The Pollachi sexual assault case has sent shockwaves across Tamil Nadu. Several celebrities have tweeted about the incident, asking for justice for the victims. Going one step ahead, actor and producer Suriya has written a powerful column for Tamil The Hindu titled, "Don't we have any role to play in violence against women?".
Suriya, who is known for his philanthropic activities, has raised several important questions in the article, observing that even a god in our mythology does not have the courage to say a woman's "chastity" is of no greater importance than her well-being. In a society where "Tamil culture" is considered to be dependent on the "modesty" of women, Suriya boldly asserts that there is no difference between misogyny (the hatred of women) and the "loving" entreaties that ask them to be "careful for their own good".
The actor has also spoken about his own struggles as a father, pointing out the inherent challenges in bringing up a gutsy young girl in a society which expects her to be docile. From the warnings about sex selection tests that we see even in expensive hospitals, to the way victims of sexual violence are ostracised by society, Suriya has placed the Pollachi issue within the context where such incidents occur, without merely ranting about it in isolation.
The article is a shift in the victim blaming narrative that we're used to seeing in popular culture, especially cinema. And as an actor who commands a wide fan-base in the state, Suriya's voice will certainly help amplify the concerns that women's rights activists have prioritised for decades.
However, though our film celebrities have lost no time in condemning the Pollachi sexual assault, nearly all of them were completely silent when the #MeToo movement exposing sexual harassment in the Tamil film industry broke out in October 2018. Some of them, like Kamal Haasan and Sarath Kumar, expressed their support when asked about the issue in press conferences. A few like Siddharth and Prakash Raj voluntarily tweeted their solidarity. But the vast majority, especially the big male stars, chose to remain quiet. Suriya, too, had nothing to say about the issue – neither to the press nor on his social media pages.
In his article for the newspaper, Suriya rightly says that when a survivor speaks, she must be heard and supported by the people around her. Without this backing, it is extremely difficult for a survivor to open up about what has happened to her and fight the battle ahead. This is especially true of workplace sexual harassment where survivors are denied job opportunities and pushed out of networks which are essential for them to build their careers. They continue to put up with humiliating experiences because they know that nobody will stand up for them if they speak out.
Despite all the media attention that the issue garnered in Kollywood, no concrete measures have been put in place to address the issue of sexual harassment in the industry. The Nadigar Sangam had initially announced the setting up of an Internal Complaints Committee, coming as it did under immense pressure to act. However, months later, such a body is yet to be functional. And let's remember, many women from the industry had already spoken about how rampant the "casting couch" is, even before #MeToo happened.
Meanwhile, women like singer and dubbing artiste Chinmayi and actor Sruthi Hariharan, who broke their silence about the sexual harassment they faced from powerful men in the industry, have shared how they've been systematically denied work, even as the men they accused are none the worse for it. It's a similar pattern across states – in Malayalam, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) has faced abuse and denial of work in equal parts for daring to stand by their colleague who was allegedly sexually assaulted at the behest of Dileep, another prominent actor.
Actor Amala Paul, who had said that director Susi Ganesan had behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner with her, was slut-shamed by the filmmaker in press conferences and on social media. Amala has acted with many big male stars in the industry, including Suriya, and yet, none of them publicly offered her their solidarity.
Actor Radha Ravi, who also heads the dubbing artistes' union, not only succeeded in removing Chinmayi from the body but has continued to make insensitive rape jokes on platforms where he's invited to speak. The big guns of the industry have once again chosen silence over condemnation. As for lyricist Vairamuthu, against whom multiple women have spoken out, and whose behaviour is an "open secret" according to music director and AR Rahman's sister AR Reihana – well, he remains a highly respected member of the Tamil film industry, with none other than superstar Rajinikanth warmly greeting him at events.
Suriya has done well to pen his thoughts on Pollachi, but isn't it also important to do what we can, in the fields that we can directly influence? Shouldn't more men from the Tamil film industry, who are in powerful positions, throw their weight behind survivors of sexual violence, and bat for more equality at the workplace if they are truly troubled by the disparity they see around them? Shouldn't they be demanding for institutional support and mechanisms to prevent violence at the workplace?
It's arguably a lot more difficult to speak up for gender equality and fight misogyny in our own backyard because we will inevitably step on a few toes. But if we're not ready to do so, our commitment towards justice is at best a fair weather friendship. One hopes that in future, our celebrities will speak up not only for survivors they don't know but also for women who are right next to them. One hopes that they will rally against not only unknown perpetrators but also familiar faces. And what a welcome plot twist that would be.
Sowmya Rajendran is a journalist who writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She also writes books for children. Views expressed author's own.