The #Metoo movement is an international campaign against sexual harassment and assault that became popular in October last year after revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The phrase ‘metoo’ has since then been used extensively on social media to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace.
In India too, parallel to the rest of the world, we saw the #metoo movement take off. First came the list of alleged sexual predators in Indian academia that was complied by Raya Sarkar and Inji Pennu and widely circulated on the Internet. The second widely spoken about instance was the outpouring of allegations against Khodu Irani, owner of Pune joint, High Spirits. The list has invoked a storm that is yet to be studied and settled, but it is clear that the #metoo movement has empowered women to speak up about sexual harassment, doing its bit to increase solidarity and decrease the stigma.
The recently concluded Cannes Film Festival saw a powerful #metoo moment at the silent protest by women from the world’s film industries including Kristen Stewart, Marion Cotillard, Ava DuVernay, Salma Hayek, and Patty Jenkins. Eighty two of them stopped halfway up the red-carpeted stairs of the famed festival’s venue and stood linking arms — representing the number of female directors who have competed for the top Palme d’Or prize since 1946 in contrast to 1,700 male contenders. The collective statement read out in English and French by Australian actor Cate Blanchett and French film director Agnes Varda ended with the lines ‘The stairs of our industry must be accessible to all. Let’s climb.’
This naturally got me wondering about the state of our own film industries. Countless female actors including Radhika Apte, Priyanka Chopra, Kalki Koechlin, and Kangana Ranaut have spoken about the casting couch and experiences of being harassed by powerful men in the industry. Closer home in the south Indian film industries, actors like Aishwarya Rajesh, Lekha Washington, Shruthi Hariharan, Lakshmi Ramakrishnan, and Sai Pallavi have shared their accounts of rampant of sexual harassment in film. Actor Rima Kallingal has been actively taking on sexism in cinema and actor Parvathy has earned the titled ‘Feminichi’ for her continuing fight for women’s space in the movie-making world.
Tollywood actor Sri Reddy recently staged a topless protest outside the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce after her allegations were ignored. The Women in Cinema Collective was formed after the rape of a popular actor shook the Malayalam Film industry. The Film Employees Federation of Kerala established a women’s wing later. Actor Varalakshmi Sarathkumar’s ‘Save Shakti’ is an initiative to make the film industry a safer space for women. The South Indian Film Women’s Association was formed recently to accommodate the concerns of all women working before and behind the camera.
While all of this is to be lauded, that the industry remains male-dominated, that several of these men are in fact the perpetuators of sexual crimes, and the unions do not acknowledge rampant sexual harassment as a problem still remain red flags. It’s no surprise that men who are accused use their popularity and pull get the backing of organisations like the Nadigar Sangam and AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists). Victims on the other hand get little support, and continue screaming to an audience that is playing deaf; we are yet to have mechanisms in place to address sexual harassment in the film industry. Film viewers much like the industry remain passive to these allegations, evangelic of the misogyny they imbibe from their stars on screen, using their mass on social media to shut down women’s voices and waiting to take actors accused of assault straight into their arms. Film and society remain an unsolved chicken and egg mystery.
More women in the industry may help the causes of both sexual harassment and recognition (only one woman, Aparna Sen, has won the National Film award in all these years). When society has accepted the industry for what it is to a point of normalising sexual harassment in cinema, termed the women in it ‘different’ and discouraging ‘its’ women from entering filmdom to protect them, there are a lesser number of women. The industry will stay a male haven, running high on entitlement. Women get no support on speaking out and we have more evidence to diss the industry instead of calling out the men. What is it going to take, or how many women will it take to break the viscous cycle of industry stigma-less numbers- more harassment — less voices and back to the start to change the game, or win it?
The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton