‘Me Too’: How women in south cinema are considered commodities on screen and off it

Actors Aishwarya Rajesh, Shraddha Srinath, Aishwarya Lekshmi and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai speak to TNM about how the public views the bodies of women in cinema.
‘Me Too’: How women in south cinema are considered commodities on screen and off it
‘Me Too’: How women in south cinema are considered commodities on screen and off it
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The Me Too movement has come to the southern film industry, with several women actors speaking up against sexual harassment in their workplace. However, it has been far from easy for them to do so. Many on social media and even journalists have questioned them on why they were speaking up now, after all these years.

The disbelief is compounded by the fact that as actors these women may have worn certain clothes on screen or performed in certain scenes or roles that are considered “vulgar” or “bold” by the audience. This, several people believe, erases their right to complain when they are subjected to harassment. There seems to be a lack of understanding that what they do on screen is their work, performed with consent, while harassment is a crime.

Don’t kiss and complain

When actor Sruthi Hariharan alleged that her co-star Arjun Sarja had sexually harassed her on the sets of the Tamil film Nibunan (Vismaya in Kannada), several people pointed out that she’d been willing to do “intimate” scenes with the actor on screen and therefore she should not be complaining. 

Her friend and actor from the Kannada film industry, Shraddha Srinath, was among the many women who spoke up for Sruthi. Speaking to TNM, Shraddha says, “Women are slut-shamed on social media, no matter what. The minute they voice an opinion that is not popular, the minute they say something that goes against popular opinion, they will be called names and slut-shamed. I’ve experienced it and I’ve seen my friends also experiencing it. I remember someone saying ‘Oh you kiss on screen for money but then you say all this suddenly to grab attention’. This is something we hear very often.”

A year ago, actor Parvathy from the Malayalam film industry was heavily abused on social media for expressing an opinion about the Mammootty film Kasaba. Among the many responses that she received for stating that she’d been disappointed by the misogynistic scenes in Kasaba were those who shared pictures and scenes from her films in which she had kissed on screen. The point being made was that Parvathy couldn’t complain of misogyny in cinema when she had done such “vulgar” scenes (which, in fact, showed characters kissing with consent) herself.

Shraddha Srinath

Recalling the period when Parvathy was subjected to such virulent abuse, actor Aishwarya Lekshmi, who is from the same industry, says, “Parvathy spoke about an issue. The basic issue she was addressing was safety for women at the workplace and how women are portrayed in cinema. We could have taken the good from what she said instead of abusing her to such an extent. But because she was a female actor and people didn’t like how she spoke, she was harassed for a long time. The comments she received were so bad. If it had happened to me, I’d have been broken.”

Slut-shaming is a common enough tactic whenever women raise their voice against sexual violence. However, when it comes to women actors, it is all the more pronounced.

Actor Amala Paul, who divorced director AL Vijay, and has continued to act in southern films, often faces slut-shaming on social media. The actor recently came out in support of filmmaker Leena Manimekalai who’d accused director Susi Ganesan of sexually harassing her. In a statement, Amala said that Susi Ganesan had behaved in an inappropriate manner with her too during the shoot of Thiruttu Payale 2, and that she had no trouble believing Leena’s account.

Several people, in turn, questioned her about the roles she’d done so far, and how she could complain now. There were also others who brought up the Suchi Leaks controversy when it was alleged that she was having a consensual fling with her co-star Dhanush.

Just a few days prior to this, Susi Ganesan went on a slut-shaming spree about Leena Manimekalai, and several media outlets were happy to give him a platform to do so.

Speaking about this painful time, Leena says, “I have been following #MeToo stories worldwide very closely and never have I come across any of the accused using so much filth and slander against the complainant like Susi Ganesan did. He was calling me a pig in the ditch trying to spoil his white shirt(?). He was calling me a 'loser' in personal life, a 'modern' woman who accepts a lift from a stranger whom she had met just for a few hours on a TV show, a failed poet to whom he had denied the job of a lyricist (a job that I have never sought in my lifetime), a 'fashion' feminist who gives press interviews with an arrogant body language and so on. He was actually digging new lows trying to shame me.”

Leena points out that media did not employ any discretion in publishing the slander.

“Some leading Tamil media outlets were generously printing all this slander to their millions of readers. Slander is a license that patriarchy gives to every man and woman in this society to attack the woman who decides to speak up. Please scroll down on the videos of my interviews on the internet and you will find a new world of vocabulary of abuse. Tamil society finds a lot of pleasure mocking, teasing and reducing a woman to a piece of trash just because she dared to speak up,” she says.

Women actors as commodities

The general perception appears to be that women from the film industry cannot bring up harassment when their bodies are already considered to be commodities. 

Film industries in India have for long sold the idea that a woman has no agency over her own body. If in real life women are treated as the properties of men, it’s all the more amplified in cinema. The hero, in a vast majority of films, has control over how a woman should dress and behave; he is also free to touch her as he pleases simply because he is the hero. Ideas like consent are still very new to mainstream cinema in the south.

Even in Bollywood, where the #MeToo movement has felled some giants and gained the support of the big stars now, it took a decade for actor Tanushree Dutta’s allegation against Nana Patekar to be taken seriously. Back in the day, the news was projected as Tanushree, who had been signed to do an “item” dance, throwing a “tantrum” for “attention”.

Leena Manimekalai, who is a vocal feminist, points out the difference in the treatment meted out to women like her and Amala Paul and the men who’ve been accused of sexual harassment: “This comes from the idea that a commodified woman cannot complain. I don’t know how many more decades it will take for our society that vehemently refuses to be civil to understand consent. When Amala Paul came out with her own #MeToo story against Susi Ganesan, supporting my voice, the trolls were targeting her for her glamour and roles, while the guy who actually directed her films was 'respected' and given trophies. It is amazing to see how the entire society rushes to protect the predators so that the system of exploitation continues without any questions. It is always easy to hunt the hunted.”

Leena Manimekalai

Recalling some of the comments that were made when Sruthi Hariharan spoke up about Arjun Sarja, Shraddha says, “Very recently when Sruthi spoke up about her experience in the #MeToo movement, I supported her because I believe in her. I remember people pointing fingers at me saying I’m doing this for attention. But apart from that, they were telling her things like you’re okay with wearing skimpy clothes, you’re okay with kissing on screen. You do it for money and now you have a problem.”

Leena says that such ideas are, in fact, bestowed upon women not only in cinema but any field of art.

“Any woman who chooses to be an artist is seen as an 'available' woman. I’ve lost count of how many times I have been told that any decent 'family' woman will not choose the art field. Till today, landlords shut doors on my face and say 'No' for a rental apartment because I work in the 'media' industry. Almost all #MeToo voices against sexual harassment from the art field were asked ‘Did you think you will be spared’ with such widely raised eyebrows. We also heard a few apologist women like Khusbu, Raihana, and Premalatha Vijaykanth lined up by the misogynist media endorsing ideas like 'open secret', 'slap if you can', 'why surprise', etc,” she adds.

The moral police

Women in cinema are treated as commodities to such an extent that people often believe they have the right to tell them how they should dress and behave – even if they don’t know them personally at all.

Actor Aishwarya Rajesh, who is primarily from the Tamil industry but has also done films in several languages, says that she often receives unsolicited advice on how she should dress or what kind of roles she should pick.

“People connect to the roles that we do to that extent. Let it be my role in Kaaka Muttai or Anbuchelvi in Dharmadurai, or Padma in Vada Chennai. People form a certain perception and they cannot accept it when a character (actor playing the character) they’ve related to jumps into a glamorous role. That’s natural but cinema is like that – we have to balance glamour, performance, everything. As an actor, I cannot say I won’t do that, I won’t do this. It’s my profession and I have to do different-different roles. And I have to do something if the role really demands it. This is also up to us. I’m not open to doing very glamorous roles but I can do it to an extent, in a way that I’m comfortable. If I’m uncomfortable, I won’t do it. That’s my mindset. Each and every actor will have their own mindset. It’s their choice – which films and which characters they’re willing to do,” she says.

Aishwarya Rajesh

She goes on to describe the discomfort that people express when she dresses in a certain way that they don’t approve of.

“I get a lot of comments asking why I post photos of my shoots – they may not be too glamorous but even if I show my leg or wear a dress with a low neck or something sleeveless, they say ‘Oh no, please don’t dress glamorously like this, we want to see you in homely roles always.’ That’s their connection with me. But some people do say I look very nice like this and ask why I can’t do more such roles. These are two different perceptions and I have to balance them,” she says.

Aishwarya Lekshmi, who shot to fame with her portrayal of Aparna in Mayaanadhi, is among the few women actors in the Malayalam film industry who are comfortable with doing intimate scenes if the script demands it. While Aishwarya has received rave reviews for her performance, she’s also targeted by a section for the characters she plays.

“I recently spoke to a person, a man who was stalking me online. He would comment on every picture, every interview on YouTube. He’d copy-paste these comments. I wanted to know what he intended when he did all this. Those comments were very hurtful. So whenever I saw his comment, I would respond. Eventually he started talking to me. The explanation he gave was that he’s very angry with me because of the scenes I did in Mayaanadhi. I told him that this was just a job and I stopped with that. But I was shocked – this is my life and I make the decisions about what I should do in my profession as an actor. It’s all right to appreciate or criticise, but to say you got angry because I did such a scene… and taking that to such a level where you make personal attacks!” she exclaims.

Aishwarya Lekshmi

Aishwarya Lekshmi says that women actors are especially vulnerable on social media and that anything they say can quickly escalate into personal attacks. She recalls an Instagram post she put up about an airline offering ‘Hindu’ meals for which she was slammed for merely expressing her views.

“They think if you’re an actor, you cannot talk about anything else. You can’t have an opinion about anything,” she says.

Married women actors or those in relationships face even more moral policing about how they dress and act on screen.

Actor Samantha, who is a popular star in the Tamil and Telugu industries, is well-known for doing glamorous roles. However, soon after she married Naga Chaitanya, who is from the Akkineni family, several people began “advising” her on how she should dress on screen. Her role as Ramalakshmi in Rangasthalam was appreciated by many but she was also criticised for the “bold” look of her character and for romancing actor Ram Charan on screen. Samantha has also received several such comments on her Instagram, prompting the actor to post a “middle finger” to all those who’d “advised” her on how she should live her life after marriage.

Actor Rashmika Mandanna was recently abused and trolled heavily on social media for doing romantic scenes with Vijay Deverakonda in the Telugu blockbuster Geetha Govindam. Rashmika was also blamed for her break-up with Kannada star Rakshit Shetty, although the two of them had not revealed why they had called their relationship off.

Drawing the line between reel and real

Though the constant scrutiny gets to them at times, women from the film industry are also conscious about the fact that they cannot afford to turn fans away from them with a sharp response.

Aishwarya Lekshmi, who was recently trolled for a comment she’d made on actor Prithviraj some years ago, says that she tendered an apology more for stopping the abuse than to the star himself.

“I was not even in the film industry then when I made the comment. I would obviously not say something like this now. I respect Prithviraj. But I know that he wouldn’t have cared about what I said. I did regret that I’d said something inappropriate but the apology was not for him,” she says.

Her strategy, she adds, is to give the impression that she cares about the unasked for advice that she receives but not really allow it to get to her.

Aishwarya Rajesh believes it’s high time people understood that what actors do on screen is their job and should not be confused with their personal lives.

“How can you say that just because I do something on screen I’d be okay with it in real life? In Vada Chennai, I have done liplock scenes with Dhanush. That doesn’t mean I have a personal relationship with him. That’s my role in the film. I swear a lot in the film but that’s because that’s how that character is. When you see Dharmadurai, I play a very sweet, innocent girl with whom a man falls in love. That doesn’t mean I’m in love with the actor off screen! You can be an entirely different person offscreen. If I’d told Vetrimaaran that I can’t speak the way I did in Vada Chennai, he would’ve said ‘You better go ma, I’ll find another actor’,” she says.

She also asserts that she doesn’t allow the trolling to annoy her.

“It’s become a fancy job to make memes now and they do it because we’re in the limelight. I don’t take it seriously. I can’t think ‘Oh no, I’ve been trolled, now I can’t show my face outside for two days’. People who talk rubbish will keep talking. We have to keep doing what we do. I think that’s the right approach,” she says.

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