As the Movie Artists Association goes into elections on Sunday, the welfare of female artistes has once again taken a backseat.

MAA elections Tollywood ignores sexual harassment again finds no place in manifestosA press meet by Sri Reddy and woman's rights activists in 2018, when Sri Reddy had made allegations of sexual harassment.
news Sexual harassment Saturday, March 09, 2019 - 18:13

The Tollywood Movie Artists Association is gearing up for elections to its official body on March 10. The association is divided into two groups with people pledging support to either actor Shivaji Raja’s panel or actor Naresh’s panel, both contending for the position of the president of the association. While the election is perhaps taken as seriously as the upcoming Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections and mudslinging at both the office bearers is happening at a steady pace, some artistes in the association are raising an important question: Will there ever be concrete measures to address the grievances of female artistes in the industry?

Both Shivaji and Naresh, in their three-page long election manifestos, have declared Rs 3,000 as pension to old artistes in the industry and have also promised medical benefits and insurance. While there is already a welfare committee within MAA that looks into the issues of old artistes, the issues of women, unsurprisingly, has been put on the backburner once again.

The industry saw a spate of artistes being publicly accused of sexual harassment last year by actor Sri Reddy, and the Telugu Film Chamber was forced to make it mandatory for every production house to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). It didn’t really come as a shock to know that the industry, which is about seven decades old, had no mechanism in place to handle the issues of workplace sexual harassment. The Telugu Film Chamber hastily put together a Sexual Harassment Redressal Panel (SHRP) last year after actor Sri Reddy staged a protest in front of the chamber’s building, accusing men from the industry of sexual exploitation.

MAA, which celebrated its silver jubilee last year, had no body in place to handle complaints from its female members. A year later, no concrete measures have been taken by any of these bodies to address the issues of female artistes in the industry. Speaking to TNM, Anitha Chowdhary, a member of MAA, says that the onus to address the issues of women has always been on the shoulders of women in the association.

“Last year, we handled a variety of complaints from multiple women, and women in MAA had extensively lobbied for their welfare. But, when the entire responsibility to deal with the cases lies with the women alone, how many of these would be resolved in an association that is purely dominated by men?” Anitha asks.

To systematically guide and support women facing harassment in the industry, the female members of MAA formed the ‘SHE Team’ last year, which is an advisory body that guides complainants on what their course of action should be. They have also been closely working with Roshini, an NGO, to provide counselling to female artistes suffering from depression and other mental health issues.

In a similar move, to extend a hand of solidarity, prominent women artistes including Samantha, Supriya Yarlagada, Nandini Reddy and Jhansi formed a collective called ‘Voice of Women’ (VOW), that acts as a support system for complainants to approach the body and speak about their grievances.

“VOW is like a support system that will not address issues raised by women legally but rather talk to the victims on a personal level and advise them on the course of action to be taken. We cannot and are not supposed to pursue the cases legally in the industry as SHRP is the only body authorised to do it,” says Jhansi.

If the woman complainant is ready to withstand the trial, they are then referred to the SHRP --   the extent of the functions of which has been questioned time and again. As none of the women bodies has legal powers to pursue the case, the survivors, who many a time do not wish to approach the media, have to wait until the SHRP comes out with its report.

“The SHRP has around 20-24 members, including lawyers and medical practitioners, and even members of an NGO. But to this day, the body hasn’t disclosed the names of the panel members. Even after a year, none of the female members in MAA knows who is on the panel,” a female artiste and a member of MAA who did not want to be named says. “Even inside production houses, rarely will a woman raise her voice as the ICCs are heavily influenced by the members of the production houses,” she adds.

Workplace harassment laws clearly state that it’s mandatory for the members of an organisation to know who all constitute the panel in an ICC. Mere knowledge that an internal redressal mechanism exists is not sufficient.

Anitha says while MAA is putting mechanisms in place to improve the conditions of its female artistes, there is much more to be done than simply passing the buck to the women in the organisation.

“An association can achieve its maximum potential when the members stand united and work for issues. But the rampant formation of multiple groups within MAA itself dissolves the resolve of its members in unitedly standing up for a common cause. Irrespective of who wins the election this time, we, as female members of the Association, demand that the body as a collective addresses the issues of women artistes,” Anitha Chowdhary adds.