus.

Kamal Haasan added that bus passengers were in a hurry to get to office and didn't intend to brush against anyone, but the crowd necessitated that people were pushed up together. "Of course, there are people who mount buses just to grope women," he added.

Saravanan, another contestant, added that he had been one of those.

Kamal Haasan initially seemed to mishear him, and said Saravanan would likely have fought men like that.

Saravanan corrected him and said he had in fact been one of those men, to which Kamal Haasan reacted with a laugh and made an asinine self-reference with a line from Guna: "Adhayum dhaandi punidhamaanavar aayittaaru”(He's reformed himself to become a pure human being).

For the record, Saravanan has two wives – on the show, he said he had married the second because he had wanted a child. Kamal Haasan responded to this with a line that would not have been out of place in a 1950s film: "Whether your first wife's uterus was strong enough to bear a child or not, her heart is a mother's heart and you are her child” – consenting to her husband's second marriage had made her his "mother",, from Kamal Haasan's perspective.

Let's pause to roll our eyes before we return to the issue at hand.

So, it was with an endorsement of "eve-teasing" that Kamal Haasan began his interaction with the housemates.

Most men do not know what it is like to live in fear of being touched without consent. Most women do. Men like Kamal Haasan do not know the self-hatred and self-disgust street sexual harassment provokes in a victim. Men like Saravanan do not know that the women they grope want to burn the clothes they were wearing at the time. Some want to kill themselves. Some do.

And yet, an icon of the industry calls a bigamist who confessed to groping women, "a pure human being".

Kamal Haasan began his tirade against Meera by speaking of how she had thumped Cheran on the back right after he had pushed her. To many women, the weak, instinctive thump would seem proof of her feeling violated and trying to retaliate. To Kamal Haasan and the housemates, it was proof that Meera was a hypocrite.

When women feel violated, most are too surprised to react. It's hard to be sure you're justified in feeling that way. Are you making a mountain of a molehill, or should you vocalise your discomfort? This is what most sexual harassers thrive on – that women will be too embarrassed or confused to react.

Cheran may not have been guilty of intentional sexual harassment, but he did make a woman uncomfortable by his touch.

After some internal debate, Meera chose to speak about it.

I watched the video thrice before I noticed that his arm moved around her body. The angle was not conducive to figuring out what exactly happened, and it was a rapid movement. One can see another camera fixed on the opposite wall, facing Cheran. We expected that those visuals would be played, preferably in slow-motion.

Kamal Haasan pointed out that Cheran had apologised, and the issue was over, wasn't it? When Meera asked him to play the video, he responded by asking her to mime what had happened. It felt like a scene from a bad film. Meera complied, though she seemed unhappy about it, using one of her few friends in the house for the demonstration.

He then played the video, after much hype, including a countdown. It was played once, not even in slow-motion, and from the same angle we had already seen. When it was over, the audience and the housemates cheered, particularly the women – not one of whom had been on Meera's side.

Kamal Haasan then asked the women what they had seen.

And therein began the second endorsement of harassment – each woman responded with sarcasm to Meera's allegation, and said it was clear she had no right to complain. Kamal Haasan thanked each, and then asked Meera for her response. She said she had felt what she felt, though the video did not seem to reflect it. "I have faith in god, and the truth will come out," she said. Kamal Haasan smirked and said the truth had come out.

A video cannot convey how a shove felt; a video cannot convey whether someone's personal space was breached. A laugh can be a confused response to an unexpected violation.

But Meera was bullied almost into apologising.

Kamal Haasan went on to make what was arguably his gravest mistake of the evening – based on what he had seen, he called it a "false accusation". He went on to defend Cheran's "character".

"You should not have cried when she accused you," he told Cheran, "Why did you cry?”

Cheran said tearfully that he had two daughters, and his female housemates rubbed his shoulders encouragingly.

I've never understood why men offer female relatives as proof that they cannot violate women. All rapists, after all, have mothers.

Kamal Haasan then announced, as if it was a reward, that Cheran – who had been nominated that week – was "safe". He told Meera as a parting shot, "You have to manipulate yourself into the right position.”

After the show, the clipping of Saravanan's exchange with Kamal Haasan about street sexual harassment was shared by singer Chinmayi Sripaada, who has been vocal about the issue since the #MeToo movement. Chinmayi's mother, though, went on a Facebook rant against Meera, saying her "false accusation" had undermined the credibility of "genuine" complaints – such as Chinmayi's against Vairamuthu.

Rumour had it that Meera would not be evicted, but sent to a "Secret Room" for a week.

I hoped that after the blowback, Kamal Haasan would backpedal and say he had intentionally provoked the male chauvinists in the house to make their prejudices apparent, and then take the likes of Saravanan to task, play the visuals from the other camera, and lecture everyone with one of his oft-repeated lines – "What you see with your eyes could be false; what you hear with your ears could be false. It is thorough interrogation which reveals the truth.”

But that was not to be, and Meera was indeed sent off. Kamal Haasan told her she had been fairly popular until her "false portrayal" of the incident.

Clearly, he believes some eyes and ears are superior to others.

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com