The film industry, men and women, seldom acknowledges the misogyny that it actively perpetuates.

We need more stars like Prithviraj and Siddharth to speak up about violence against women
Voices Cinema Saturday, February 25, 2017 - 15:27

The sexual assault of a popular Malayalam actor has seen the industry coming together to voice its concern about the safety of women in a way that it has never done before. 

It's true many of the statements made about the incident are rooted in patriarchy, calling for the "protection" of women, as if they're overgrown children who need babysitters, rather than the recognition that men must take responsibility for their actions. 

The tired and filmy lines about women being someone's daughter, sister, mother, wife, or girlfriend and hence deserving respect have predictably found their way into the discussions. As if a woman cannot demand equal status by the simple virtue of being human and always needs to be defined in terms of her relationship with others. 

And then there are those who've defined "real" men as those who "protect" women and not those who attack them. This, when we should be moving away from definitions of masculinity and femininity and recognising that it's really not such a big deal to be a man and that it's time we stopped thinking "being a man" is a compliment. 

But all said and done, this is for the first time that the top stars of the industry, from Mohanlal and Mammooty to the younger band that includes Dulquer Salmaan and Nivin Pauly, have spoken up for a female star. While the criticism that the phrasing of their views has earned is valid, it's perhaps unrealistic to expect a deep-rooted change in mindset overnight. 

Most vocal of the lot has been Prithviraj, who responded almost immediately to the news by standing up for his colleague on a public forum like Facebook. On Saturday, he followed up the post with another one on the survivor's courage, lauding her decision to come back to cinema. 

And more importantly, acknowledging his own contribution towards creating a misogynistic society through the kind of films that he has done. He has also promised not to promote such ideas in future. 

The admission comes as a pleasant surprise because the film industry has traditionally been very defensive when criticism has come its way about the kind of ideas it promotes as a matter of routine. The usual response is to claim that film is for fantasy only and that it's foolish to make connections to real world behaviour, especially the kind of alarming violence against women that we see glorified on screen.

And it isn't only male stars who are dismissive of this. After Infosys techie Swathi was allegedly murdered by her stalker, there were several discussions on social media which drew a connection between how cinema romanticizes crimes like stalking and how it plays out in real life. 

Other than actor Siddharth and later directors Lakshmy Ramakrishnan and Pa Ranjith, nobody from the industry acknowledged that such depictions were problematic. Actor and politician Khusbhu Sundar, who is usually vocal about women's rights, actually defended such portrayals by saying the hero only "woos" the woman "nicely" in films, never mind her objections to the attention. 

Not a peep from the likes of Kamal Haasan who otherwise never mince words about burning issues in the state. 

Siddharth is not among the top stars in the industry but he's built a reputation for himself as a star with social responsibility. The acknowledgment coming from him mattered at that point, even if his was a lone voice. 

In the world of cinema, violence against women has often been the crutch with which the hero proves his heroism. He's either shaming, taming the heroine for being too outspoken (and this is projected as romantic concern) or he's saving her "honour" from the villains. 

While the camera vicariously captures brutality against women, the narrative is seldom about the trauma that she faces as an individual. The focus quickly shifts to the man and his wounded ego. 

The Malayalam industry, like most film industries around the world, is dominated by men. The stories we see on screen, as a result, are male-centric although the female roles are not quite as sidelined or uni-dimensional as they are in contemporary Tamil or Telugu cinema. 

In most films, rape or any kind of sexual assault has been represented on screen as the woman's shame - the vocabulary used to describe the incident, "nashipichu", "cheethayaaki" (spoilt) speak volumes about the patriarchal way in which rape is constructed in the popular imagination. The shame lies with the victim and never with the perpetrator. 

And even if persistent stalking is not as celebrated as it is in other film industries, the consent or disapproval of the woman is rarely taken seriously. Remember the Ishtamanado song between Prithviraj and Meera Jasmine from Swapnakoodu?

Several of Prithviraj's films have objectified women and promoted toxic masculinity. To be fair, his brand of cinema isn't unique in this and he was only carrying forward the tradition sustained by the big names in the industry including Mammooty, Mohanlal (Kasaba or Pulimurugan anyone?) and the likes of Dileep (let's not get started). 

We can ask Prithviraj and others why their conscience was not similarly troubled when several other women were assaulted over the years. We can ask them if they don't care about ordinary women and their sufferings. These are relevant questions but let's not tear into this acknowledgment as outraged as we might feel about how late it has come. Most people react and respond only when an issue gets too close for comfort and celebrities are no different.

For now, thank you, Prithviraj. And thank you, Siddharth and the few others, for daring to look in the mirror and voicing what you see with honesty. 

 

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