It's been over a month since actor Sruthi Hariharan accused co-star Arjun Sarja of sexually harassing her on the sets of the Tamil film Nibunan, which released in Kannada as Vismaya. The allegation came amid the #MeToo movement, with several women taking to Twitter and Facebook to out their alleged harassers.
Women from the film industry like singer Chinmayi, filmmaker Leena Manimekalai and actor Amala Paul also came out and spoke about their experiences. While Chinmayi recently gave an interview to The Hindu about her dwindling work opportunities, the members of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), which was formed after a prominent woman actor from the Malayalam film industry was abducted and sexually assaulted, have also spoken about how they have been denied work opportunities systematically.
The story is familiar to Sruthi Hariharan, who works across industries and is also a member of the WCC. Ever since she came out against Arjun Sarja, she has almost stopped getting any work, she says.
Speaking to TNM, Sruthi says, "As much as it hurts my ego and pride to accept it, and as much as it saddens me that in future probably fewer women will speak up fearing for their careers, it is time to face the reality of the way things are. I used to get at least three offers a week, up until a few months ago. I did have a variety of scripts to choose from, especially in Kannada. And usually when we have a release and the film does well, it only gives rise to more opportunities. I had a big commercial release in September and if I had shut up, I’d be making news for the new projects I signed post that.”
However, Sruthi says that after she spoke up about the sexual harassment, which she allegedly faced from Arjun Sarja, she has had just two offers, neither of which she is interested in taking up.
"Yes, the number of offers has decreased and probably people don’t want to work with me any more, and the directors who do, are probably and hopefully still writing. But that’s the way things are and it’s no surprise. I knew I will be making a few enemies, and things will not be the way they used to be. I accept it and shall move on and continue to fight my way through," she says.
Sruthi adds that she is a "compulsive optimist" and that she worked her way up the industry without any nepotism or dependence on her looks.
"I have been a compulsive optimist, and I never got where I did because of any privileges that nepotism had to offer or because I was a drop dead gorgeous looking girl. I got here because I am a committed and honest actor - and I believe in myself. Maybe it’s time to have new dreams and aspirations beyond just being an actor. But don’t get me wrong - anytime I get something that excites the actor in me, I will be a part of it," she says.
Right now, Sruthi has four upcoming releases in Kannada and one in Tamil, all of which she signed before she spoke up against Arjun.
"Nathicharami is a film I am really excited about for the kind of subject it explores. What will happen, only time can say; I haven’t lost hope and never shall do so," she asserts.
After Sruthi wrote a Facebook post about Arjun Sarja, the latter filed a defamation case. Sruthi, too, filed a case of sexual harassment against Arjun. This came after the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC) tried to broker "peace" between the two actors but failed.
Does Arjun want to pursue the cases?
However, Sruthi's lawyer Jayna Kothari says that Arjun seems uninterested in pursuing the defamation case and that it was filed purely to cause "media hype" and intimidate her into silence.
"Arjun filed a defamation case and went around telling all media outlets that he has asked for Rs 5 crores payment. But he has actually not asked for any money. If he has to ask for Rs 5 crores in a civil defamation case, he has to pay the court fees. In the main complaint, he has not asked for any money and has said that she should be stopped from making any defamatory statements. In one of the interim applications, he said that he wants a security of Rs 5 crores, but all that is not possible. You have to say what you want in the main prayer and pay court fees," she explains.
Jayna adds that she believes Arjun made statements about slapping a Rs 5 crore defamation case to create a "chilling effect" on Sruthi and whoever else may come forward. However, after the court refused to restrain Sruthi from speaking to the media without hearing her first, and Jayna filed an application pointing out the procedural lapses in how the defamation case was filed, the lawyer says that Arjun and his counsel have resorted to delaying tactics.
“From the time we filed our reply, he and his lawyer have been seeking adjournments. They have nothing more to say… because they just wanted to create media hype and issue threats. This is their case but they are the ones asking for adjournments," she says.
The delaying tactic is being used in the case of sexual harassment, too, which Sruthi filed against Arjun, Jayna says. She claims that the other party has been asking for adjournments even though the court is ready to hear the matter. The case has been pushed to a date after the court vacation.
"If Arjun’s stand is that Sruthi has falsely accused him, why is he shying away now?" she asks.
Meanwhile, Arjun Sarja continues to sign new films and be part of big projects while Sruthi is paying the price for taking on a powerful man at her workplace.