TNM spoke to professionals from Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil industries to understand if there has been any progress at all in how these workplaces address sexual harassment.

Delve Women's Rights Thursday, October 03, 2019 - 15:39

It's been a year since the #MeToo movement hit the entertainment and media industries in India. In the south, several women spoke up about the harassment that they have faced over the years. While some of these allegations were made anonymously through Twitter handles supporting the movement, others put their names to their accounts.

The accusations created a media frenzy and each new name that came up made it to the headlines. But have things changed substantially on ground?

TNM spoke to professionals from the four southern film industries to find out if an Internal Committee (IC) as mandated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013) has been set up since then.

Malayalam

For the women of the Malayalam film industry, the battle began much before #MeToo exploded. Since February 2017, when a prominent woman actor from the industry was abducted and sexually assaulted, the industry has been sharply divided along the lines of those who chose to stand by the survivor, and those who chose to back Dileep, a male star who has been accused of being the mastermind behind the attack. The standoff between the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) and the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) played out publicly, with the latter film body refusing to even acknowledge that sexual harassment at the workplace is an issue.

In October 2018, the Kerala High Court had issued a notice to the state government, AMMA and other film bodies when the writ petition filed by actor Rima Kallingal, a founding member of the WCC, came up for hearing. The petition asked that AMMA and other film bodies set up an IC.

However, speaking to TNM, Rima says that there has been no progress since then.

"After we gave the writ petition, AMMA did a show in Dubai and for that particular event alone they constituted an IC. They were ready to call that a workplace since people were going to work for the film body. But otherwise, they keep saying they don't need an IC because they are just an organisation in the industry, and that that does not constitute a workplace," she says.

Unlike the Vishaka Guidelines which defined workplace as a traditional office setup where there's a clear employee-employer relationship, the 2013 Act is much wider in definition and includes domestic and voluntary workers, daily wage earners, temporary and contract employees and even trainees and apprentices. The definition of workplace has also expanded to include sports institutes and events, hospitals and nursing homes, unorganised sector and any place where a person has traveled to on work.

However, although film bodies intervene in disputes within the industry, they are reluctant to set up ICs because they claim that the members are not their employees.

Director and academician Asha, who is also part of the WCC, says, "AMMA, FEFKA, Film Chamber of Commerce and Kerala state responded to the writ petition saying that they have done whatever they could do. The 2013 Act is a very good legislation which has a wide and deep understanding about the issue. We have to make a final presentation before the court and we're preparing for that. We will present a well-researched response to what they have been saying."

AMMA has a 3-member Women's Cell Grievance Forum and believes an IC, as mandated by the Act, is unnecessary beyond this.

Production houses in the Malayalam industry, Asha says, are reluctant to set up ICs because they claim they don't have the manpower or expertise to set up an IC for every production. When Aashiq Abu and Rima produced Virus, however, they set up an IC for the production because they wanted to set an example for the rest of the industry.

Telugu

The Telugu industry was rocked by controversy when aspiring actor Sri Reddy leveled a series of allegations and also conducted a strip protest outside the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce, demanding that the film body address the alleged rampant sexual harassment in the industry. Following this, women activists in Telangana submitted a memorandum to the government, questioning the inaction by Movie Artists' Association (MAA). Finally, the film body announced in April this year that it will set up a Committee Against Sexual Harassment which will meet once in three months. However, an IC as per law has not been set up.

Director Nandini Reddy says, "We cannot have an IC directly because the Telugu industry is not one organisation. It has got multiple organisations. There's MAA, Film Directors' Association and so on. So there's no central body which heads everything. We're not all permanent employees, it doesn't work like a corporate structure. If there's an allegation against me, I cannot be fired or transferred. You can at most say that you will not work with me. But that's not binding on everybody, especially people who are not members of that organisation. It's a complex structure."

While there was much noise about boycotting men who were accused in the #MeToo movement, the outrage has largely been temporary. Aamir Khan recently did a U-turn on his decision not to work with director Subhash Kapoor. Nandini points out that the southern industries haven't been any better.

"We saw Vairamuthu also doing Mani sir's film (Ponniyin Selvan). Right now they're saying 'Oh, he's only been accused and he's regretful of it'. They're saying it, we haven't heard Vairamuthu making any kind of statement that he regrets his behaviour. Things are very fluid as far as boycotts go. I was also slightly disappointed by what happened in Mumbai. Let's hope that this doesn't die out. Nobody is interested in male bashing. The idea is that everybody deserves an equal and good work space. The fight is only to make this place free and fair so that more and more women come into this industry, knowing that this is a safe environment," she says.

The concrete step that Nandini says the Telugu industry has taken is to form a group comprising industry and non-industry personalities to "study the legalities" and come up with recommendations that they can submit to the government.

"But in the meanwhile, we have given notices to producers and production houses to set up ICs within their respective organisations. It has gone officially from the Producers' Council as a directive to production houses that they need to set up ICs in their organisations," she says.

Nandini says that anyone working in a film produced by the production house can approach the IC and also their respective associations for redressal. These associations do not have ICs as such but they have committees where a complaint can be taken up and forwarded to the newly formed group, she adds.

"The reason we made it a transparent committee was so there's no pressure from the industry and nobody is partisan. This is to ensure that no matter how senior a person (accused) is, they cannot call someone up to fix the issue," she says.

The non-industry members in the committee are from various streams like education, medicine, law, psychiatry, women's organisations and so on.

After the #MeToo movement broke out, women members from the industry came together to form of Voice of Women, a support group.

"We have used Voice of Women to spread information that these redressal mechanisms exist and lay out the issues that women are facing - basic things like toilet facilities, transport if they're shooting at a far off destination, membership cards for unions and so on. Not only for actors but dancers, choreographers, make-up artists etc," she says.

Nandini claims that compared to the other industries, the Telugu industry has been far more supportive about these measures.

Kannada

The Kannada film industry already had an organisation to address the rights and grievances of its members, including sexual harassment, before the #MeToo movement happened. Called FIRE (Film Industry for Rights & Equality), the organisation was set up in March 2017 and also has an IC.

Actor Chetan Kumar, who is part of FIRE, says that the Kannada Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC) was supportive of the idea at the time.

"We met the members of the film chamber and other bodies that are functioning in the film industry – artists' association, producers' association, directors' association etc. This was before the #MeToo movement exploded in Kannada and they were respectful of the idea. They thought it was a good initiative and said they would support it," he recalls.

However, when women from the industry (like Sruthi Hariharan who accused Arjun Sarja) started speaking out against workplace sexual harassment in October 2018, these organisations backtracked.

"They actually started victim shaming. The former head of the film chamber, Sara Govind, would call Sruthi and other women 'crazy', say they're from outside the state and speak a different language...without any sense of objectivity about the expression of the struggle that they have gone through. On top of that, there were so many attempts to break our IC. They'd call up members of our IC and tell them to leave. There were rumours at the time that they'd start their own IC – which I thought was very good, if the film chamber and other associations would actually take the initiative," he says.

However, the KFCC's IC never materialised.

At the time of the #MeToo movement, FIRE had offered to the Kannada Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC) that the complaints could be handled by its existing IC. But, the idea was not welcomed.

Director, screen writer and lyricist Kavitha Lankesh, who is also part of FIRE, says, "They did not accept the suggestion. They said they would constitute an IC themselves in the chamber, but they haven't done so. They did not want an external body. We wanted an independent IC which won't be influenced by the chamber but we wanted the chamber and every other organisation – like the directors', dancers', junior artists', make up artists' and so on – to cooperate with us. But throughout India, this (the movement) has fizzled out. People don't want to complain any more."

But despite its difficult relationship with the rest of the industry, FIRE's IC continues to function. Though the body does not have any control over people who may be accused, it assists the complainant with legal advice and also makes it known to the accused that such a complaint has been made in his name and is being investigated.

"Each complaint is different and is context-sensitive. First of all, once we receive the complaint, we present it before our committee. The committee discusses the complaint and calls the victim or someone associated with the victim. Then we sit at our office and discuss with our lawyers. After that, we follow up with the person who has been accused and we're in touch with them. Many times, they don't appear because they don't want to accept it and we don't have any compelling force to make them do so," says Chetan.

FIRE works in tandem with other associations to apply pressure on the accused to take responsibility for what has happened – like a written undertaking that he will not repeat his behaviour.

"If it does continue, we have the option of going to the police," Chetan says, while acknowledging that if the accused is someone powerful, the situation is more complicated.

FIRE's policy is to resolve issues within the industry, ensuring confidentiality to the victim and the accused and not let it escalate to finger-pointing and media sensationalism. Even if the accused does not turn up for the committee's meetings, Chetan says, they let it be known that his behaviour is being watched and questioned.

Kavitha feels that the movement has made an impact, although the voices of the women who spoke up have been squashed.

"People are wary of things now. If they do exploit any woman, they do think about whether they will come under the radar," she says.

Tamil

In the Tamil industry, the names of several men came up during the #MeToo movement, with lyricist Vairamuthu, actor Radha Ravi and director Susi Ganesan being the big ones. Nevertheless, most from the industry were tight-lipped, completely ignoring the voices that were speaking up.

After Radha Ravi slut-shamed Nayanthara at a promo event, however, the Nadigar Sangam did a show of forming a committee in April this year to address sexual harassment at the workplace. Actors Karthi, Suhasini Maniratnam, Rohini, Kitty alias Raja Krishnamoorthy, Poochi Murugan, Lalitha Kumari and Krishna Raveendran were part of the committee. However, it does not appear that the industry has taken any step beyond the preliminary meeting to address the issue.

Speaking to TNM, actor Kitty says, "The meeting we had was for suggestions on how to constitute the committee. We have given our suggestions and contributions to that. The update related to this should be available from the executive committee members of the Nadigar Sangam."

According to actor Nassar, the Nadigar Sangam has formed a committee but it can be activated only after the Nadigar Sangam elections. 

"Our paperwork is done but it has to be put into practice," says Nasser. When TNM asked who the head of the IC is ,however, he says, "No, we have formed our own..it is not like any other existing group. We have a group of..not one person."

But shouldn't the committee be formed as per the law?

"It is based on the guidelines. We have a panel of four external committee members but we haven't decided yet. We have listed lawyers, psychiatrists and pyschologists," he says. And while he couldn't confirm the number of members immediately, he maintained that there has been no progress because the Nadigar Sangam elections are due. "But if there is any crisis, we are ready to solve it. We won't postpone it."

Actors Karthi, Suhasini and Rohini did not respond to TNM's multiple attempts to contact them about the IC. However, a woman member of the Nadigar Sangam told TNM that as far as she and friends from the industry were aware, an IC has not been constituted by the body. 

Note: This story has been updated to include actor Nassar's inputs.