After Varalaxmi Sararthkumar tweeted about the sexual harassment she has faced in the hands of a producer, many junior artistes and women working in different fields in the Southern industry have begun to speak up, acknowledging that they too had been through such unpleasant experiences.
When actor Athithi had attempted suicide because of the alleged harassment she faced at the hands of a Kollywood director, not much happened after the initial sensation in the media. Now, however, things appear to be slowly changing.
And though the top stars of the industry – men and women – have chosen to keep their silence over many related issues, others have started to speak up openly about it – about misogyny, sexual harassment, and other ways in which patriarchy manifests itself in the industry and outside of it when it comes to female actors.
In a candid interview, she spoke about the prejudice that women from the industry face. Referring to director Suraj who'd disparagingly said that he would deliberately reduce the length of his heroine's clothes because he was paying them to act in a "commercial" film, Kasthuri pointed out that this is the public's perception too.
"People have this image that women in the film industry would do anything for money. It's okay if people outside the industry think this... but even those inside it do," she said.
Kasthuri pointed out that it is new actors who are desperate to grab any opportunity that comes their way and, ironically, it is they who almost never get paid. "When you go past this phase, you reach a stage when you have enough confidence to say no to people... however big the film. So at this point, when you have a list of conditions and so on, people are willing to shower you with money," she said.
Elaborating on the Suraj controversy, Kasthuri said that she believes the director was only making a "boastful" comment about the powers he had over his heroines. "A top heroine would have her own costume designer and she'd decide what she'd wear. The director's job would only be to okay it," explained Kasthuri.
She also added that the cultural differences between women in the industry (many of whom are from the North where fashion trends tend to be more liberal in urban spaces) and the audience made it appear as if they were "glamorous".
Asked if this is why women from the north were brought into the south, Kasthuri said that the Tamil industry has had such "exports" for a while, beginning with women from Karnataka, then Kerala and then the north.
Kasthuri also clarified that her comments on the ‘casting couch’ had been misinterpreted. "Cinema is a very big world. Whatever you look for within it, is what will catch your eye. Whatever you search for is what you will get," she said.
She pointed out that in a big world like the film industry, one would encounter all kinds of incidents and that making it all about the ‘casting couch’ every time someone spoke about it was disgusting. Though she acknowledged that there were people who went through such experiences, she said generalising it to mean that everyone must have come up in the same way was incorrect and unfair.
While she said that she too has encountered harassment in the industry, Kasthuri observed that it was often the media which insensitively reported on such instances in the film industry, making it their moral victory over celebrities.
Lekha Washington who is perhaps best known for Kalayana Samayal Sadham wrote a post on Hauterfly as part of their “Women on Top” series, sharing her experiences as an actor, artist, performer and more.
She also wrote about the discrimination and misogyny she has faced in the industry:
"As an actor, there have been many incidents of discrimination and of being sidelined, and I think other actors will tell you the same thing. But I haven’t let it affect me. I haven’t changed much, I am as enthusiastic as I used to be. I am a little more cynical and sceptical about the way the world works, but I am not a shrinking violet. I just continue to live on my own terms and don’t really care what people think.
But yes, there is a lot of conflict with being a woman, especially when working in films. It is very dark, and it is misogynistic. As an actor, I have had to deal with quite a lot of s**t, but as an artist or designer, it’s a lot less in-your-face.
Of course, there’s patriarchy and it’s widespread in various places, and subtle in others. But I can’t spend my life wallowing in self-pity, so it’s just a question of dealing with it.
There was one incident that was particularly funny. It’s not a key one that makes me cry at night, but it’s one I’ll definitely remember forever.
A Tamil film director was offering me his film. He drove me around and kept asking “what will I get in return?”. I sort of played dumb, and said “maybe a good actor”. But he kept persisting and finally, I snapped and said, “you know, I am not going to sleep with you.”
He was quite taken aback, but kept trying to convince me. Needless to say, I didn’t get the role, but I’m glad he brought it up at the onset. And I was fine with it because it meant not having to deal with continuous harassment during the shoot.
Later, I found out that he went for the film’s shoot in a foreign country with the lead actress of the same film, and died of a heart attack caused by an overdose of Viagra. I thought that was so perfect! I mean, that’s karma for you. So yeah, that happened."
Read her full post here.
Much like Kasthuri, actor and director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, too, had spoken out against sexual harassment in the industry but felt that her comments had been twisted and misinterpreted.
Speaking to The News Minute in an earlier interview, Lakshmy said, "I consider this attitude, that if a woman is successful she should have compromised in some way, to be very shameful."
Though she elaborated on the unpleasant incidents that she'd encountered on the sets – from verbal abuse to attempts at coercion, Lakshmy maintained that if an actor were to stick to her guns and wait for the right opportunity to come by, she always had the chance for her talent to be noticed.
She added, "It is a taboo to even speak about it. Because the stigma gets attached to you. That's the reason I spoke about it. I'm 51 now and not at an age when someone can sexually harass me. I wanted to break the stigma."
Lakshmy also acknowledged that there was very little respect for women actors within the industry itself: "Generally speaking, there is no respect for women in the industry. It's extremely bad... We were in a meeting and there were these two heroines from the 80s who were sitting in front of me. Next to me, there were two-three industry bigwigs. They first spoke very politely to the two women but when the two women went onstage to speak, they started commenting like, 'Oh how much these women played around in the 80s...don't we know? Now they've come like patnis to speak."
Read the full interview here.