From Aishwarya Rajesh to Athithi, many women have spoken about sexual harassment but there's no outrage.

Silence fear and money protected Hollywoods Weinstein What about Indian film industries
Flix Sexual Harassment Thursday, October 12, 2017 - 12:53

Harvey Weinstein, who co-founded one of America's biggest film production companies, stands accused of serial sexual harassment and assault of several women actors spanning decades.

The New Yorker and the New York Times, among other publications, have been carrying extensive reports on the systematic way in which Weinstein, has over the years, exploited women looking for work in Hollywood.

While he stopped with making unwelcome sexual suggestions and overtures to some women, he has been accused of forcing others to perform oral sex and assaulting them.

The lengthy list of women who have come forward to speak against Weinstein includes A listers like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow. The reports mention that far from being a closely guarded secret, Weinstein's behaviour was known to people within his company, Miramax, as well as the film industry. But all these years, even as journalists sniffed around the story and one victim even wore a wire so Weinstein's sexual advances could be heard and recorded by the police, it was not until now that the floodgates opened.

It was possible for Weinstein to persist in his criminal behaviour and say, "I'm used to that" (much like President Trump's infamous 'Grab them by the pussy' boast) because his behaviour, as shocking as it is once we see it on print, in black and white, is sadly normalised in the entertainment industry.

Yes, sexual harassment at the workplace can exist in any industry but it is especially common in a world where the criminal act comes with the alluring and even seductive label of 'casting couch'. Women who work in entertainment, before the cameras that subject them to the male gaze as a matter of routine, are considered easy game for the men who hold the money power.

If they don't cooperate, as Weinstein's victims have said, they risk being dropped from projects, sidelined in the industry, and even be subjected to negative PR stories that destroy their image in the minds of the audience.

Sounds familiar? It should, because the story is despairingly similar to what happens in Indian film industries.

The Weinsteins in India

From Rekha, whose biography revealed to the world that she was forcibly kissed in front of the camera without her consent when she was still a teenager, to Kangana Ranaut who filed a police complaint against actor and producer Aditya Pancholi alleging physical abuse, there are many such stories which have made to the headlines for a brief period but have done little to dismantle the existing culture within the industry.

In the south, actors like Aishwarya Rajesh, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, Parvathy and others have shared stories of how they were expected to "go with the flow" and provide sexual favours to industry men. Their refusal to do so came with a price - they lost out on those films.

Aishwarya Rajesh told TNM in an earlier interview that the proposition would be made as casually as, "Just go and be with him for half an hour."

In actor Athithi's case, she went as far as attempting suicide because director Selva Kannan continuously harassed her. The response of the Nadigar Sangam was to send Athithi back to her home in Kerala, while washing their hands off Selva Kannan because he wasn't a member of the Sangam.

Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, too, had told TNM that after she launched her 'Save Shakti' initiative to bring in gender equality in the film industry, she found that there were so many women in the industry - not just actors but costume designers, make-up assistants and so on - who had horror stories to share.

Indeed, many years ago, Tamil director Thankar Bachan had infamously remarked that women in the film industry were the same as sex workers. He apologised for his comment but his words were an accurate summary of how many men within the industry feel about their women colleagues.

Omerta

In Kerala, actor Dileep stands accused of being the mastermind behind the abduction and sexual assault of a prominent woman actor. Even as he is out on bail, and received a hero’s welcome when he came out of jail, the conversation around sexual harassment in the industry has been bleak.

While the Women in Cinema Collective in the Malayalam industry has been speaking about how women actors are treated by industry men, Innocent, the President of AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists) categorically stated that there was no such thing as the "casting couch" in the industry. Only some "bad women" may take that route, he said.

If the culture of sexual harassment is as prevalent as it is, why isn't there more outrage about it? Why the denial?

The reason why so many men in the film industry get away with anything ranging from passing sexually loaded comments to assault, is that the people who are the biggest names in the industry can't be bothered to speak up about what happens under their nose.

Take Kamal Haasan for instance, who speaks about beef, corruption, religion, jallikattu and a number of other things - he hasn't said anything about sexual harassment in his own workspace. Neither has Rajinikanth. Not even after there has been so much conversation around it.

Kamal spoke about the assault on the Malayalam woman actor when he was asked by the media but he did not get into how film industries exercise violence against the women within it as a way to control them.

The big superstars of film industries are complicit in maintaining the culture of silence. Even if they don't demand sexual favours themselves (and rumours say many do), they turn a blind eye to what directors, producers, and stakeholders do. They are gambling with big money and cannot afford to take a stance.

Forget speaking out against sexual harassment, in Kerala, the industry is busy celebrating the return of accused Dileep with hashtags like #Avanodoppam even as the case against him is in court. Much like how Hollywood celebrates men like Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Roman Polanski.

There is an omerta in place - a code of ‘honour’ in keeping silence - and nobody, including the victims, will break it out of fear that they will lose out.

Apart from not getting film offers, they also run the risk of triggering a negative PR campaign against them. Indeed, actor Manju Warrier, Dileep's ex wife, has spoken about how she and her friends who stood by her during her divorce had been targeted - not only were they denied films, they were also subjected to abuse and ridicule supposedly by the "public". Stories about how Manju was a "bad mother" did the rounds as the actor announced her comeback. Going against a powerful industry man comes with a price.

The Weinstein story is shocking only because it has surfaced at last. It has been lurking in the deep for years until it was fished out and everyone could exclaim in horror about the shark that's been caught. The sea of stars in our own film industries is far from calm and has several such sharks lurking within. They may not be caught now but hopefully, their Weinstein moment will come soon, as the voices of the women in the industry grow louder.

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