Following the shocking news of abduction and alleged rape of a popular Malayalam actor, several people from the film fraternity have been voicing their concern about women's safety. However, not many have spoken up about the gender disparity and sexual exploitation that is part of the male dominant film industry.
Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, actor and daughter of veteran Sarathkumar, tweeted her unsavoury experience of the casting couch in the industry to blow the lid off the silence.
In her tweet, she spoke about the programming head of a leading TV channel who'd made suggestive comments towards her, insinuating that she'd have to bestow sexual favours on him if he were to continue the work relationship.
Varalaxmi also mentioned how inured people - within the industry and outside of it - are to the casting couch. "Film industry is like this. You knew so when you joined. Why complain nor or act surprised" is their attitude, the actor wrote.
Needs to be said..!! pic.twitter.com/GjJimBIKd3â€” varu sarathkumar (@varusarath) February 20, 2017
Speaking to The News Minute, Varalaxmi said that she was tired of pushing things under the carpet.
"I was so taken aback when this man asked me that, I didn't know whether to punch him or feel sorry for him that he's not even aware that he can't speak to a woman like this. He said it with such ease and confidence. He didn't flinch or cringe even a little bit," she says.
Varalaxmi adds that if this was the situation for her, someone who comes from a film family with political connections, it struck her how bad things must be for other women in the industry.
Why don't more people speak up against the casting couch though?
"Everybody is ashamed of it," Varlaxmi asserts. "They don't want to admit the things they have to do to get work. And half of them don't have the choices that I or few others have. Things like this are hushed up and we're taught not to talk about it. They say it will tarnish your image. So, when they say all this, no woman is going to come out and tell these stories. You may hear of it happening to a friend's friend's friend but the actual victim never says anything."
Varalaxmi strongly believes that voicing these issues is the way ahead.
"I started this because I want women to know that it's all right to talk about it. They're not the ones who have to be ashamed. It's the other way round," she says.
Is the sexual harassment of female actors something she feels the Nadigar Sangam should take up? Some time ago, an actor called Aditi was allegedly brutalized by her director and even attempted suicide but nothing much happened.
"This has nothing to do with the Nadigar Sangam," says Varalaxmi. "This is about what happens to women all over the country. There are thousands of women who face the exact same thing in thousands of other professions. If not worse. What I'm standing up for is not just for women in this industry but for women everywhere."
Varalaxmi, however, acknowledges the inherent misogyny in the film industry.
"These things have been happening here since the dawn of time," she says. "Whether women do it or men do it, it's all hushed up. We're conditioned not to speak about it. So, you can't try and change what's been happening for 100 years of cinema overnight. That's why people take it so easily...she's a heroine? She's supposed to sleep with you! These people just don't get it. They've been seeing this generation after generation and they don't understand why you can't accept it."
Varalaxmi notes that celebrities may not share these stories because they want to get on with their personal lives and not make these unpleasant experiences come in their way.
Citing the example of director Suraj who made offensive comments about heroines, Varalaxmi says, "Look at the confidence with which he spoke! That is the kind of mindset you have to change and you can't do that overnight."
Despite the uproar around Suraj's comments, there was deafening silence from the male stars of the industry, many of whom have been actively speaking about political issues on social media.
"A few stars do speak up but the rest are all cowards," says Varalaxmi with disarming honesty. "They'd rather be diplomatic. They never like to get their feet wet or their hands dirty."
However, Varalaxmi clarifies that the entire film industry is not like this. "I've worked with some very lovely people who've never made such advances at me. So, you can't generalise the entire industry. It's about how we portray ourselves and what we say yes or no to."
Asked about the film industry's contribution to the objectification of women, Varalaxmi says, "That again has been happening forever. But things are changing. There are actors like Vidya Balan, Priyamani...who do substantial work and are brilliant actors. There are people like me who say no to these things. Change will not happen overnight as I've been saying. It has to start somewhere."
Varalaxmi says that after she tweeted about her experience, several female actors (the A-listers like Trisha, Tamannaah etc are yet to respond) have written to her, thanking her for standing up for all of them.
"I want to do something more about this. I want to study the laws and find out what more can be done. This is just the beginning," she avers.