Rot in the Malayalam film industry
Malayalam films are going places, with refreshingly new narratives and experiential filmmaking. But that belies the rot that has afflicted the industry, a glimpse of which came in view in 2017 when a popular woman actor bravely stood up against those who abducted and sexually assaulted her in Kochi.
The investigation team soon reached for actor Dileep, who was booked on charges of conspiring to carry out the sexual assault. The case, tried in-camera, has since seen several twists and turns with an unsuccessful demand by the survivor for a change of judge and the resignation of two special prosecutors ostensibly miffed with the trial proceedings. A new case has also been launched against Mr. Dileep, in the wake of a flurry of allegations levelled by one of his former acquaintances, for threatening to harm the police officials probing the sexual assault case.
Back in 2017, the outpouring of solidarity with the survivor was as pronounced as the misogynistic statements from members of the Malayalam film fraternity and the complicit silence of industry bigwigs. Standing with the survivor, a group of women working in Malayalam movies came together to form a ‘Women in Cinema Collective’ (WCC) with a vision for “equal spaces and equal opportunities for women in cinema” and sought the Chief Minister’s intervention to deal with issues of gender bias and workplace harassment in the industry. The move was widely welcomed when the government constituted a three-member committee headed by former High Court Judge K. Hema and comprising veteran actor Sharada and former civil servant K.B. Valsala Kumari to study the gamut of gender issues in the industry. The committee submitted its report in end-2019. It has been kept under wraps ever since.
Two years later, the government’s cavalier disregard for the issues raised in it has riled many women. The culture department officials are reportedly poring over the committee findings and recommendations, but what will become of it is anybody’s guess. The government has been largely circumspect in its responses.
Meanwhile, the contention that the report should remain confidential has angered many who had mustered the courage to depose before the committee to recount their horrific experiences. Actor Parvathy Thiruvothu minced no words in calling out the apathy and systemic oppression in the face of what now seems to be an endless wait for justice. Many skeletons such as the existence of sex racket-facilitators in the industry would tumble out if the report was released, she told a news channel. If an actor of her standing fears for her life, the magnitude of the threat is imaginable.
Strikingly, disparity in compensation, an unsafe working environment, sly demand for sexual favours in return for work and denial of work if that’s unmet were some of the issues the women in the industry hoped would get addressed by way of an institutional mechanism, maybe a tribunal as in other industries, in the aftermath of the Hema Committee report.
But speaking out has had its consequences, as several of them realised when made to face loss of livelihood. That’s one of the reasons many others have chosen to side with the eloquently silent and superstar-driven cine association that works more like a clique of domineering men.
Neither the course of the assault case nor the fate of the Hema Committee report instil confidence in those who seek gender justice and parity in the film industry. But the fight will go on regardless, as the survivor of the assault, who, a few days ago, broke her five years of silence to thank those who stood by her in testing times, and the members of the WCC have pointed out.