Last week, I caught a special preview of Vaishnavi Sundar’s documentary, But What Was She Wearing. The film explores various struggles related to sexual harassment at the work place, the legal as well as procedural knots that dog anyone that chooses to go to the police or complain to the ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) of one’s organisation, just what makes up work place sexual harassment, and how by its very design the law meant to deal with this is exclusionary and does not offer protection to all women. Where, for instance, will a woman who works in a construction site go to complain? Or a policewoman? It does not take into account the power dynamics of rural India even though the law itself was born thanks to a woman from rural Rajasthan, Bhanwari Devi. A social worker belonging to the Kumhar caste, she was gang-raped by upper caste men for stopping a child marriage. It was Bhanwari Devi’s struggles that led to the forming of Vishaka Guidelines that in turn became the bedrock upon which sits the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act in 2013.
What happens when colleagues or contemporaries bring harm your way outside the work place, as happened with the Malayalam actress that has stirred the hornet’s nest in the industry and led to deep rifts between the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists and the Women in Cinema Collective, even as the women of the WCC stand admirably and steadfastly with the victim? Vaishnavi’s film addresses the lacuna in the current law and the operational, very practical hurdles that have led to poor implementation.
In a post about the experience of making this film Vaishnavi says, “On multiple occasions I felt like the film would make no difference, given the state of the world we live in, and how irredeemable the plight of its women is. Perhaps it was that helplessness that triggered the rage to push myself to see the importance in a film like this. Or maybe it is that rage that made me take this on in the first place. Either way, the film sat squarely on my deteriorating mental health and fiery anger.”
What has transpired over the last week, with the explosion of #Metoo on Indian social media, has no doubt had a severe impact on the mental health of several women, many of whom have been battling and openly talking about triggers and depression. A week of this has left many feeling suffocated and one cannot begin to imagine what, as a woman working on this film for two and a half years on a tight budget, listening over and over again to the trauma of others, must have felt like for Vaishnavi. What is admirable though is that Vaishnavi takes all of that rage and channels it into her film in a deeply poignant manner. It doesn’t succumb to sensationalism or hyperbole. It features a series of interviews mostly with women and some men, who all matter-of-factly, calmly speak of harassment, ways to deal with the issue and the problematic nature of the entire thing given how skewered power structures tend to be at work.
From women who are fighting powerful men for harassing them despite the odds stacked against them, to women who work as consultants and train committee members, actors, stand-up comics, lawyers, CEOs and researchers, a wide range of people weigh in on the very real struggles of victims and the impunity that those with power seem to enjoy despite bringing harm, emotional and physical, their employee or colleague’s way.
But What Was She Wearing is an important film that arrives at an important time in our history. Like a powerful thunderclap that punctuates and draws attention to a brewing storm, meaningfully, without bluster, Vaishnavi’s film makes a powerful point about the everyday heroes who are fighting the good fight. About how justice is a long drawn process and how sometimes it can wear you out. But this film is also an exercise in reassuring all those facing the daunting task of speaking truth to power. Know that you are not alone.
Catch a screening of this film in Chennai on November 3, 2018, 6 PM, at Goethe Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan, No 4, 5th Street, Rutland Gate Road, Chennai 6.
(The writer is a city-based journalist and editor)