In an interview with TNM, Sruthi talks about the backlash and support she has received after she spoke up about Arjun Sarja, and about the Me Too movement.

This is the wake-up call Actor Sruthi Hariharan on Arjun Sarja and Me TooFacebook/Sruthi Hariharan
Flix Interview Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - 16:03

Days after actor Sruthi Hariharan accused Arjun Sarja of sexually harassing her during the shoot of the Tamil film Nibunan (released in Kannada as Vismaya), she has been applauded and derided in equal measure.

In a Facebook post, Sruthi alleged that Arjun had behaved inappropriately towards her on the pretext of a rehearsal. She said that he’d pulled her close to him and had run his hand on her back without her consent. She also alleged that he’d called her to meet him after work hours. Arjun has denied the allegations and has said that he will take legal action against Sruthi. Meanwhile, the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC) has said that it will attempt a mediation meeting between the two actors.

However, speaking to TNM, Sruthi says that she’s yet to receive an invite from the KFCC: “They haven’t called me. I haven’t got an invitation or a notice.”

Asked if she feels anything can come out of the meeting, Sruthi says, “I’ll be able to speak about that only when I attend the meeting. But I definitely intend to go there. Usually meetings such as these, the way the Karnataka Film Chamber has been handling cases over the last many years, they’ve always been about a truce. It’s always been about burying the hatchet. Let’s see what comes out of this.”

Elaborating on what she feels should happen, Sruthi says:

“I know that Mr Arjun Sarja knows what happened was wrong. I know what happened. There are a lot of perceptions, a lot of people talking many things. And ideally, for me, it would be an apology from his side. However, if I look at this from the larger picture, which is the intent, I feel I’ve already achieved what needs to be achieved. It’s about women coming out and speaking about their uncomfortable truths through a platform like this – #MeToo on social media. And this discussion about sexual harassment has not happened for years and it’s time that it did. Having said that, I also know that whoever it is, including Mr Sarja, will think twice before he approaches another woman. I know that for a fact, and I think that’s the ultimate goal of the #MeToo movement. Men in positions of power think they can get away with whatever they do, however they behave. It’s normal for them to behave the way they do. This is their wake-up call.”

Among the many insensitive comments on social media about Sruthi’s account are those expressing disbelief that Arjun Sarja’s behaviour was sexual harassment as he had allegedly touched her in front of several others on the sets.

“If you look at it, I continued to keep quiet about it. I continued to avoid him. I continued to do my work, which shouldn’t have been the case. Maybe another woman wouldn’t have – the strong women everyone’s talking about – the sort who say ‘Hey, I will immediately talk about it!’. Well, I’m not. Thankfully I did not take up any of his invitations and let myself go to degree 5 of harassment or degree 10. But I didn’t nip it in the bud the way I should have. And this is the way I chose to do so,” she said.

While Nibunan director Arun Vaidyanathan has written a Facebook post claiming that he was unaware of such an incident, a crew member from the team confirmed to TNM that Sruthi had objected to the rehearsal at the time itself.

“I was there on the set but I was busy doing my work. I did not see what happened. However, Sruthi was upset and left after saying she should be called only when her shot was ready. I did not know what had happened. Sruthi is usually very friendly and this behaviour, something that I thought was a star tantrum, was very unlike her,” said the crew member.

Asserting that Sruthi was not making up the allegation for “publicity” as part of #MeToo, the crew member told TNM that she had, in fact, brought up the issue once again, over a year ago.

“I later had the opportunity to meet her on another occasion, about a year ago. When I mentioned Arjun, she became very agitated. It was then that she told me that his behaviour had made her very uncomfortable although she didn’t get into the details. I can confirm that Sruthi is not saying all this now because of #MeToo, she had a problem with Arjun’s behaviour from that time,” the crew member added.

In his post, director Arun Vaidyanathan says that Arjun had requested him to reduce the intimacy in certain scenes. Sruthi, however, points out that this was at the scripting stage and that it had nothing to do with what happened later.

“That was before the film even began, before I was even cast. It does not warrant anything. That was at the scripting stage, that and this have no connection. I, like other women, have spoken about my uncomfortable truths behind closed doors. But once it comes out in the open, and that too when it’s about a demigod, the entire story takes a different turn and it varies from case to case. With Tanushree Dutta and Nana Patekar it has been different, with Chinmayi and Vairamuthu it has been different, and with me and Arjun Sarja it has been different. People misrepresent, slut-shame… but ultimately, nobody wants to approach it with dignity and graciousness. And if we did, all those men would be apologising,” she says.

Aishwarya Arjun Sarja has lashed out at Sruthi in an interview, claiming that she was making a false accusation against her father for “publicity”.

Sruthi responds with equanimity:

“My only stand here is that, Aishwarya Arjun, as the daughter of Arjun Sarja, the man whom I called out, has said what she needs to say and I’ve said what I need to say. Obviously her father will not behave with her the way he did with me and thank god for that. There are many men who don’t even treat their daughters in the right manner. I’m glad that he’s a great father to her. I know how much it means to have a man to look up to as a father. I wish her nothing but the best. I hope she goes on to make great cinema and works with other people. I hope she remains safe in the industry.”

Sruthi says that she’s not keen on filing a formal complaint because she’s moved on from what had happened. Her reason for speaking up now, she says, is so she can “look at my daughter without guilt” – that when she had the chance to raise her voice, she did so.

While the Tamil film industry has largely been silent about the #MeToo movement, the media has been firing a salvo of questions at the women who’ve come out to break their silence. The aggression on display is not new for Sruthi, who is also part of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) in Kerala, where similar scenes have played out in the past few weeks.

“I want to quote what Tom Stoppard said – ‘If your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate, short-term weapon’. I believe that the media is the weapon in this entire game. It has the power to help my voice reach out to millions. It has the power to question the powerful. It has the power to bring justice to the system. And I believe that there can be no greater law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil. I’m really ashamed by the way in which the media at large is treating this entire movement down south. I feel they are trivialising the entire cause by sensationalising the incident and further victimising the survivor. It’s insensitive and I’m deeply saddened,” she says.

While the Nadigar Sangam from the Tamil film industry has not reached out to Sruthi yet, several people from the Kannada film industry and the WCC have expressed their solidarity with her in these past few days.

“They are not here to say if I’m right or if Mr Arjun Sarja is right. This is about a woman coming out and them letting her to come out, be a part of that voice, support her to talk about something which has left a bitter mark, left her broken,” she says.

After Sruthi spoke up against Arjun Sarja, another woman who worked with the Nibunan team and did not wish to be identified, reached out to TNM. She alleges that Arjun had also behaved with her inappropriately and that she did not find it difficult at all to believe Sruthi’s story.

“He kept calling me to his room at odd hours, sending messages that made me very uncomfortable. This went on for a long time,” she said.

Meanwhile, Arjun has denied Sruthi’s allegation and has said that he will take legal action against her. 

Sruthi says, “A defamation case is a civil case and the only counter that I would need to file is a criminal case under the Sexual Harassment Act. It obviously has more ramifications for Mr Arjun Sarja than it does for me. Having said that, I’m prepared if it goes that way but I will not make the first move. I’ve said what I wanted to say.”