Tackling sexual harassment on Malayalam movie sets, what filmmakers say

After the arrest of director Liju Krishna in a case of sexual assault of a colleague, the question of forming Internal Committees in film production sets has once again risen.
Sexual harassment rep image
Sexual harassment rep image
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While narrating her harrowing experience of sexual assault in a long post on Facebook, the survivor in the Liju Krishna case wrote that there was no place for her to complain within the film set where they both worked. Liju was arrested on March 6, after the survivor registered a complaint at the Kakkanad Infopark station. He was directing his upcoming film Padavettu – starring Manju Warrier, Nivin Pauly and Aditi Balan – when the arrest took place.

“There was no official grievance redressal cell or internal committee (IC) in the production, where I could complain about the physical and mental and sexual abuse that director Liju Krishna put me through for two years – with an emphasis on assault, so I tried to inform the film's team but to no avail (sic),” the survivor writes in Women Against Sexual Harassment, a page run by survivors of sexual assault fighting for better working environment for women.

Internal Committee or IC is still a very new and often unfamiliar concept among many in the entertainment industry. When it was announced that an upcoming film of award winning director Senna Hegde will have an IC, it was celebrated as one of the first in the industry. Kabinii Films, producing his film 1744 White Alto, formed an IC as soon as the company was formed.

Sreejith Nair, one of the producers of the film, told TNM that they had wanted to form an IC as soon as they planned to form a production house. He and the two others Vinod Divakar and Mrinal Mukundan, had all worked in corporate companies for many years, where such best practices were a norm. There have been other production houses with an IC before this. Director and producer Aashiq Abu has had an IC in his film sets from the time of making Virus, which came out in 2019. “We found it very, very important after the attack on an actor in 2017. We then thought of forming it in our own company first and then appeal to others to do so,” he tells TNM.

Gangadharan sisters, producers of Uyare

The three women producers of the 2019 film Uyare also formed an IC at their production house SCube Films. “Our father (PV Gangadharan) formed an IC in his production company Grihalakshmi Productions years ago. We too followed in his footsteps and constituted one in SCube. I think it is very important for a production company to have an IC, it will make it so much easier for the women in the set,” says Sherga Gangadharan, one of the three sisters running the company.

Director Jayaraj, chairman of MACTA (Malayalam Cine Technicians Association), tells TNM that it is ideal to have a system where women can talk about the issues they face in every field of work, not just movies. “There should be a system that will listen to what they have to say. It shouldn’t be a space where they need to reveal their identities – because it is often fear that stops women from speaking up. Fear of losing their jobs or losing their marks if it is an educational institution and the perpetrator is an instructor. When it is a person in power who can make decisions about their future, the women find it difficult to speak up. So let there be a system where they don’t need to reveal their identity while making their case heard – it can be a letter they write, or else a call they make,” Jayaraj says.

However, many producers do not seem to be too keen to have ICs in their film sets, according to Advocate Sandhya Raju who has been pushing for ICs for years. "A film set can be defined as a workplace as the work is happening towards bringing out a product. They are being paid for it. But still they are not too keen,” she says. It can be because they do not want to anger anyone, since it is a quasi-judicial process and the names of the perpetrators will be on record. It will not be the same as having internal discussions without a judicial process, where such complaints are often brushed under the carpet, she says. 

Sandhya is the founder of Centre for Constitutional Rights Research and Advocacy (CCRA).  The CCRA filed a petition at the Kerala High Court in 2018, asking that organisations ensure the setting up and functioning of ICs.

Executive producer Agnivesh Ranjith agrees that there should be an IC in place because many sets are not women-friendly and it will make life easier for them. “I think it will also prompt more women to work in the film industry, which is often perceived as a dangerous space for women. Perhaps many producers will take the initiative if they realise the process of forming an IC is not so complicated. I think big production houses should take the first step in this direction. Smaller ones will follow. And if it is made mandatory – like how a film has to be registered with the Film Chamber and censored – then naturally, everyone will follow it. We will try to implement it in the next film we make,” says Agnivesh, who works at Gold Coin Motion Picture Company.

It is also important that film organisations have a grievance redressal system, says Sandhya. She adds that there is no question that a film set, which comes under a production house, is identified as a workplace. However, there is a question if film organisations like the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) have an employer-employee relationship. 

“There is an idea that film organisations do not have the responsibility of setting up an IC since they are not doing a film. But entertainment related organisations too need to set up ICs,” Sandhya says.

When there is no IC within an organisation, there are Local Complaints Committees (LCC) for women to bring their issues pertaining to the workplace. This is for women in the unorganised sector as well as in organisations with less than 10 employees where it is not mandatory to have an IC. “There is an LCC in every district, I am a member of the one in Ernakulam. It is doing some good work, making surprise checks in companies.”

WCC members meet Kerala Women's Commission in Jan 2022

It was after CCRA petition for mandatory ICs that the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) filed a writ petition with the Kerala High Court seeking directive to the AMMA to form an IC in line with the PoSH Act (Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act). In February 2022, the Kerala Women’s Commission informed the High Court that it has requested the state government to form an IC for the Malayalam film industry. It also made a plea to be added as a respondent in the WCC’s petition.  

In a circular released on March 10, 2022, AMMA states that an IC has been formed with actors Swetha Menon, Rachana Narayanankutty, Cuckoo Parameswaran and Maala Parvathi. A legal person will also be hired soon, it says.

While there is little clarity on the formation of an IC in film bodies, several filmmakers say that forming one in every movie set is very important. Director M Padmakumar, vice chairman of MACTA, says that it is true that women don’t have the same freedom as men in sets. “Except for the main actors, women often don’t even have proper facilities in sets, sometimes even to change clothes. I am 100 per cent for forming ICs in sets,” he says.

Jeo Baby, who made the hugely popular The Great Indian Kitchen, says that he will have an IC from his next film. “It is true that women face more issues. Besides abuse, they also face a lot of negligence. Cinema is not a democratic space. I think an IC is needed for all workers of cinema, and a separate complaints committee for women as well,” he says. 

The lack of a place for an aggrieved woman to go to poses severe mental health problems. Much like Stockholm Syndrome, a lot of the survivors go through a condition called trauma bonding. The survivor in the Liju Krishna case also wrote that he tried to present it as a consensual relationship. Kochi based psychologist Seema Lal says that it can come from gas lighting as well as 'on and off' behavioural patterns of the abuser. "They may be abusive one day and then be apologetic the next day. Or else the abuser may say that it is the woman's fault that this happened, that she said something that made him hit her. The women going through trauma bonding may even feel it an act of kindness if an abuser withdraws his hand at the last minute and doesn't strike her."

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