This article was written by a woman actor who works in Tamil cinema. She has chosen to be anonymous so that she can express her views frankly, and without any repercussions to her career.
Kannamma is a pseudonym, and she hopes to write more such articles as an insider from the Tamil film industry.
I write this not out of choice but out of necessity. I write this for the abyss into which I had gone into hiding to question the validity of my experience. And for my self doubt - if I indeed had it in me to face the challenges that a career in cinema brings with it. I write this to put the anonymity I sought here to some good purpose. So, please hear me out putting your judgements aside, will you?
A few summers ago, I was at the verge of completing the shoot for a film with a director who had been nothing but sweet and respectful. One evening, I was called to the location to be briefed about the scene we were to shoot the next day. I could notice the director was in a hurry and did not make eye contact. It was probably because of all the thoughts and plans in his head, I surmised. He told me hurriedly, " Tomorrow is a very important scene ma. You go to save a girl from the villain. She escapes. You get caught and they do bad things to you". Now, although I had an idea about what those bad things were, I thought I was unnecessarily exaggerating things in my head.
So, I asked, "What bad things, sir?" He hesitated, still not making eye contact. “They spoil you,” he said, unable to utter the word ‘rape’. "Oh?" I said, my vocabulary failing me. I had to go sit down for a while.
I was not aware that this is how things worked. I was fairly new to this industry. But, my rational self told me it was not okay even if this is how things worked. I had so many questions now. And I was so angry, I started crying. I don't know if this has ever happened to you, where your anger overwhelms you so much, tears stream down your face uncontrollably.
When I signed up for the film, it was going by the filmography of the director partly and another part was the worst kind of faith - blind faith that it was going to be a great role even though it didn't require too much emotional attachment and very few dates. But, there was no mention of a rape scene until that day. After about half an hour of blaming myself for making poor choices, I told myself there was only one way out. To question and create the transparency I sought for myself.
A few deep breaths and post convincing myself that I was indeed an adult, I walked up to the sets and caught up with the director during one of his breaks and expressed to him with all honesty and minimum rehearsal, "Sir, I am scared. I am pretty sensitive about these things. Had you mentioned it before I signed up for the film, I would have either come to terms with it or had the choice to tell you I could not do the film. But, now that we are here, I have a few questions. Do you have the time for it now?" His response was affirmative.
I continued, "Why do you want the character to wear a sleeveless kurta instead of her usual covering up head to toe attire for this scene?" You might think how unoriginal or unhealthily stereotypical. Girl gets raped suddenly on a day she decides to reveal her arms. But, he had his reasons which were not exactly congruent but a few stutters about how this day was a special day in the character's life and she dressed up. Of course she used her dupatta to save another woman's virginity. You see if she was wearing a sari, this ultimate Bharatiya naari sacrifice would not be possible. These were not the director's words but the repressed anger coming out as sarcastic self talk in my head.
"Could you also tell me what the shots are going to be sir? I need to know exactly what you are going to shoot. Is there going to be some violence or is it going to be graphic?" He had to go, it was time for the next shot. Walking away, he made eye contact for the first time that evening as he quipped with a smile, "If you want, we could make it graphic." A very bad joke for that moment. A panic attack inducing one.
By now, blind faith had long gone. I do not know why but I took on the job of convincing myself to stay on. Maybe for all the work that had gone into the project already. I told myself that they needed a U/A certificate and the CBFC had been particularly merciless in the recent past. So, they would not risk filming something that would hinder that.
Like most women, I’ve had my share of uncomfortable and painful experiences in public spaces and sometimes in places that are deemed safe. This is not a space I would like to use to elaborate on that. But, I would just say that ‘rape’ is a word which is highly triggering for me on screen and off screen. Most probably, I would have said no to a project that required me to act in a scene of sexual violence to protect my own sanity.
I told myself various things till the next day, "You are an actor. This is your job. You need to develop the ability to attach and detach yourself from the emotions of a scene instantly. Maybe, this shoot is an exercise in that. Maybe it is a test to see how equipped you are in your craft. If you are not able to handle this, then maybe it is time to pack your bags and leave.” But, I did reach out and ask my then-boyfriend to accompany me on the day of the shoot. I knew calling a family member might turn disastrous for myself. I come from a weird mix of academics and conservatives who refused to even acknowledge that I chose cinema as a career until recently.
The fateful night arrived. As I was driven to the location, I could feel two distinct parts in myself - one that was determined to navigate that night as professionally and competently as possible and the other that felt like a sacrificial goat - terrified and clueless.
It was time for the first shot. I prayed to all the acting gods and tried to channelise the strength that thousands of female actors have had to navigate through similar instances. I showed up at the set, my exterior calm. I stood there listening intently as the director instructed the actors who played the villain's goons to slap me and push me to the floor. Once he was done, I politely introduced myself to my co-actors and checked with them about their exact movements so I could prepare myself. The shot was done with no complaints. Everyone was happy.
Then came the villain - a non-actor who was doing this for the first time. He recognised me from my earlier work and we had a conversation. I could see that he was visibly nervous. The time for the shot came. The director instructed the male actor to drag me to a table which was awkwardly placed in that space. I was dragged by my hand. The director was not satisfied. He said he needed more force and asked the male actor to drag me by my hair. This also did not work for him. He said, "Drag her to the table and bend her over". These were things that you would expect a director to have somewhat of a vision/idea about already. But, I kept breathing and telling myself that this too shall pass. Once we were done trying what he had asked for this time, he was satisfied but needed more intensity.
We went for a second take. Meanwhile, there was an over-enthusiastic male assistant director who was calming the male actor with some "wisdom" that I was not able to eavesdrop. We went ahead with the shot. It was all going as we had been instructed. But, as the male actor bent me over the table, he pulled my kurta up. Everything became blurry at this moment for me. "But, we were never told to do something like this,” my thought echoed loudly in my head. My thought was interrupted by the sound of my clothing being ripped. I could not see anymore. "Stop! Fucking stop it!" I screamed, and ran as fast as I could. I found a mound of sand by a half constructed wall and curled myself up there for the next hour. My boyfriend came running. Nobody else did. There was no apology. There wasn't even a polite enquiry. The almost 70 male member strong crew had very professionally moved on to the next shot.
In a while, I could hear my agitated yet helpless boyfriend have an argument with an assistant director, telling him that the director had to speak to me directly before he expected me to come back for the next take.
I wiped my tears, walked back to the set. I first went to the male actor. He was shaking as he saw me and apologised profusely. He blurted out that I was like a daughter to him. I cringed at that but spoke in the most neutral voice possible, "Sir, I understand you are new here. But, if you are adding anything to the scene, you have to check with me.” He nodded. I went back to the shot. The director gave me instructions like nothing had happened and all was well. He was still nice, respectful and sweet, but that didn't matter to me anymore. I finished my part and sat in my cab with disbelief combined with the relief that comes out of emotional exhaustion. Whatever happened that evening on the movie set was the biggest misadventure I had ever had and will hopefully never have at my workplace.
Who was at fault here? Was it the male actor? The assistant director? Was it the director himself? Or was it the 70 odd people who stood as spectators and moved on to the next sequence like what had happened did not matter? It was each of them for not having put an ounce of thought into what was being filmed that day. And it was me too. For not questioning enough and soaking in naive beginner's gratitude. And maybe in my fear that if I asked too many questions, I might lose out on what could be my next big break.
Ethics can prevail only when there is clarity. And clarity can exist only when such fears and doubts are conquered. Being an actor in itself is a vulnerable thing. Your body and your emotions are your tools at work. It leaves very little of you unexposed. It's very easy to let these fears rule our minds especially in decision-making. It is commendable if you can say a calculated no than a desperate yes.
Lessons of diplomacy and the art of asking questions have gradually come to me over the years. The reaction I had towards the incident may have been magnified because of my past. But, that doesn't make any of it okay. I have come to peace with most of myself but the important question that keeps running in my head every time I encounter silence is, "What could have been done differently? What could have made the situation more mindful and less disastrous?"
How can filmmakers shoot rape scenes with sensitivity?
This is an important question for me not just as an actor but also for any hopes I have to step into the role of a filmmaker. How do I equip myself to deal with a scene that is a portrayal of gender violence or even intimacy? From some of the reading and the incessant questions I randomly posed to other filmmakers and actors, I came up with a few pointers for anyone who is a filmmaker. Although this is addressed particularly towards filming of rape scenes, you can apply some of these pointers to scenes that involve gender violence or intimacy in general.
1. Transparency - When you hire a male or female actor, how much are you not telling them for reasons of secrecy or worse, that they might back out of the project? The latter is a shiny red light. We do not know what past baggage the actor carries. You will be better off in that case even if they said no. Do you really want to be responsible for someone's mental breakdown in the name of art, business or whatever?
2. Purpose - We have had rape scenes in Indian cinema like we have popcorn in theatres. The days of rape scenes shot for titillation may be coming to an end or not, one never knows. But, the problem with the portrayal of rape in recent times lies in the lack of answers to the why-s. Is the scene just included to show the hero's greatness or the heroine's sacrificial nature? Is it included to create some sort of a sensationalism? All signs that you need to look for another job. I really hope your films don't work. Have you spoken to women in your crew or outside your crew about the scene and have you heard their perspective?
A popular mainstream filmmaker's assistant director casually related to me how her director checked with the (only) two women in the direction department specifically when it came to inclusion and portrayal of gender violence in their film. In one instance after an exhaustive discussion, they decided to not film one such sequence. I think that's a great direction in which we should be moving. Also, food for thought - How many female writers, assistant directors, technicians are part of your crew?
3. Details - Okay, you have decided to include a rape scene in your film after asking yourself all the questions. Not that Hollywood has been a guiding ray of sunshine in this area, but in recent times there has been a practice of treating rape scenes as stunt scenes in Hollywood. They have rape choreography done mostly by stunt women. I don't think this solves it all. But, what this does is that it helps break down the details of the scene. This is what you do in an action sequence to prevent the actors in the scene from getting physically hurt. Why not do the same to prevent something from hurting the vulnerabilities of the actors involved to some extent? Even if hiring a woman rape choreographer seems inaccessible, two pointers can be taken here. One, the presence of at least one other woman who is involved in the filming of the scene. Two, knowing exactly what you want to shoot and not attempting to surprise your actors on the set.
4. Dialogue - This is just extended transparence. Spend some time talking to the actors involved in the scene. If they have any fears or insecurities, listen to them or reassure them. Check with them what the narration of the scene evokes in them. Sometimes an actor can bring interesting things to the table that will only add to the credibility of your scene. I once got to observe a theatre director directing a scene on female puberty and societal control over the experience. He spent an hour listening to the related memories of all the actors and used one of the images with the actor's consent to create the scene. It was an abstract but a very powerful scene. Although you may argue that cinema is a medium where time is money, I would say it doesn't cost much to set up a meeting with the required actors during the pre-production stage to have a conversation. You will make this possible if you really think it is important.
5. Humanity - You are a human first and then an artist/filmmaker whatever else you identify yourself as. Whoever you work with is also human before being a tool with which to tell your story. Hold on to your humanity.
I will end with a tale of hope. This happened on the sets of a student film. We were filming in a state in northern India and most of the extended crew were Hindi speaking. I kept encountering a guy who made lewd sexual remarks and coming close to me every time I finished a shot. I assume he thought I didn't understand. I ignored it for a while, not wanting to attract more attention. But, when it became disgustingly unbearable, I went and vented to a female student who was part of the crew. Before I realised it, that person was given a job that involved him being outside the shoot location.
The said film also had a scene where the lead characters kissed. This was sent to me in detail as part of the script. All questions I had were answered. When it came to the actual shoot, the director allowed only a four member camera crew, himself and my assistant to stay on the set apart from two of us actors. The film turned out beautifully even if I say so myself.
It doesn't require years of experience. It comes to everyone that makes an effort. It isn't rocket science. Be kind. Be thoughtful. Then, be a brilliant filmmaker.