This past year saw a phenomenal increase in the number of women opening up about instances of sexual harassment at their workplace. The 'Me Too' movement that gained rapid momentum has changed the status quo at quite a good number of organisations that have come forward to institute a complaints committee to address such issues.
#MeToo was a watershed moment in the entertainment industry and art field, with big names being outed. While the movement is still in its nascent stages, a panel constituting actor Parvathy, author Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Madras High Court Advocate Suhrith Parthasarathy discussed the implications of this past year, reflecting on how far the movement has come and on the journey ahead.
This panel discussion - ‘Strengthening Voices: A collective awakening’ - organised as part of The Hindu’s Lit for Life 2019, was moderated by Kalpana Sharma, journalist, author and presently Readers' Editor with Scroll.
Actor Parvathy began the session by discussing the birth of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a group that was formed by women from the Malayalam film industry. “In 2017 February, our colleague was abducted and assaulted, an incident that was orchestrated by someone very powerful in the industry. When her litigation began, we wanted to be her voice. That was the beginning of a collective that would start something new. It was this one issue that we wanted to back, but when we began sharing our incidents, that is when we realised there were repeat offenders,” she said.
This group, that registered itself as a body in November 2017, has been constituted by 17 women from the industry, including Parvathy. Parvathy also adds that the inadequate knowledge of law among her colleagues was unsettling and shocking.
“We had no understanding of the bye-laws of our association. We have no understanding of the laws that should protect us. So the 17 of us started studying, sharing links. We spoke to lawyers to understand better. We realised that there were so many loopholes, we were shivering about the uncertain grounds that we were standing on,” says Parvathy.
Sharing that she was called ‘Bathroom Parvathy’ in the industry because she had kept asking for better sanitation provisions on sets, Parvathy said, “I had to become a lead star to get my own vanity van. This is not just for women or men. Questioning status quo started long back.”
Parvathy also observed that what happened in the Malayalam film industry did not receive national attention but was dubbed as the "dark underbelly of Malayalam cinema" instead.
While the WCC did start for one specific issue, Parvathy shares that they’ve expanded since. “We didn't stop with one case. We are open to receiving complaints. We want to make sure women get employed. It has become a think tank now. End of the day, it has to do with working in a dignified environment.”
Author Gayatri, who has co-authored Changemakers: 20 Women Transforming Bollywood Behind the Scenes, spoke next and said that women have always had to fight for their right to work.
Sharing the story of celebrity make-up artist Charu Khurana, Gayatri explained that Charu had to fight for over 6 years to be inducted into the all-male dominated Cine Costume, Make-Up Artist & Hair Dressers’ Association (CCMAA). She became the trailblazer for the rest who were to follow. “But there are, of course, other barriers. They’ve now raised the price to enter the union, making it difficult for both young men and women to join.”
Gayatri also spoke about age discrimination in the industry. “Guneet Monga, who is a well-known producer for films like Masaan, Gangs of Wasseypur, The Lunchbox etc., spoke about how she peppers her hair white to appear older. She’d say she would go out with the boys during smoking breaks because that was when all the business deals were done.”
Speaking of another anecdote about cinematographer Priya Seth who has worked in Airlift, Gayatri said, “At one point, she was commanding 300 men across the economic spectrum while working as the DoP in a film. Now people like her have learnt to dress in a particular way to command the kind of respect they want. To mobilise 300 men, to make them listen to you, you have to desexualise yourself,” she notes.
Adding his points to the dialogue, advocate Suhrith spoke about how the law can never be the panacea for all the problems. “Law is not the panacea for all the problems. Because we believe in the role of law we want to achieve an equal society. But it is precisely because the process has failed, that this list has been published,” he began.
Listing the limitations of law, Suhrith said, “There are two important questions: What should be the substantive and procedural points of the law? And the other part is the matter of enforcement. We haven’t yet seen precisely how well POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) works because we don’t have ICC instituted in all organisations. POSH itself has a number of limitations. There’s a limit of 3 months to approach the committee, which can be extended, but we don't know how well this works. The other is the procedure. ICC does not comprise of lawyers and the Law says ‘Principles of Natural Justice’ should prevail, but what is natural justice? Even Supreme Court judges don't seem to know what that is."
The session also extended to the topics of stalking, marital rape and rape threats issued on social media. Kalpana observed that it was indeed ironic that while social media had facilitated the movement, there were several who used the same medium to lash out at those who had come forward.
While sharing the hate that she received following her comment on the misogyny shown in Kasaba, a Malayalam film starring Mammootty, Parvathy said that although four young boys were arrested for their graphic rape threats on social media, they were let out on bail just a few days later, and were, in fact, celebrated in their circles.
Parvathy also added that while it was encouraging to see many women open up, no one should be forced to do so. “We're not going anywhere. We are here to stay,” she said to loud cheering.
Parvathy concluded with, “Shattering the hierarchy in society is critical. What kind of justice are we looking at? Retribution? Restorative? Naming and shaming is one step but one has to be brought to justice. As one journalist said, we should stop inviting people who have been chargesheeted. We should not give them a stage nor should we listen to what they have to say.”
The session ended with one of the participants summarising the proceedings of the afternoon with, “We do have social media which is free for all and then there’s the court of law where we wait sometimes for 25 years. But we do need alternative structures, alternative process and alternative outcomes.”