Nawazuddin Siddiqui is in the cast of Karthik Subbaraj's Petta, starring Rajinikanth in the lead role. Dileep has just signed a new film with B Unnikrishnan. Arjun Sarja is in Priyadarshan's ambitious film Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, which has Mohanlal playing the title role.
All of these men have been accused of some form of sexual harassment or abuse, and as if to shut up the ‘oh-but-what-about-their-careers’ whataboutery, there is literally no break in the work they get.
In fact, it is as if the #MeToo movement, which created much noise in the last few months, never took place.
The #MeToo movement had been incubating in the south Indian film industries for a while, before it exploded in October this year. Women actors had started speaking out about sexual harassment in their workplace, although nobody was named initially. Perhaps it was the abduction and sexual assault on a prominent woman actor from the Malayalam film industry which triggered the discussion. Or maybe it was the Weinstein scandal which rocked Hollywood, the tremors of which reached our film industries too.
Or maybe it was the fact that women from across fields have started standing up for themselves and each other, outing the powerful men in their network whose predatory behaviour has been an open secret for years.
In the Malayalam film industry, the Women in Cinema Collective was set up. In Tamil, actors like Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, Aishwarya Rajesh and others acknowledged that sexual harassment was rampant in the industry. In Telugu, upcoming actor Sri Reddy protested the lack of an Internal Complaints Committee and spoke to multiple TV channels about the exploitation in the film industry. Sruthi Hariharan from the Kannada industry spoke at the India Today Conclave about how she had lost opportunities in the Tamil film industry when she turned down the sexual proposition of a producer who wanted to remake her Kannada film in Tamil.
Though these women were speaking up, the rest of the industry largely pretended to be deaf. But, in October 2018, names and specific allegations of sexual harassment began to surface and the film industries could no longer ignore the issue and hope that it will go away.
However, although they made the right noises about setting up an ICC at last and "welcoming" the #MeToo movement, several industry insiders who even bothered to air their opinion about the issue were quick to add a disclaimer about "misuse" of the movement.
Music composer AR Rahman, for instance, broke his silence about #MeToo and issued a carefully worded statement without mentioning lyricist Vairamuthu (with whom he's worked extensively), and ended it with a disclaimer on "misuse". This, even as the allegation against Vairamuthu came from singer Chinmayi, who has sung a number of songs for the composer, and his sister and composer Reihana gave an interview, admitting that Vairamuthu's behaviour was an "open secret" in the film industry. There was not a peep from any of the other directors or composers who have worked with Vairamuthu in the past.
Needless to say, there has been no response at all from the doyens of the industry after Chinmayi said that she'd been removed from the dubbing union for posting anonymous allegations about the union head Radha Ravi, and the fact that her singing opportunities have reduced after she decided to take on Vairamuthu. Meanwhile, Radha Ravi continues to be a much wanted supporting actor, having just appeared in two big budget films, Dhanush's Vada Chennai and Vijay's Sarkar, and retains his post in the union.
In the case of Sruthi Hariharan and Arjun Sarja, the Kannada Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC) attempted to broker "peace" between the two actors. Another actor, Sanjjanaa Galrani, was forced to apologise to director Ravi Srivatsa who allegedly coerced her to shoot explicit scenes in her first film, in order to "maintain decorum" in the industry.
In the Malayalam film industry, the women in the WCC have been systematically denied work for standing by the survivor. Award winning actor Parvathy has spoken about her dwindling film projects, despite her success at the box-office, and others too have confirmed the same to news outlets.
On the other hand, not a single man from the south Indian film industries who was accused of sexual harassment, has been removed from any project. And this includes Dileep, a chargesheeted accused in a rape case who was denied bail several times by the court. At least, nobody has publicly taken such a stance and made a declaration.
This is in sharp contrast to Bollywood, where several prominent voices have come out in support of the #MeToo movement, without disclaimers, and have said they will not work with men who have been accused of sexual harassment. This includes 11 women directors from the Hindi film industry, and actors like Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar. Phantom Films was shut down, accused men have been removed from projects, film festivals have excluded their films.
Those who refuse to understand the #MeToo movement may say that it's unfair to remove the accused from projects before they are proven guilty. However, the #MeToo movement is only a trigger to set the ball rolling and begin an investigation, in an atmosphere where sexual harassment is routinely pushed under the red carpet. For instance, when comedian and screenwriter Varun Grover was named in the #MeToo movement, OTT platform Netflix initially dropped him from Season 2 of the Sacred Games series. However, he was reinstated after he countered the anonymous allegations and their internal investigation cleared him.
In the case of the southern film industries, there has been no honest attempt to initiate an investigation into the allegations which have been made. The emphasis has continued to be on "false" allegations and striking a "compromise". Nawazuddin Siddiqui, for example, was accused of sexually abusive behaviour by former Miss India Niharika Singh recently. She was among the women who'd objected to Nawazuddin's memoir for misrepresenting his relationships, and the book was later withdrawn. But not only does the actor continue to be part of the cast of Petta (directed by Karthik Subbaraj, who also made the wanting-to-be-feminist film Iraivi), nobody from the cast or crew has said a word about the allegations against him.
The way in which the industries have handled such issues in the past also does not inspire confidence. In the Tamil film industry, for example, actor Athithi attempted suicide after she was allegedly sexually harassed by director Selva Kannan. And although the president of the Nadigar Sangam, Vishal, admitted that he knew of the incident, the solution of the organisation was to send Athithi back to her home state Kerala rather than take concrete measures to prevent such incidents in the industry.
The fallout for the men, in other words, has been nil, while the women are faced with serious consequences to their career. This also means that colleagues who support the women who've come out and adopt an uncompromising stance may end up losing money, projects and contacts. But this is the point of #MeToo – it is to turn things around and ensure that the ones who get kicked out of projects, lose money, and their network are the predators and not their prey. The process will be painful but it is necessary to go through it if you are serious about cleansing the workplace.
And if you're not ready to do this, perhaps you should keep your hypocritical statements with disclaimers to yourself.