The sexual assault of an actor at the top of her career in a south Indian film industry has opened a can of worms, but those in power are intent on burying it all.

Theres a Weinstein-scale MeToo movement in India but you may not know about itWomen in Cinema Collective in a meeting with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in May 2017. File Photo.
news #MeToo Saturday, May 07, 2022 - 13:29

The political and cinema circles of Kerala are buzzing with speculation about who could be on the list of predatory men named in the Justice Hema Commission report on sexual harrrassent in the Malayalam film industry. If released, the findings could explode into a Harvey Weinstein-level scandal in the Malayalam film industry. But there are fears that the men who took advantage of their power and superstardom to abuse their women colleagues could escape public scrutiny because the Pinarayi Vijayan-led CPI(M) government is reluctant to make the report public.

The Hema Commission was formed in 2017 following the shocking abduction and sexual assault of top actor Bhavana by a gang of men, allegedly hired by another top actor, Dileep. The Commission’s report was submitted to the Kerala government in December 2019, but two-and-a-half years later, the findings of the report have still not been made public. Women who have spoken to the Justice Hema Commission about widespread sexual violence in the industry tell TNM that the main reason for the government not releasing the report is because people who are big names in the Malayalam film industry have been accused of sexual assault.

The official reason given by the state government is that the report has the names of women who have spoken of their experiences of sexual violence in the industry, and therefore the government wants to “protect them” by not releasing the report. “This country has released several sensitive reports,” producer Miriam Joseph told TNM Editor-in-Chief Dhanya Rajendran in an interview, “It’s easy to redact the names of the survivors and still release the findings of the report.”

The fight against gender-based violence in the Malayalam film industry predates the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which triggered a global wave of #MeToo, by several months. ‘Avalkoppam’ — a campaign that was started before the October 2017 wave of #MeToo in Hollywood — has managed to pressure a state government into looking at issues of sexual violence in a film industry, and has been a strong example of sisterhood. However, if you live outside of south India — even outside of Kerala — you perhaps know little about one of the biggest fights being put up for gender justice in cinema. North Indian “national media” in India, and consequently the international media, has had little focus on the movement in Kerala. And that’s as bad as if the American media had been silent when Angelina Jolie named Harvey Weinstein in #MeToo.

With the Kerala government once again trying to obfuscate the real findings of the Justice Hema Commission, TNM looks at the sexual assault case that started it all, and what the ‘Avalkoppam’ movement — We Stand With Her — has achieved.

The sexual assault of a top actor

It all started with the sexual assault of the prominent south Indian film actor in February 2017. She works in the Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil film industries, and was abducted and sexually assaulted in a moving vehicle, while she was returning from a shoot. Popular for films like Swapnakoodu, CID Moosa, Honey Bee, Deepavali, Jackie, and Bacchan, among others, her assault — eight months before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in the US — shocked the south Indian film industries.

The investigation into the assault revealed a sinister plot which revolved around one man's ego.

Between 2012 and 2015, actor Dileep was in an extra-marital relationship with fellow actor Kavya Madhavan, whom he later married. At the time, Dileep was married to actor Manju Warrier, who had left the industry after the wedding. Bhavana disclosed Dileep’s relationship with Kavya to Manju, and according to the police investigation, this infuriated Dileep who has since held a grudge against her. He therefore contracted the sexual assault of Bhavana, according to the police.

The assault was done by Sunil Kumar, alias ‘Pulsar’ Suni, a man who hung around many powerful people in the Malayalam film industry, running errands for them, working as a driver, and a henchman when needed. Suni and his six accomplices video taped the sexual assault — a video that is now a crucial piece of evidence in the sexual assault case that is currently being heard in a Kerala court.

 

 

Following the sexual assault on February 17, 2017, Bhavana filed a police complaint and identified Suni as one of her assaulters, leading to his arrest a few days later. And while Suni was in prison, a prison inmate told the police that he had overheard a conversation in which Suni implicated himself and Dileep.

Soon after this, a letter surfaced, allegedly written by Suni to Dileep from prison, demanding money for the ‘job’ he was put on, and berating Dileep for not even arranging a lawyer. The letter contained a subtle threat — that the survivor’s people and Dileep’s “enemies” are in touch with Suni, and that he is faithful to Dileep “until now.”

The star of several hit films like Kalyanaraman, Punjabi House, Meesha Madhavan, CID Moosa, Vettam, Two Countries, Bodyguard, and Thilakkam, among others, Dileep is popularly called ‘Janapriya Nayakan’ – the people’s favourite hero. Dileep’s stardom in the Malayalam film industry is  rivalled only by superstars Mohanlal and Mammootty, and his films have brought in family audiences since the late 1990s and 2000s. That Dileep allegedly masterminded the assault came as a shock to everyone, both inside and outside the film industry.

Dileep has denied any role in the crime. He claimed he was being blackmailed for money, he slut-shamed the survivor for bringing the assault upon herself by being friends with ‘Pulsar’ Suni. He brought in his friends, including popular director Nadirshah, to back up his claims. But in June 2017, Dileep was arrested and jailed for three months for his role in the sexual assault. He was, officially, accused number 8.

The sisterhood of WCC

Even before Dileep’s name surfaced in the case, a group of women actors, directors and technicians from Kerala who work in several south Indian film industries, came together to form the Women in Cinema Collective. The collective included prominent names like Manju Warrier, Parvathy, Anjali Menon, Geethu Mohan Das, Vidhu Vincent, Rima Kallingal, Remya Nambeesan, Didi Damodaran, and Surabhi Lakshmi. WCC demanded justice for Bhavana, and safer workplaces for all women in the Malayalam film industry. This happened a full five months before the Weinstein scandal in Hollywood.

WCC spoke up against the sexism in the Malayalam film industry, and demanded gender justice. They met Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, and submitted a memo. Among their demands are safer workplaces, wage parity, and a committee to study gender disparity and employment conditions in the Malayalam film industry. “This is not the first such instance,” the memo said referring to the sexual assault of 2017, “but the first time that an incident was reported.”

 

Image: Members of the Women in Cinema Collective. Courtesy: Facebook.

 

Since its formation, the WCC has been active in working for gender justice in the Malayalam film industry, and has had a ripple effect on industries across south India. The organisation put pressure on the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA), which is the chief film industry body in Kerala, to expel Dileep in July 2017. Dileep was, at that point, the treasurer of AMMA. WCC has also pushed for Internal Committees against sexual harassment at AMMA (which it achieved) and on film sets (a work in progress), in compliance with the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

With WCC’s continued efforts and support for the survivor, several bigshots in the Malayalam film industry, who have been silent on the sexual assault case, finally stood in solidarity with her in January this year. This came after Bhavana shared a post on her social media, talking about her journey from being a victim to becoming a survivor, and thanking the people who stood by her. This was the first time that the actor had publicly revealed her identity as the survivor in the Dileep sexual assault case. Top actors including Mohanlal, Mammootty, Dulquer, Tovino, Prithviraj, Kunjacko and Jayasurya, shared her post in solidarity.

Among the actors and directors who started WCC and met the Chief Minister was Manju Warrier, the ex-wife of Dileep. Manju divorced Dileep in 2015, after she learned he was cheating on her with Kavya Madhavan. She is also a close friend of the survivor and has deposed in court that her friend had only confirmed her own suspicions that Dileep and Kavya were having an affair, giving credence to the police’s theory that Dileep had a grudge against Bhavana.

“After my wedding to Dileep [in 1998], I had completely cut myself off from the industry,” Manju told the court, “I hadn't interacted with anyone. I didn't have a world outside my home. One day, I happened to see their messages [Kavya and Dileep’s chats] on Dileep's phone. I shared it with my friends Geethu, Samyukta and Bhavana. This was sometime in 2012.”

Manju said that the survivor had found out about the affair and told her about it. “I divorced Dileep in 2015 and the extramarital relationship between him and Kavya was the reason behind it. Even before we separated, [for] two years before that, there was constant friction between us regarding his relationship with Kavya. And at times, that has paved the way for major fights between us. What I heard from Bhavana only reinforced what I already knew about the two,” she said.

Bigger fish — but the net is hidden

The sexual assault case is currently in court, and Dileep is facing another case related to it as well — of conspiring to kill the police officers investigating the sexual assault case. There have been several allegations about the top actor accessing evidence illegally, and suspicion that his wife, Kavya Madhavan, is also involved in the crime.

However, Dileep is only the tip of the iceberg, reiterate the women of WCC. The Justice Hema Commission spoke to several women in the industry who have allegedly faced sexual abuse in the industry, and according to sources, a few prominent names in the industry have been named by several women as predators. "If the report comes out and a policy is made based on it, then many criminals in the film industry will have to face consequences," actor Parvathy, a member of WCC told TNM in an interview.

In the face of intense criticism, the Kerala government has released the recommendations from the Hema Committee, while the findings are still under wraps. “It is a little disappointing to see these recommendations, they are too loosely worded,” says Padmapriya, actor and member of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). “The state has taken enough time and consideration to put this together. We want to understand who will be doing the work recommended, and how it will be done. Like the Adoor Committee report (that studied how to improve the state of Malayalam cinema) was published, the Hema Committee report should also be brought out. We have got together to discuss it today, but it is disappointing, because it was inconclusive,” she says.

The CPI(M)-led Kerala government’s latest dithering on the report comes as the Malayalam film industry has witnessed another rape allegation, this time against actor-producer Vijay Babu. That lack of action enables brazenness among perpetrators which was apparent when Vijay Babu went on a Facebook live and deliberately revealed the name of the complainant, which is against the Indian law. AMMA doesn’t want to do much, once again, while the IC that was painstakingly formed with WCC’s interventions in 2018 is disintegrating, with members resigning in protest against AMMA’s inaction.

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