From attempting suicide to stripping in public: The fight against sexual harassment in cinema

Though several women actors have, in the recent past, spoken up about sexual harassment in south Indian cinema, film associations are in denial.
From attempting suicide to stripping in public: The fight against sexual harassment in cinema
From attempting suicide to stripping in public: The fight against sexual harassment in cinema
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Actor Sri Reddy has kicked up a storm recently by alleging that she was sexually exploited by several prominent members of the Telugu film industry in return for work. Sri Reddy had been making these accusations without taking any names for a while now. However, on Sunday, the actor took off her top outside the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce in protest, making it impossible for people from the industry to ignore her any longer.

Sri Reddy also put up screenshots of WhatsApp conversations she allegedly had with men from the film industry. Calling it 'Sri Leaks', after the infamous 'Suchi Leaks' controversy that shook the Tamil film industry in March last year, the suggestive and sexually explicit chats were put up for a while and later deleted. Director Sekhar Kammula threatened to take legal action against her for suggesting that he too had sexually harassed her. However, Sri Reddy has neither pulled down the post nor put up any proof about her allegations.

At a press meet called to condemn the remarks of a TV5 anchor who asked if the Telugu industry did not have "whores" and "brokers", actors like Rakul Preet Singh and Manchu Lakshmi defended the film industry. Rakul, in fact, said that nobody from the Telugu industry had ever misbehaved with her.

While the allegations that Sri Reddy has made against specific persons are yet to be proven, the question remains what effective mechanisms are in place to address sexual harassment of members of the film industry at the workplace. Considering that several women have spoken up about the issue, isn't it time that film associations like MAA and Nadigar Sangam acknowledge the elephant in the room?

In the Malayalam film industry, the shocking sexual assault of a prominent woman actor led to the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). Members of the WCC have time and again asserted that the sexual harassment is a reality in the film industry. However, the members of AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists) continue to hedge, with actor and president Innocent claiming that it was only a few "bad" women who "slept around".

Here's a look at the number of women actors who've spoken up about sexual harassment in the south Indian film industries:

Aishwarya Rajesh

In an interview to TNM, Aishwarya Rajesh acknowledged that sexual harassment was rampant in the film industry:

"It's very common. Now I've been around for five years or so. Initially, I did face this a lot. It will sound disgusting to even listen to the kinds of things people say. But I think things have changed with new directors and corporates coming into cinema.

“Earlier, it was too much. To get into a film, people would say, ‘Just go for half an hour and come.’ It was so obvious. And the stuff I faced was not even for big films...for these ‘upma’ films also people expect you to do it. Adjustment, contract, agreement...all these are words they use.

“But I must say that today's girls are very clear; they don't stay quiet when they're told such things. They do shout back. It's not necessary for you to do all this to come up in cinema. When you respect your profession like god, it's cheap to expect women alone to make such compromises if they're to survive. It's there in every's just more obvious in cinema. But I think it's time to give it back."

Radhika Apte:

On a chat show called 'BFFs with Vogue', Radhika Apte, who has acted in a few south Indian films, revealed that a big star in a Telugu film had misbehaved with her on the sets.

“My first day in the Telugu film...there is a scene where I am lying [down], because I am unwell. There are a lot of people; everything is set. And the [male] actor walks in – and we’ve been rehearsing – he walks in… I don’t even know him, and he starts tickling my feet!” she narrated. “He was a big actor…I was told he is powerful. But [the person] who I am, I got up and I snapped at him in front of everybody – the whole crew, the junior artists, everybody. And I looked at him and said, ‘Don’t ever, ever do that to me.’ I was so angry, I told him ‘ever, ever!’ […] He was so shocked, because he didn’t expect that. But he never touched me again,” Radhika said.

Varalaxmi Sarathkumar:

Among the first women from Kollywood to blow the lid off workplace sexual harassment, Varalaxmi's 'Save Shakti' initiative looks to make the cinema industry a safe space for women.

In an interview to TNM, Varalaxmi spoke about the unpleasant experiences she has had and said, "Everybody is ashamed of it. They don't want to admit to the things they have to do to get work. And half of them don't have the choices that I or a 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."

She further added: "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."

Lekha Washington:

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 wrote: "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."

Lakshmi Ramakrishnan

Actor and director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan detailed her experiences of sexual harassment and misogyny in the film industry in an interview to TNM.

She said, "It was a bitter experience. I was sitting with the director in a room, next to the monitor. Since I was interested in direction, I always used to watch the monitor whenever I didn't have a shot. During one such time, he casually put his hand on me. At that time, I didn't make a big deal out of it. It didn't strike me as something wrong and I assumed that he'd done it by mistake."

But the next time he did it, Lakshmy pushed his hand away immediately. The director then asked her if she didn't like it.

"I was shocked," says Lakshmy. "I said this is not acceptable and I walked out. After this, my life was made miserable on set. It's not like he pulled my hand and harassed me, but things became difficult. Sometimes, you might put up with it because you don't want to make a scene, people are watching...or you don't want to miss the opportunity. But I couldn't put up with it. I was very blunt."

Lakshmy goes on to detail what happened after that: "He would make me do 25 takes for one shot. He'd speak in an insulting way in front of everyone. When I'd walk past, he'd join with an actor and pass comments on me. But I turned around and gave it back to him then and there. I couldn't take it after a stage. I started weeping on the set."


Parvathy, who has never shied away from speaking up about sexism in the film industry, has time and again shared her views on sexual harassment on the sets.

In an interview to TNM, the actor said,  “We don’t have a culture of supporting each other when we go through horrendous experiences. And we never will. It is difficult – the survivor is always alone. And I’d like to state this in this interview – this question that several people have asked me, why don’t I name those who have molested me. Because I know I will be the only one standing. Everyone will go behind the curtain. Until I create that army for us to come out, I can’t. Because I don’t have proof, do I? We need people to come out and say yes, this man is a repeat offender. And we do have many repeat offenders in this industry. So there will come a time. And those repeat offenders should be scared at this point.”

Rima Kallingal:

Another woman actor who has been battling sexism in cinema, Rima Kallingal in a TedX talk said, "When I joined the Malayalam film industry, I heard words like shelf life, adjust, compromise, smile more, dumb down. We girls are always asked to dumb down. And we are so good at putting up an act – becoming someone that society wants us to be."

The actor also questioned why the Vishaka guidelines for sexual harassment at the workplace, laid out by the Supreme Court and which was also passed into a law, was never followed in such a big industry which pays 40% entertainment tax to the government.

Sruthi Hariharan:

At the India Today Conclave, actor Sruthi Hariharan spoke of how blatantly men in the film industry expect sexual favours from women:  “This was 4 years after my first experience. One of the leading producers in Tamil cinema bought the rights to my Kannada film and offered me the same role in the Tamil remake. He said, and I’m quoting him verbatim, ‘We are five producers and we will exchange you however we want.’ I retorted by saying that I carry a slipper with me in my hand."

The actor added that film projects from the Tamil industry dried up after this.

Sai Pallavi:

While Sai Pallavi said in an interview to TNM that she had not experienced sexual harassment herself, she added that the sexism and misogyny in cinema was troubling.

She further spoke about how powerful men in the film industry treat women actors badly to prove a point: "Men within the industry sometimes do want to bring down a lady who is strong. Just to prove that they did this to a strong girl. I went through this experience when someone wanted to be friends with someone else and they did that by putting me down – to show that they are way too macho! It's not just physical abuse, they laugh at you...there are other ways."


Athira Santosh, also called Athithi, from Kerala attempted suicide, alleging that director Selva Kannan, with whom she was working in the Tamil film Nedunalvadai, had sexually harassed her.

A tearful Athithi spoke to the media about how she had been pushed to commit suicide because of the relentless harassment – the director even allegedly locked her up because she refused to give in.

Despite such women actors speaking up about the harassment they face in the film industry, male actors have maintained a tight-lipped silence or gone into denial that the problem exists.

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