Fighting back without a support system is unimaginable: Actor Bhavana interview

Bhavana speaks about why she decided to reveal her identity at this juncture, the toll the case has taken on her, why she hasn’t done Malayalam films, and her support system.
Actor Bhavana
Actor Bhavana
Written by:

Actor Bhavana Menon is a beloved face in Malayalam cinema. But for the past five years, though she’s given interviews, appeared on magazine covers and in advertisements with her charming smile, she has been unable to speak about a traumatic incident that has followed her since February 2017. It is no secret that she is the survivor in the highly publicised actor assault case that shook Kerala, but Bhavana had so far chosen to keep her name and face out of the case in media reports.

However, in January this year, Bhavana revealed her identity through an Instagram post. A few days ago, she also decided to break her silence to the media. In a society where the shame of assault invariably falls on the survivor, Bhavana’s decision comes as an important move in the fight against partriarchal ideas about sexual violence.

In an interview with TNM, Bhavana speaks about why she decided to reveal her identity at this juncture, the toll the case has taken on her, why she hasn’t done Malayalam films since 2017, the support system she has and more.

For almost five years, you have never spoken openly about the crime or the case. In January, you put yourself out there with an Instagram post, you gave media interviews recently, you also told the court to listen to your side while deciding on Dileep’s petition against further investigation. What changed? Why did you break your silence?

It was not a planned reaction. As the trial started, I knew it was an in-camera trial and I was not sure what I could speak about. But in December 2021, a man came forward with certain revelations (Bhavana is referring to director Balachandrakumar). There were many people who had been telling me for years that I should not keep quiet. I was, however, scared, I did not know if raising my voice against certain things would hamper my case. But when this man came out, there was once again a deluge of public support. Perhaps many people had thought this case was over, that this case was settled on the sly.

From December onwards there was so much support and love from people, and I decided that it was important to tell everyone how thankful I am. That is the reason I put up that Instagram post, as my response to all the support.

The interview wasn’t planned either; Barkha Dutt approached me to speak on Women’s Day. I was hesitant as I did not know what I can say and what is sub-judice, but I was assured that I need to speak only about my journey. I felt it was time, most people cannot truly fathom what I go through. People only watch my happy interviews, they see my happy posts on social media, but that's not my life. I have suffered a lot, my family and friends know this. I’m not someone who can display my raw emotions that easily in public. Which is why I felt I had to share my journey, I knew it would not be easy, but I had to.

The day the assault happened and you decided to file a complaint, what went on in your mind? Did you expect all these turns?

I was not even in a mental state to think, I was still processing what happened to me. I kept asking myself — did it really happen? I was just in shock. I only thought something unfair had happened to me, and I wanted to complain. I did not think beyond that. I kept wondering, did it happen to me? This was my thought process even when my father died, I kept asking myself, did it really happen? Was it true?

Why did you say in the interview that you had to prove your innocence when you are the survivor? Was that the hardest part?

When one goes to court, a person expects that they can just tell their truth and it will be over. But what happened was not something I had expected at all. Through many of the questions — directly and indirectly — it was implied that I had staged it. I’m sure they are doing their jobs, but the onus is on me to prove my innocence. I struggled, wondering why am I being asked this? Why should I explain? It was not just in court, but outside too people were asking why I went out at that time. In my mind I would ask them a counter question, do you think a woman out at 10 am won’t get assaulted?

There is organised and unorganised social media abuse against you. There are also certain media houses that have done questionable things. Has this made you feel dejected?

I’m very clear on it now,  there is a fraction of people who abuse and are cruel to everyone. I tell myself that even the most popular celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Tendulkar and Dhoni are abused, so it isn’t about me. I have also filed a case against one such person for an abusive message. These people find it easy to be cruel, to type something and find happiness. I don’t understand their mentality, and I just try not to take it personally.

I have felt dejected many times. Even some TV channels and media houses in Kerala have portrayed me in a negative light and have hurt me. Maybe they are okay to applaud and find joy in another person’s suffering. For whatever reasons, life has made them bitter. But such kinds of reactions and people are a drop in the ocean. I want to focus on the positivity, on those people who support me.

Since 2017, many in the industry like Aashiq Abu, Prithviraj and Shaji Kailas have approached you for work. Tell me about those people in the industry.

After 2017, I wanted to stay away from Malayalam cinema, but many of my colleagues and friends encouraged me not to. Prithviraj, director Jinu Abraham and Shaji Kailas approached me for a project they were doing jointly, actor Baburaj came to my place in Bengaluru and told me to come out of this shell. Anoop Menon even offered to shoot his movie in Bengaluru so I could be a part of it. Aashiq Abu offered me two projects and told me that I need to come back to Malayalam cinema. Actor Nandu constantly asked me why I was keeping away, and so did director Jean Paul Lal. Director Bhadran and Hariharan told me that they have a female oriented script for me and exhorted me quite a bit to take it up. Actor Jayasurya was shooting in Thrissur once, I remember it was my birthday. He came to my house with a cake and tried to inspire me to accept a movie. Filmmaker Vijay Babu also called once for a project. Actor Madhu Pal has been telling me for three months that there is a story I should read.

So despite all these people reaching out, why did you stay away from Malayalam movies? You have been active in the Kannada industry?

I actually don’t know why I wanted to stay away, I cannot define or pinpoint that feeling. I felt that I was away from Kerala, living a peaceful life in Bengaluru. Going back on the sets, maybe I felt it will start new discussions.

But if the Malayalam film industry had stood with you unconditionally do you think you would have felt secure?

When people in the industry came together after the incident and held that event in Kochi, I was thankful to all at the time. But soon, I started seeing people change their stand. Those who said they would tell the truth went back on it. I don’t want to point fingers at anyone. Every morning I can’t wake up and think about who will support me and who will not. These are individual choices they make. I did not give the complaint thinking that the entire industry will stand with me. Coming back to the Malayalam film industry wasn’t easy for me. Initially I was not in the right frame of mind and could not continue working here as if nothing had gone wrong. But I have accepted a Malayalam movie now, the details will come in some time.

Tell me about your female friendships.

These friendships are vital to me. There are people who I speak to almost every day and there are those who reach out to me quite often.

Geethu Mohandas, Samyuktha Varma, Manju Warrier, Remya Nambeesan, Sayonara Philip, Mridula Murali, Shilpa Bala, Shafna are people I speak to almost daily. There are many others who reach out and sometimes they will even send me messages asking if I’m okay and say they pray for me, like Revathy, make-up artists Renju Renjimar and Jeena. Dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi is someone who has given me unconditional love and support, she has spoken up for me in multiple places, just like a mother or sister would do.

Then there is the Women in Cinema Collective, they have stood with me. It has also been painful to see that many of these women have lost opportunities and been at the receiving end because they pledged their support to me. They all try not to overwhelm me, but all of them — Anjali Menon, Deedi Damodaran and others —  have been pillars of support. Colleagues like Miya, Navya Nair, Parvathy, Padmapriya, Rima, Anumol, Kavitha Nair, Krishnaprabha, Arya Badai, Kani Kusruthi are all people who stood by me.

Though the question is on female friendships, speaking about support, someone I remember with a lot of gratitude is the late former Member of Parliament PT Thomas. He was one of the first people who was informed about what had happened to me. He was clear from the beginning that I should fight for justice, and throughout all the difficult phases, he kept telling me that truth will win.

My close friend Shaneem, Filmfare editor Jitesh Pillai who always finds time to send me motivating messages, people like Asif Ali, Kunjacko, Tovino and Supriya Prithviraj who check in on me, Lissy Priyadarshan have all been with me. Soorya Krishnamoorthy sir [cultural activist] would call me to say don’t lose courage and urge me to fight.

Often we read about those people who diss survivors, I think it is more important to speak about those who are part of the journey, in whatever capacity. I can give a really long list, but surely I can’t do that in an interview. My only point is that for every survivor, the voices of support from those around are crucial. 

How important is it for a survivor to have a support system?

Putting up a fight without the support of my husband, family, friends and many colleagues is just unimaginable. I don’t know if I would have had the courage without it. When I’m very sad and down, I’m thankful that there are a bunch of people around me telling me not to be sad. They remind me that I’m not wrong, I was wronged. The naysayers or negative people are just 2 or 3%, the rest are those who support me. Also, I have an invisible wall around me. I don’t want to keep track of the case every single day, I have a family and work life beyond that. I do understand that it is solely upon me to deal with the trial, but on the days that I work, I need to focus on that. I have had to tell some people not to send me things related to the trial. I know that they are keeping my best interest at heart, but it is very tough for me to check every single update, 365 days and 24 hours. So my friends and family also understand the need to have this wall around me, that I need to keep away from things, and they respect that space.

The trial has seen so many developments over the years. Are you hopeful of justice?

Many people changed their statements in court, many things have been done to topple the case. But I’m optimistic that I will get justice. Before the trial started, I had a tendency to blame myself. But once I went to court and spoke about everything so transparently, I had this strong realisation that I was not to blame for anything, I’m a survivor who needs justice.

Note: The survivor has given her consent to publish this interview and to make her identity known.

If you like this interview and our coverage of gender based violence, support us now. Click here

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute