Actor Sri Reddy's protest, which saw her stripping before the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce, a few days ago, was dismissed by many as a publicity stunt. From Tollywood's bigwigs to media channels and the public, several asked why the actor had to resort to such "cheap" means to make her point.
Whether one agrees with Sri Reddy's methods or even believes in the allegations made against specific people in the film industry, it is worth noting that the impact her protest has had signals an important change. The support that Sri Reddy managed to garner despite being a nobody in the Telugu film industry is indicative of the kind of conversations and debates that the #MeToo movement and Weinstein scandal unleashed.
Not only has the Movie Artists' Association (MAA) lifted the ban on Sri Reddy (on paper anyway), it has also announced that it will set up a Committee Against Sexual Harassment which will meet once in three months. The move comes after women activists submitted a memorandum to the Telangana government, questioning MAA's actions and the lack of a mechanism to address workplace sexual harassment in the Telugu film industry.
Allegations of sexual harassment in the film world are not new. Previously referred to rather glamorously as the 'casting couch' - so much so that we have TV and web shows named after the euphemism - it is only in recent times that coercing women into providing sexual favours for work in films has been recognised as a criminal act. This, although the law against workplace sexual harassment came five years ago and the Vishaka Guidelines was in place since 1997.
Sri Reddy's protest has managed to do what statements by more established women actors have failed to do in the past. While several south Indian women actors have admitted that they were expected to "adjust" and "compromise" to get work, none of them named and shamed the perpetrators. The acknowledgement that workplace sexual harassment exists in the film industry, in itself, has been a giant leap. Many women from the industry have been reluctant to make this admission because it raises questions on their own morality and leads to vicious victim blaming. Their assertion that yes, this is a reality, therefore comes with a price.
In the Malayalam film industry, the members of the Women in Cinema Collective are often targeted for their decision to take on the powerful men who control the industry. They face abuse not only from fans but also their own colleagues in the industry who don't lose any opportunity to slam them. In the Tamil industry, actor Varalaxmi Sarathkumar has launched the Save Shakti initiative to tackle workplace sexual harassment but none of the top women stars in the south have publicly come out in support of the move.
Sri Reddy, who has said herself that she has nothing to lose, has not just made specific allegations, she has also leaked screenshots of WhatsApp chats and photographs. While one cannot vouch for their authenticity, it's clear that her willingness to walk the talk has shaken up Tollywood. Besides, their attempt to slut shame Sri Reddy for her protest has backfired, with the little known actor getting support from several people.
For a woman to get a powerful and male dominated industry like Tollywood, which routinely makes films that objectify women, listen to her demands is no easy task. Whether the sexual harassment committee is a mere eyewash or becomes a potent tool remains in the hands of the more prominent members of the Telugu film industry, especially the women. When the means of production are so overwhelmingly controlled by men, it will take many more years and many more debates to truly establish a safe and gender equal work space. However, there is no denying that Step 1 has been accomplished, thanks to Sri Reddy.