Curious residents milled near the tent set up on the road leading to Chennaiās Valluvar Kottam on Wednesday morning. The people here were not new to loud political gatherings and leaders whose voices blared on speakers. But at this gathering, in the popular political pocket, were Kollywood stars - small and big - all holding posters against sexual abuse and the person at the forefront of this campaign, was actor Varalaxmi Sarathkumar.
Two weeks after she took to Twitter to express her angst against the casting couch, actor Varalaxmi Sarathkumar launched a signature campaign in Valluvar Kottam on the occasion of Women's day. The campaign named #SaveShakti, aimed to gather signatures in support of bringing about Mahila courts in every taluk of Tamil Nadu. This move, she claimed, will increase conviction rates and encourage more women to speak up against sexual harassment and abuse. After collecting as many signatures as she can by 6pm, the actor will submit her demands to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Edappadi Palaniswami.
The actor who arrived at the venue at 7am, told The New Minute, that this move was long overdue. "There are so many pending cases, delayed verdicts and culprits who have not been brought to law yet. This will target all these problems and men who commit such crimes will finally fear punishment," Varalaxmi pointed out. When asked if her own experience with the casting couch, triggered this campaign, she said, "It is not just about actors. Women from across the country identified with my tweet because they have faced sexual harassment. Clearly something is wrong and we don't address the problem, nothing will change."
While the campaign started off slow, with only close to 50 people in attendance at 10am, it began gathering momentum after Kollywood stars began pouring in to express their support. Television stars walked in at close to 11am to sign the sheets presented by volunteers at the campaign. Passers- by, clearly intrigued by the presence of familiar faces, walked into the campaign site to enquire about the cause. What followed next was a flurry of signatures, even as volunteers explained the motive behind #SaveShakti.
"Our main focus is women's safety and we are here to support the cause that Varalaxmi has taken up. We are here to raise our voice against the lack of institutions that will hold up the rights of women. However, we can only raise our voice. It is up to the Government to hear us out and ensure that the right steps are taken," observed actor Jeeva Ravi.
From school girls to the elderly, there was a constant line of people waiting to sign in support of the #SaveShakti campaign. Amongst them, were several fans standing eagerly to meet Kollywood stars, who were arriving to express their solidarity. The pack was led by actor Sneha and her husband Prasanna. They were then followed by Nadigar Sangam Secretary Vishal, Danshika of Kabali fame, 'Jayam' Ravi and Director Mysskin. Also in attendance were Venkat Prabhu, Premgi Amaren and Arvind Aakash of Chennai-28 fame.
Speaking to TNM, actor Sneha said, "Varalaxmi is an actor and therefore a lot of people came forward to express support when she posted something on the casting couch. But there are so many women out there who go through some form of sexual harassment every day and their voice is never heard. But we want this campaign to be an example. If you are going through something, then come out and talk about it. There is no point just sitting at home and crying about it."
At close to 1pm, the campaign had already gathered close to 700 signature, In addition to this, Varalaxmi had arranged for women's colleges to independently hold the campaign and send in the signatures. The actor was confident that she would have close 10,000 signatures by the end of the day. "This is just the beginning," said actor Danshika. "With rising number of cases coming to our attention, this campaign is the need of the hour. We also need to revisit the punishments listed for sexual abuse. There is definitely a need for more stringent laws," she added.
This gathering, organised by actor Varalaxmi, comes close on the heels of a ghastly incident that stunned Kerala and its tinsel town. A leading female actor had been abducted and raped in Kochi two weeks ago and a shocked Mollywood had gathered at Kochiās Durbar Hall Ground to express their angst. It was after this incident, that Varalaxmi had tweeted on her experience on the casting couch.
Actor Vishal, who was present at the venue as well, clearly had this in mind when he said, "Rape, sexual assault and child sexual abuse are raging issues in our society right now. I encourage men also to show their solidarity towards this cause. With due respect to the court of law, there needs to be a stricter outlook. Will such rapists be allowed to get away in Saudi Arabia? Why is this issue still persisting in India?"
Public present at the campaign were elated with the opportunity to meet their favourite actors. "We have come her to show our support for the cause because Vishal is here," said 48-year-old Amudha, who had come from Tiruvottiyur to be part of the campaign. "We are glad he is supporting this initiative for women. We face harassment in our daily lives and have nobody to approach. This platform makes it seem like it is time we spoke out," she added.
Women's activist Suchitra Rao, said this campaign will definitely create a dialogue on women safety. "Several girls who go through such harassment are afraid to speak up. Actors are seen as role models and when they talk it will encourage other to be bold as well. In addition to this, these voices will definitely reach authorities who can initiate reform.
Even as Kollywood stars meeted and greeted one another, several of them walked over to Varalaxmi to congratulate her on the initiative. They all signed in support of the campaign, before heading off for their shoots.
TNM caught up with actor Prasanna, who claimed that he had not come there as someone merely belonging to the film industry. "I don't want to see another Nirbhaya happen. There needs to be stronger laws in the first place and when such incident do happen, speedy justice. It is painful that people get away with such crimes. Can you imagine what a woman would go through when this horrific incident happens? After this she has to wait for justice. I want an India where we can confidently say women are safe. That is the day that we can truly name this, women's day" he said.