With allegations flying thick with every passing day, the movement has descended into a free for all slug fest.

Tollywood sexual harassment row turns into slug fest where are the top women actors
Flix Sexual harassment Wednesday, April 18, 2018 - 14:40

Actor Sri Reddy has not made any friends in the Telugu film industry with her explosive allegations. What started off as a protest against sexual harassment in the film industry, a legitimate cause, has turned into a free for all with allegations flying thick and fast with every passing day.

While Sri Reddy’s statements to the media did not move the Telugu industry much, her strip protest caught international attention and forced Tollywood to take note. Their first response was to slut shame the actor and boycott her. However, with the media attention and the National Human Rights Commission stepping in, the Telugu industry agreed to set up a grievance redressal mechanism and also withdraw the ban on the actor. She was further given a membership in the Movie Artistes Association (MAA).

But the resentment that her allegations has created continues to be on the boil and the actor is increasingly being isolated. With actor and politician Pawan Kalyan stating that Sri Reddy should have gone to the police and not the media with her allegations, the voices speaking against the junior actor have only grown louder.

Actors like Jeevitha and Maadhavi Latha have launched an attack on Sri Reddy for allegedly making personal comments on them. Maadhavi Latha has joined a few Pawan Kalyan fans to hold a silent protest, condemning Sri Reddy’s response to Pawan Kalyan’s remarks.

The media circus

It does not help that Telugu channels are turning the issue into a slug fest by having participants fling serious allegations at each other on live debates. A TV9 debate had a junior artiste Sunitha accuse film critic Mahesh Kathi of sexually assaulting her. Mahesh Kathi promptly said that he’d file a defamation case against her – a response similar to Shekar Kammula’s when Sri Reddy indirectly accused him in a Facebook post of harassing her.

Mahesh further alleged that Sunitha was a tool in the hands of the powerful Konidela family (to which Chiranjeevi and Pawan Kalyan belong) and that this was their way of getting back at him for supporting Sri Reddy.

On Mahaa News, activist Sandhya and actor Jeevitha had a spat after the former suggested that the “casting couch” was rampant in the industry. Jeevitha has reportedly filed a police complaint against Sandhya for making “personal remarks” and “baseless allegations”. She has also slammed Sri Reddy for allegedly making false accusations about her.

While the allegations of sexual harassment and exploitation are sensational and provide much fodder to viewers and social media followers, there is no serious follow-up on them. The “evidence” so far has been a few leaked WhatsApp conversations and pictures – none of which have been verified as yet.

A petition submitted by women activists to the Telangana government had demanded that there should be an investigation into the issue. But as of now, there is no sign of any such development. No police complaint has been filed by Sri Reddy as of now. Sri Reddy’s dramatic allegations made on TV shows are borderline theatrical and if she wants to be taken seriously, there needs to be a better strategy in place.

Is this Tollywood’s Weinstein moment?

The Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement in Hollywood have had an impact in the Indian film industries too. More women actors have started speaking up about the kind of sexism, misogyny and harassment that they face in the film industry. However, so far none of them has taken any names.

The Women in Cinema Collective, formed in the Malayalam industry in the aftermath of the abduction and sexual assault of a prominent woman actor, has thrown its weight behind the survivor but it hasn’t led to an outing of names or a collective levelling of allegations. The reason for this, as actor Parvathy told TNM in an interview, is that it’s near impossible for an individual to take on the industry because nobody else will stand up with her. The WCC is still fighting fire for daring to form such a collective in the first place.

Even though Sri Reddy’s protest saw other junior artistes come together and speak up against sexual harassment on Sunday, they don’t carry the power that more established stars have. Their accounts are easily dismissed as “publicity stunts” or attempts to win movie offers by becoming famous overnight.

The top women stars of the industry are either silent or have denied that they’ve experienced any kind of sexual harassment. In a press meet called to condemn the comments of a TV anchor who asked if the film industry didn’t have “whores” and “brokers”, actor Rakul Preet categorically said that the Telugu film industry was very good and that nobody had ever misbehaved with her. Others at the event like Manchu Lakshmi also defended the industry.

Top stars like Nayanthara and Anushka Shetty have stayed out of the debate. While the junior artists squabble, the ones whose voices will really matter have chosen not to weigh in. In Hollywood, several A-listers, including names like Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Salma Hayek, came out in a concerted effort to speak up against sexual harassment. They used the privilege that their names carry to lend voice to a form of exploitation that had become the norm in the film industry.

The case against Weinstein was made strong by multiple testimonies, painstaking efforts to document his history as a sexual predator and harasser, including police complaints. In Tollywood, Sri Reddy’s efforts, however problematic they may seem, have resulted in some promises. But without the legitimacy that the testimonies of established stars will bring, the movement, if one can call it that, is likely to be derailed. That is all the slug fest currently seems to be accomplishing.

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