Sandalwood's 'Me Too': Kannada industry divided on Sruthi Hariharan and Arjun Sarja

While some actors like Shraddha Srinath have come out in support of Sruthi, many others have indulged in slut-shaming her.
Sandalwood's 'Me Too': Kannada industry divided on Sruthi Hariharan and Arjun Sarja
Sandalwood's 'Me Too': Kannada industry divided on Sruthi Hariharan and Arjun Sarja
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The Me Too movement has rocked Sandalwood and the male-dominant industry has been divided about the allegations that have been surfacing. On Saturday, actor Sruthi Hariharan recounted an alleged incident of sexual harassment involving south Indian actor Arjun Sarja. 

With several prominent persons in the industry supporting Arjun Sarja and slut shaming Sruthi, there were also quite a few industry persons who came forward and expressed solidarity with the actor.

#WeAreWithShru – those who supported the survivor

In the face of online abuse and trolling, a few actors spoke out in support of Sruthi and said that they would stand by her. Veteran actor Prakash Raj expressed his support for Sruthi and said that the industry was trying to silence women. He also called for an apology from Arjun Sarja.

“Even Valmiki, who portrayed Ram as a great man (Purushotham) did not hide the way he killed Vali, and the fact that he did not hide it didn’t reduce Ram’s dignity. Had this (Sruthi) issue been dealt with knowing that a man can have shortcomings, it would not have turned into an issue where they feel a family’s dignity has been lowered. It would have been more humane. To me, it does not feel like all these people are taking a stand for Sarja, it feels like they’ve all come together to silence a woman,” Prakash Raj said.

Actors Shraddha Srinath, Neethu, Avantika Shetty and Samyuktha Hegde expressed their solidarity with Sruthi with the hashtag #WeAreWithShru on social media.

“Women in the industry are scared to come out and talk. It’s very brave of you that you have come out about this. Because of course, we as “actresses” being brave only gets us criticism and trolls. Shruti has to get all the hate? Of course, Mr Sarja has a family history. He has power, money, support from people in the industry. But how does all this give someone permission to commit something so cheap?” Samyuktha Hegde said in a Tweet.

Actor Shraddha called out the journalists who hurled misogynistic questions at Sruthi during the press conference and also expressed solidarity with the actor.

“Disgusted beyond words when fellow journalists asked Sruthi Hariharan to keep repeating her ordeal and then even proceeded to ask what the difference between good touch and bad is at the press conference. Not taking sides, but isn't sensitivity required? The next time you see a woman being called names for voicing her opinion, her character being assassinated, being slut shamed or body shamed, stand up for her. Don't be a silent spectator. Do THAT instead of sending WhatsApp forwards. We don't need your wishes. They mean nothing," she said.

 Shraddha also questioned the silence of the male actors from the industry.

Actor Avantika Shetty retweeted Sruthi’s tweets regarding the sexual harassment allegations against Arjun Sarja. However, she also tweeted a clarification stating that she herself had not been sexually harassed by Arjun Sarja and that she'd not made any comments against him. 

“My interaction with media has been misquoted on some channels. Would request everybody to understand that while I’m for #MeToo, my interaction in personal capacity with Mr Arjun Sarja was brief and pleasant. He made feel comfortable and respected. I certainly would not and have not commented against him. I’m not backing anyone, I’m just sharing my experience with a person,” Avantika Shetty said in a couple off tweets.

Speaking to TNM, Sandalwood actor Chetan said that fans of Arjun Sarja have been trolling the survivors and intimidating them. He said that although Arjun has been cordial with him, he supports the survivor.

“There is external intimidation by his fans. There are also several women who have spoken about the sexual harassment they faced at the hands of Arjun Sarja. Several women actors have also spoken in support of Arjun. Just because he has not behaved that way with one actor does not mean he did not do so with another actor. It’s time the Kannada Film Industry gets an ICC and makes the place safer for women,” Chetan said.

The women supporting the "Gentleman"

Among those from the industry criticising Sruthi for speaking up is Harshika Poonacha, who rose to fame after her role in the film Jackie along with Puneet Rajkumar. She spoke in support of Arjun Sarja on Tuesday. In a Facebook post, Harshika said that Sruthi Hariharan was accusing Arjun Sarja only to gain publicity.

“I am truly disgusted to see how few actresses are using their femininity as a tool for pure publicity. Publicity is good! But at what cost? Breaking a person’s family? Shaming his wife and kids?” her post reads.

Oozing patriarchal ideas in her post, Harshika said that several actors in the industry were not “pure” or “clean” enough to say “no to advances”.

“Most of these so-called activist actresses do everything when they badly need what they want in the initial stages of their careers by giving all the freedom to these men who they now accuse for their own selfish needs of publicity. They start targeting the same men who they were smiling and walking hands in hands with!... Being an actress myself, I have come across a few people asking me favours and I clearly gave it back very politely and made my priorities and values clear to them right then and there !! And now after 10 years I’m very proud that not one person in any industry can point a finger at me because I have remained pure and clean and done work which were clean! (sic)” Harshika said.

She also claimed that an influential producer had once showed her videos of “so-called activist actresses smoking weed and falling over men”.

“A producer showed me a video of a few actresses smoking weed, leaning on a person’s shoulder and listing people whose names they want to spoil. I’ve personally seen them doing things I don’t want to mention here,” she added.

Harshika’s statement was not the only one which was disturbingly sexist. Speaking to the media in Mandya, veteran actor Tara too spoke in support of Arjun Sarja. Her statement came right after south Indian film star Khushbu called Arjun Sarja a gentleman and said that she did not believe Sruthi’s allegations.

“I have acted with Arjun in many films. His reputation in the film industry is impeccable and he is respected by all. The Film Chamber will take a call on this. I am not saying that Sruthi’s allegations are false. But I know why she is making these allegations and I don’t support it. I support the Me Too movement,” Tara said.

On Wednesday, Sandalwood actor Hariprriya, supported Arjun Sarja through a video she posted on Facebook.

“Hearing the allegations against Arjun Sarja sir, I have been very upset. I have known him for seven to eight years now and I have also acted with him in the Tamil film Vallakottai (2010). It had been only two years since I entered the film industry when I did this film and I did not know much about the film industry back then. Arjun Sir would comfort me and make me feel better since I did not know Tamil. He offered a lot of support and would talk to me in Kannada. He is very respectful towards everyone on the set. I respect him a lot. I have seen how he behaves with people and how respectfully he treated me. Because of all these reasons, I believe the allegations against him are not true,” actor Hariprriya said.

This is not all, another Sandalwood actor Vijayalakshmi spoke in support of Arjun and her claims too were similar to that of Hariprriya’s. Vijayalakshmi said that she had worked with Arjun on a film several years ago and had utmost respect for him.

She went a step further and asked why the Film Industry for Rights and Equality (FIRE) wanted to "interfere" in the issue when “the film family” would take care of the matter.

“What is the need for FIRE? We are a family and if anything happens in our film industry, there are mechanisms to sort it out,” actor Vijayalakshmi said.

The mansplainers

Several male actors too came out and supported Arjun Sarja, stating that his “gentlemanly behaviour” and his “track record” are the reasons why they “disbelieve” the survivor. Veteran actor and BJP leader Jaggesh told the media that he does not believe the allegations against Arjun.

“I don’t think Arjun did anything wrong. I have known him for decades now. I have seen him grow as a star. He is a humble, respectful and a well-behaved gentleman. When people start politicising an issue, it becomes wrong. They shouldn’t do that,” Jaggesh said.

On Wednesday, actor Kokila Mohan jumped into the bandwagon and mansplained the issue to the media. Kokila Mohan said that he was “shocked to hear such allegations against Arjun Sarja” and that “the Me Too platform” was being “misused”.

“I am shocked to hear Me Too allegations against Arjun Sarja. The Me Too campaign is a very good platform but it should not be misused. I’ve known Arjun Sarja for 35 years now. He has worked as an actor, director and producer for many films. So far no one has made any allegations against him,” he added.

Kokila Mohan further thought it fit to declare Arjun Sarja innocent since he had denied the allegations made by Sruthi Hariharan. “Arjun has denied the allegations and said he is innocent, which is believable. I believe him,” he added.

Insensitive journalists

If you are wondering why the media has not called out the misogynistic statements made by members of the film industry, there’s news here too. Several members of the press too asked insensitive questions as to why Sruthi had not spoken up earlier and that it was slightly hard to believe that someone like Arjun Sarja could have sexually harassed someone.

The actor calmly answered all the questions and also reiterated the need for an Internal Complaints Committee, which the Kannada Film Industry does not have.

The need for change in Sandalwood 

On October 17, senior Sandalwood star Sanjjana Galrani accused director Ravi Srivastava of coercing her into performing scenes for a film, which she was not comfortable doing. 

Over 15 days ago, a hairdresser, who works in various Sandalwood films complained of being sexually harassed by the chief of make-up for the film. In August, Kannada actor Jayashree accused a filmmaker of sexually harassing her. In July, actor Dharma was accused of sexual harassment and an FIR was registered too. 

Krishi Tapanda, a former Bigg Boss contestant openly spoke about how she lost opportunities as she refused to comply with the demands of men in the industry. She had stated that she refused an offer for a Telugu film as the men were seeking “favours” in order to give her a role in the film. 

Avantika Shetty, actor of Rangi Taranga, had also spoken about the sexual harassment she faced at the hands of a filmmaker. 

Over the years, several women have spoken about sexual harassment in Sandalwood and several veterans agree that the phenomenon is prevalent. The hatred spewed by those in the industry after actor Sruthi Hariharan went public with her experience of sexual harassment is therefore unpardonable.

 Instead of addressing the issue and realising that the Kannada film industry needs to ensure safer spaces for women, most of the veterans have turned hostile. So much so that the Karnataka Film Producers’ Association even sought an explanation from Sruthi for raising the issue and also warned her of consequences if she failed to respond to the notice issued by them.

Sandalwood, like other film industries in the country, does not have an Internal Complaints Committee yet. Instead, the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce takes pride in the dormant “Central Reconciliation Committee”. This committee, mostly comprised of male veterans in the industry has representations from the various associations including the producers, directors, exhibitors, distributors, artists and technicians.  The committee is also known for its insensitivity towards survivors. The women are asked to come for a meeting and face the accused. The committee then deliberates and asks the survivor and the accused to arrive at a compromise. 

“This goes against all the rules of an Internal Complaints Committee and the way issues of work place sexual harassment is dealt with,” says Panchami, great-grand daughter of playwright Gubbi Veeranna, who is a member of FIRE. 

The KFCC was registered under the Karnataka Societies Registration Act in 1960 and currently has over 6,000 members. So far, the KFCC does not have an ICC. When TNM asked Chinne Gowda, the KFCC President as to why the industry does not have an ICC, he said, “We promise to set up a Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee by the first week of December. The issue will be discussed in the next executive committee meeting.”

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