While you can shrug off the ignorance of a senior actor like Mallika Sukumaran, it’s disheartening to watch the entitlement of a young actor like Mamta Mohandas. Then there are the likes of actors like Dhyan Sreenivasan.

Collage of Mamta Mohandas and Dhyan Sreenivasan in the backdrop of Thug life image
Flix Patriarchy Tuesday, May 31, 2022 - 19:02

Whether it is the trial in the horrific sexual assault case of a female actor in a moving car or the rape accusations of an upcoming actor against producer-actor Vijay Babu, Kerala is witnessing a lot of dialogue around #MeToo and sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement first gained attention in Malayalam cinema when the female actor registered a complaint after being assaulted in the car, in a plot allegedly masterminded by actor Dileep. The last five years have seen a few changes in the industry, especially after the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) and the constant conversations facilitated by feminists and progressives on social media.

But the road ahead is still rocky. The Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), headed by superstar Mohanlal, is still on sticky ground, with a tendency to side with the perpetrators. When Vijay Babu offered to stay away from the organisation until proven innocent, AMMA accepted his decision. While you can shrug off the ignorance of a senior actor like Mallika Sukumaran who fails to acknowledge the exploitation and dodgy power between a producer and a young female actor, it’s disheartening to watch the entitlement of a young actor like Mamta Mohandas who is hell-bent on negating the ongoing fight of a group of firebrand female actors. Then there are the likes of young actors like Dhyan Sreenivasan who blabber about #MeToo and vilify women as opportunists, for which they score points on online media.

Damage caused by Mamta Mohandas’s misogynistic stance

In various interviews, Mamta Mohandas has downplayed the exploitation and patriarchy in the industry with a straight face: “I’m wondering why women are complaining. Just do what you do. I never had any negative experience in the industry.” A case of ‘Privilege is invisible to those who have it’?

Strangely, however, she does think “pay disparity is a reality in the industry”. Maybe because she has been subjected to it. She even empathises with one of her IT women friends who “probably works even 10 times more than her male counterpart to reach the same position”.

But the same Mamta thinks nothing of offering women a patronising class on “the importance of being graceful as a woman”. “Now women seem to just blurt out anything if they get a platform. Somewhere I feel that we’re losing our grace. There is something beautiful about being a woman. A woman can be bold and beautiful, but you shouldn’t forget to be graceful—that’s what makes you a sensitive woman.”

In what seems to be an indirect dig at fellow actor Rima Kallingal, she once spoke about the “importance of dressing appropriately at a place where you are trying to make a social statement. You want people’s attention on what you are saying and not on your dress. Why can’t we use our intelligence properly and not rebel unnecessarily? We are going in the wrong direction.”

The worst bit was her rant on women projecting themselves as victims. “Why are they singing the same song of self-victimisation? How long will you keep singing about being a victim? Try to live by example. Be proud of being a woman. Female children are more privileged than male kids. Girls are overconfident. I think women are taking advantage of the system to slam men. I see so many women divorcing and trying to ruin the life of their ex-husbands. They are not allowing the men to live peacefully.”

Glorification of ‘thug life’ as ‘cool’

When Dhyan Sreenivasan proudly declares that he has dumped his girlfriends (they were not good people in his words), mocks his family, profession and cinema, and playfully laughs at himself, a large section of people find it “refreshingly honest”. When Prithviraj rudely put down a female anchor for a legit question about the representation of Muslims in his films, it was widely hailed on social media as a “thug life” moment.

But the same viewers wouldn’t be so kind or appreciative of a female actor who is open about her affairs. They would have no qualms in judging her for talking openly about cheating in relationships, drinking, or smoking. When Gayathri Suresh exhibits the same level of irreverence as Dhyan in her interviews, she is subjected to cruel trolling.

The number of trolls/ thug life videos on YouTube is a testimony to the Malayali brand of misogyny and their intolerance toward women who speak their mind without filters. Equally regressive are the vicious and sensational local online portals that come in all sizes, shapes and absurdities. The deal is to always lighten the mood and make actors mouth personal/ controversial/ intimate stuff that will undoubtedly increase the number of views. There are no boundaries, and it is especially dubious when the celebrity is a woman.

If Manju Warrier prefers to be diplomatic, Parvathy or Rima will easily cut you down to size if you cross the line. But the rest are mostly tolerant of this incessant form of perverse questioning that’s the new norm in the clickbait-infested YouTube world. One of the frequent questions posed to Anagha – who played Racheal in the Amal Neerad-Mammootty film Bheeshma Parvam – was “how she handled the intimate scenes with Sreenath Bhasi?” Strangely, nobody asked the male actor about his reaction to the same scene. Similarly, an unhealthy amount of time was spent unravelling the pros and cons of a kissing scene in most of Durga Krishna’s interviews following Udal, followed by a knowing smile or smirk from the interviewers.

When it comes to female actors, bluntness and plain-speaking are deliberately portrayed as arrogance or bragging. When Ahaana Krishna said she considered herself a “responsible and empathetic person”, it was judged as “boasting”. Whenever female actors switch to English, the male bastion of Malayali troll creators find it unacceptable and insist that they are showing off. More questions follow about their love life, the experience of working with their male co-stars, and rudimentary curiosity about their profession. However, male actors – even the newest kids on the block – are bombarded with questions about their process or career. A Mammootty, Mohanlal, Dulquer Salmaan, Prithviraj, or even a Dileep (who is accused of masterminding the sexual assault on a colleague) is dealt with reverence by online media. One popular RJ insists on slyly probing every female actor about WCC or feminism, with the sole intention of ridiculing the movement.

Media’s questionable progressive stand

One reason why Mamta Mohandas speaks such drivel is also because media outlets keep asking her the kind of questions that they are sure will get the answers assured to receive more clicks and views. And the media, for some reason, likes to pit her against a progressive voice like Rima Kallingal or Parvathy, when in reality Mamta proudly carries a torch for patriarchy and stubbornly refuses to empathise with her own gender. So it should be a no-brainer that Mamta is best left with the label of an actor alone.

Some of the questions posed by the media make us wonder if they are just playing along to a “trend” for TRPs. So many social media influencers put on the garb of virtuous troopers whenever a social issue springs up. It can range from the sexism in TV show Annie’s Kitchen, Prithviraj’s idea of objectification, dowry deaths, or the nastiness of politicians. But in reality they don’t bring anything original to the table and just add more clatter to the debate with an eye on getting more subscribers.

Ray of hope

With the launch of WCC and the relentless efforts of progressives in the state, there is promise though. The once complacent film industry has been forced to acknowledge the precarious spaces, exploitation, pay disparity and pitiable working conditions that existed for women in cinema. Production houses and AMMA have been asked to set up internal committees (IC). After 50 years, directors, writers and actors are forced to buck up and view cinema, narratives, and their choices with sensitivity. The personal is political in cinema today.

Voices of dissent, which were earlier muted, are echoing strongly in Malayalam cinema. From Parvathy Thiruvothu and Rima Kallingal to Nikhila Vimal, actors are speaking fearlessly about the misogyny, pay disparity, abuse of power, and the need for safe and hygienic working conditions on sets. Also, social media (though it has its negatives and positives) acts as a powerful echo chamber when it comes to projecting such issues.

Since online channels will continue their perversion in the guise of clicks and views, it is left to the actors to decide how much they are ready to put themselves out in the world. Especially at this age where your credibility and integrity aren’t defined on the merit of your films alone.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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