Bhavana coming back to Malayalam cinema is not only cause for celebration for her fans who have missed seeing her on screen, it is also an assertion of her right to occupy the space that survivors are usually denied.

Actor Bhavana in black and white photo looking up and smilingInstagram/Bhavana Menon
Voices Opinion Wednesday, March 16, 2022 - 16:06

Actor Bhavana has announced her new Malayalam film, the first since her 2017 release, Adam Joan. Her return to the Malayalam film industry marks another milestone in her gritty battle against sexual violence and the patriarchal narratives that condone it. As an actor who was sexually assaulted while returning from a shoot, Bhavana is a survivor of workplace sexual harassment. Yet, the industry she comes from has often wavered in lending its whole-hearted support to her, going to the extent of denying that workplace sexual harassment is even an issue of concern. 

Bhavana’s new film, Ntikkakkakkoru Premondaarnn, will be directed by debutant filmmaker Adhil Maimoonath Asharaf, and she will be co-starring with Sharafudheen. Though she has worked in several Kannada films since 2017, she chose to stay away from the Malayalam film industry until now. In an interview with TNM, the actor said that she took the call because she felt more at peace in Bengaluru, staying away from her home state, where the sexual assault case has been in the news. It should not be forgotten that actor Dileep, accused of being the mastermind behind the assault, is still an active member of the industry, signing new films and enjoying the friendship of superstars. A few days ago, he was spotted at the wedding of actor Siddique’s son, seated along with Mammootty, Mohanlal, and political leader VD Satheesan. This, after several startling allegations made by director Balachandrakumar came to light recently, leading to a reinvestigation of the case.

On the other hand, women colleagues who came out in support of Bhavana and demanded concrete measures from the film industry have found themselves being isolated, viewed as “trouble-makers” who are spoiling the fair name of cinema. Bhavana coming back to Malayalam cinema is not only cause for celebration for her fans who have missed seeing her on screen, it is also an assertion of her right to occupy the space that survivors are usually denied. They’re expected to quietly disappear and lick their wounds in private because the shame of the sexual assault falls on them and not the perpetrator. 

Watch: Interview with Balachandrakumar

Since February 2017, when the sexual assault first came to light, Dileep has had 10 releases in Malayalam, including Keshu Ee Veedinte Nadhan, which was bought by Disney+Hotstar for a direct OTT premiere. He has remained in the public eye all through, splashed across magazine cover pages as a family man, giving television interviews and appearing in film industry events. He has also spoken about being the accused in the case, and a section of the media has been sympathetic towards him, leading to articles where he is referred to as a “captain who will protect those with him during any storm.” In contrast, Bhavana was forced into anonymity, unable to speak up as herself because of the hounding she would be subjected to from society, and the gag order on reporting about the case. She also had to remove herself from the industry because of the hostility that she and her friends confronted for daring to take on Dileep.

That Bhavana is a woman of incredible courage cannot be underlined enough. Not only did she report the sexual assault, she also turned up on the sets of Adam Joan, the film she was shooting with Prithviraj, to complete the project despite the traumatic crime that she was subjected to. She has continued to fight when the process itself is a punishment for survivors. Her journey, from anonymity to acknowledgement, has not been an easy one, and neither should it be demanded of all survivors. Despite being a privileged woman, a celebrity known all over the southern states, it took her five years to reach the point when she could put her name and face to the sexual assault case. In these years, there have been several twists and turns in the case, including two Special Public Prosecutors resigning because of the alleged bias of the judge hearing the case. However, the support system she has around her, comprising friends from the industry and her family, has made it possible for her to envision a comeback, she had told TNM. 

Bhavana’s unwavering stance has forced the fence-sitters from the industry to acknowledge the incident, even if reluctantly. On January 10 this year, Bhavana, for the first time, identified herself as the survivor in the case through an Instagram post, prompting several of her colleagues to share her words and write messages in support. The superstars of the Malayalam film industry, Mammootty and Mohanlal, did so too, although their messages came in last.

The mental agony, humiliation, and work opportunities that Bhavana had to turn down because of the sexual assault and its aftermath, are what prompt most survivors to stay silent. The price they have to pay for seeking conventional justice, such as a criminal conviction, is so steep that the fight often becomes meaningless. This is also why Bhavana’s decision to reveal her identity on her own terms is so important. One does not know what the legal verdict will be, but in the hearts of many, many women who are not in a position to speak up, Bhavana’s journey is their victory too.  

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