After actor Varalaxmi Sarathkumar spoke about the culture of exploitation and sexual harassment that goes under the euphemism 'casting couch' in the film industry, actor and director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan has also added her voice to the chorus.
Speaking to The News Minute, Lakshmy said that she'd expressed her views when inaugurating a workshop on Human Rights at a women's college in Chennai on March 5.
"I consider this attitude, that if a woman is successful she should have compromised in some way, to be very shameful," she says. Lakshmy points out that earlier, it was only in the film industry that men and women used to work in close proximity, staying at the same hotel during shoots and spending long stretches of time together.
"There were men who were inclined to take advantage of this who'd come into the industry," she says. But Lakshmy adds that it wasn't as if such issues did not crop up in other professions and that even within the film industry, one always had a choice not to bow down to such pressures.
However, Lakshmy acknowledges that such pressures can sometimes make it very difficult for a woman to find work in the industry.
"Harassment is not just grabbing someone's hand or demanding that she sleeps with you. There are a lot of other things," Lakshmy explains, referring to the culture of coercion that exists within the industry.
"When I came into the industry, I was 42. I was fairly settled in life. I wasn't in a situation when I was desperate to make money. I didn't come into films because I wanted to become famous," recalls Lakshmy.
She decided to enter films because she was passionate about cinema and wanted to take stories and experiences to a larger audience.
Harassment on the sets
However, like many other women, Lakshmy, too, faced some unpleasant experiences. The first one between 2006-2008, when she was still a newbie.
"It was a bitter experience. I was sitting with the director in a room, next to the monitor. Since I was interested in direction, I always used to watch the monitor whenever I didn't have a shot. During one such time, he casually put his hand on me. At that time, I didn't make a big deal out of it. It didn't strike me as something wrong and I assumed that he'd done it by mistake," says Lakshmy.
But the next time he did it, Lakshmy pushed his hand away immediately. The director then asked her if she didn't like it.
"I was shocked," says Lakshmy. "I said this is not acceptable and I walked out. After this, my life was made miserable on set. It's not like he pulled my hand and harassed me but things became difficult. Sometimes, you might put up with it because you don't want to make a scene, people are watching...or you don't want to miss the opportunity. But I couldn't put up with it. I was very blunt."
Lakshmy goes on to detail what happened after that: "He would make me do 25 takes for one shot. He'd speak in an insulting way in front of everyone. When I'd walk past, he'd join with an actor and pass comments on me. But I turned around and gave it back to him then and there. I couldn't take it after a stage. I started weeping on the set."
Lakshmy says that people on the set told her not to react so badly to what was happening as it was not "so bad". Lakshmy somehow completed the first schedule of the film and then told the producer that unless the director apologised to her, she would not go back to film the rest.
Far from being supportive, the response she received was along the lines of, "Oh you've already worked for this other director and we know he wouldn't have left you alone."
"I found it very difficult to digest all this," Lakshmy says. "I felt so cheap and thought I've landed up in the wrong place. I entered films after a lot of struggle and convincing my family that this is a safe place and that I can take care of myself. I didn't want to give up."
Lakshmy's husband then called up the producer and told him that if the director did not mend his ways, they'd call a press meet and tell everyone what had happened. Senior actors in the Malayalam industry like Siddique and Nedumudi Venu also spoke up and supported Lakshmy.
Finally, the director apologised to Lakshmy and she went back to finish the film. Lakshmy notes that if she'd not had an understanding spouse or if she'd been desperate to hold on to an opportunity, the situation would have been very difficult.
"The director had some fear when he realised this. Of course, they badmouthed me but it didn't bother me," she says.
Harassment off set
Another incident, Lakshmy recalls, was when a director's PRO called her and asked if he could come home to discuss a film with her.
Lakshmy invited him home and they got talking.
"At one point, he said, 'So you're okay with all adjustments?' I said 'Yeah, no problem. What's there?' thinking he was talking about adjusting dates," laughs Lakshmy.
When the man realised that she didn't understand what he was suggesting, he told her in raw terms what it was.
"It's only then that I understood," says Lakshmy. "I literally threw him out of the apartment. I went for a film pujai the next day and I saw the man there. I spoke to the producer and told people about what had happened. He was a well-known person."
Lakshmy says that in the Tamil industry too, not being in the good books of influential people can mean you are dropped from film events and award functions.
Lakshmy explains how smoothly such things happen: "You'd want to slap these people but slowly, you start wondering if you're overreacting to it because other people are putting up with it! And what you should have rejected outright, you start wondering if there's something wrong with you for wanting to object."
The conspiracy of silence
After Varalaxmi's tweet, many junior artists reached out and told her that they too had experienced such suggestive comments and hints. The top female stars, however, have stayed mum.
Lakshmy says that this is really sad.
"It is a taboo to even speak about it," she says. "Because the stigma gets attached to you. That's the reason I spoke about it. I'm 51 now and not at an age when someone can sexually harass me. I wanted to break the stigma."
However, all though it is a hard industry to survive in, Lakshmy says that there were people within the industry and in the media who spotted her talent and promoted her.
"I was recognised for who I am. And the same director who'd harassed me came to me during the 100 years of cinema celebrations and spoke to me, asking me how I am and complimenting me on my film Aarohanam," she shares.
Lakshmy asserts that holding on to your dreams and principles without striking a compromise is the key to success.
Asked about the silence of male stars regarding these revelations that the industry's women have been making, Lakshmy says that for things to change, they too have to speak up.
"But I don't really see it happening. Generally speaking, there is no respect for women in the industry. It's extremely bad... We were in a meeting and there were these two heroines from the 80s who were sitting in front of me. Next to me, there were two-three industry bigwigs. They first spoke very politely to the two women but when the two women went onstage to speak, they started commenting like, 'Oh how much these women played around in the 80s...don't we know? Now they've come like patnis (chaste wives) to speak," says Lakshmy.
She feels having a women's union will help but only if women are willing to come forward to share their concerns and talk about these issues openly.
Although voices like hers and Varalaxmi's are rare, they still seem to signify a slow change that's happening in the industry and for the balance of power to tilt just a wee bit.