When women spoke up during India’s Me Too movement that began in October 2018, the criticism was swift. Some said the women were motivated by publicity. Others accused them of searching for fame and attention by maligning the reputation of successful men.
However, a year since, the personal and professional risks these women have taken prove that those assumptions are far from true.
TNM spoke to five women who shared their stories during the Me Too movement about how their lives have changed a year later:
Singer Chinmayi, who first named lyricist Vairamuthu for sexually harassing her; Sandalwood actor Sruthi Hariharan, who accused pan-south India actor Arjun Sarja of sexual misconduct during the shoot of Vismaya; writer Vinta Nanda, who accused Bollywood actor Alok Nath of rape; Kollywood filmmaker Leena Manimekalai who first named director Susi Ganesan for threatening behaviour and sexual harassment; journalist Sandhya Menon, who named the then senior editor at TOI, KR Sreenivas, for allegedly behaving inappropriately with her, and former DNA editor-in-chief Gautam Adhikari for allegedly sexually assaulting her.
TNM also spoke to Anjali Menon, member of Mollywood’s Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) that actively supported the survivors who spoke up during Me Too.
The quotes below have been edited for clarity.
Why they spoke up
Leena: With Me Too gathering momentum, I thought I wasn’t alone anymore. That’s why I spoke up. It was like a catharsis.
Sruthi: I thought about it for a month. It wasn’t instinctive. In the end, it was about not letting another man get away with doing as he pleases. At least now, I am not guilty of silencing myself, or not contributing to reform.
Sandhya: I have long wished for Sreenivas to be brought to justice... With Gautam, I did have second thoughts; he is an old man now. I’d hoped that my speaking up would help some women find confidence too – if Sandhya is naming a senior journalist, then I can too.
The emotional impact
Chinmayi: One of the things that happened after I spoke up was slut shaming. Hordes of people came after me online. Initially that was really hard. But I have been through healing, therapy and went for check-ups. The rock-solid support of my family helped, as did taking a break from social media.
Sruthi: The past year has been the most trying time not just for me, but also for my family. There were threats made to me on WhatsApp – once I was sent a photo of a woman’s arm being cut as a threat. I was worried for my family’s safety. I was an emotional wreck… I had to seek psychological help as well.
I remember my mom telling me that to earn a good name, you have to work really hard. But to earn a bad name, all it takes is one moment. Maybe some years down the line, I will look back at it (naming Arjun Sarja) as one of the best things I have done. But in the middle of all of it, I felt very confused.
I do think about how life would have been different had I not spoken up, even though it was the right thing to do. But right now, when many people look at me with so much hatred, it’s really hard. It left me emotionally battered, and I am still recovering.
Sandhya: In the first few months, I was just concentrating on putting other Me Too stories out. But as a person with a couple of diagnosed mental health issues, the effect came much later. To recognise the enormity of the problem we are dealing with has been extremely taxing; as is the realisation that people will blame a victim irrespective of whether she has taken action or not.
My personal life suffered too, because putting out stories took a lot of time away from my loved ones. My life had become disorganised, daily routines were upset, and I’m still getting back on track.
Vinta: Breaking my silence was about releasing myself from the anguish of having to muzzle my voice despite being the feminist, and the woman that I am, not about Alok Nath. I have work to do, which occupies my whole life. I have forgiven Alok Nath because carrying the burden of wanting to see him pay for his misdoings was not on my agenda. I can't waste the time that I have at hand to pursue what I believe societies, communities and our legal system should be responsible for.
Professional costs and relationships
Chinmayi: Almost immediately after I spoke up, I got banned from the dubbing union. Even though there is a stay on the ban now, Radha Ravi and his cronies have ensured that I can’t work in Tamil industry. They send warnings to directors who still want to work with me. I haven’t sung much in Tamil this past year.
The powerful keep saying that you have to separate the art from the artist – that’s the easiest cop out. But if it comes to their own families and those they care about, their value systems are different. Majority of the men, save some exceptions like Pa Ranjith, don’t want to take a stand.
Sruthi: People started looking at me with a lot of hatred, and no one wanted to work with me. Directors who had verbally assured they would cast me, came back and said their producers didn’t think I was bankable anymore.
Even today, if you look up the videos of Nathicharami, a film of mine that released after I spoke up, you will just see abuse directed towards me in the comments.
Vinta: With more web series coming in, I was starting to get work as a writer. But after I broke my silence, everyone I had been working with last October distanced themselves.
I feel that folks at business feel uncomfortable with me around. Meanwhile, many of the accused are back in the workspace, so those who may want to hire someone like me don't know how to justify it. Therefore, they would rather not give me a job than to feel the discomfort.
Recently, a multinational production house I was writing for ousted me unceremoniously. They said my work is not up to the mark; but I had softly questioned them for having hired a casting agent who was also accused in Me Too.
Leena: Professionally, I was always more of an independent artist and always on the margins, but the marginalisation increased post Me Too.
People stopped inviting me to literary and cultural events. Everyone pretended as though I didn’t exist.
Being broke is not new to me. But I had a huge problem with my rental housing. Google profiling made it impossible for me to find a home. Landlords shut the door in my face. It was traumatic.
I have cried aloud many times, even wanted to leave the country. But my current landlord rented her house to me because she believed that I didn’t just speak for me. I spoke for her too and all the women in the world who have faced sexual harassment. Hope is not yet a cliché.
How the media favoured the men
Sruthi: The Facebook post blew up in an unprecedented way. With all the breaking news and panel discussions, the media had a field day. After a point, so many details were fabricated that you didn’t even know what the original story was. With all this happening, more than calling out a potential predator, I ended up marking myself as a victim. I didn’t realise that would happen.
Leena: The whole society was granting him (Susi) the license to call me names just because I had spoken up against his predatory behaviour. Media self-appointed themselves as lawyers not just to him but to all the predators. (sic) Mainstream magazines stopped asking to publish my poems and columns. Ironically, many mainstream newspapers published Susi Ganesan's slut shaming rejoinder to my Me Too testimonial with neither context nor my version.
Chinmayi: The Tamil media has been extremely supportive of Vairamuthu. Every other day, Tamil channels are seen quoting him on various topics like climate change, and ironically, even sexual assault. They have also found in him a champion of Tamil language, with this debate on Hindi going on. It’s helping him have continuous support too, but they (Tamil media) have made a molester a poster boy of Tamil.
The fallout with presumed allies
Vinta: With regard to relationships, I've been able to separate the wheat from the chaff. There were many who I thought were my friends and well-wishers who have become distant.
Leena: What hurt me most is the silence of friends, allies, comrades, feminists and family whom I thought were progressive and liberal. It was deafening to me like a cluster bomb.
I was also in a catch 22 situation because many women wrote to me naming men who were my friends and colleagues. I had to stop talking to many men who were friends and well-wishers. I didn’t know whom to trust as friends anymore.
On the movement and its impact
Vinta: There has been no impact of Me Too on the film industry. Life goes on. Women by and large are not ready to speak out or support the movement. Nor are the men. Many support the movement silently but nobody is ready to bell the cat.
I've observed that even the ICs that were to be established in all production houses and made mandatory by the Producers Guild of India soon after the movement started last year, don't exist. Nobody is monitoring and following up on it either. However, Cine And TV Artistes' Association (CINTAA) and Screenwriters' Association (SWA) have taken it up seriously and it is only these two associations, the former for actors and the latter for screenwriters, which are pushing the envelope and trying to bring systemic change in the industry. I believe that they will succeed eventually.
Sandhya: A big criticism of the Me Too movement continues to be that we were out to malign men. But out of the few of us who complained to Internal Committees (IC), even fewer received a positive response. The identities of the complainants were often compromised; there were procedural errors. There are a whole lot of reasons why women don’t trust the system.
In terms of impact, I think the open secrets about men who were predators in the industry are out now. Young women entering the media workforce are much more aware of how they can tackle something like this and what their rights are. Many companies have revamped their sexual harassment trainings and policies, even if it is for the fear that they don’t want to be in the media for the wrong reasons.
Chinmayi: Me Too has impacted some sections of the society. But it needs to be more inclusive and intersectional – whether of non-binary persons, male survivors or transgender persons. A lot still needs to be done – like Tamil Nadu film units have still not set up ICs. Women need to support each other and stop shaming each other as well. I am pretty hopeful overall.
Anjali Menon of Women in Cinema Collective, says that thanks to the movement, there is awareness today that in the face of exploitation, voices can speak up – and that itself is a deterrent.
“While there has been public support, within the industry it will take a bit more time since the prevalent work culture is being questioned. But real change always takes time and the ripples have just started,” she tells TNM.
“My biggest takeaway has been the immense strength of a sisterhood. I have always sought an inclusive work atmosphere. Today, to be able to share that dream and work towards it with people from different film industries is an intense and gratifying experience,” Anjali adds.