Kamal Haasan on Bigg Boss 7 and his shifting stances on sexual harassment

As the host of a widely watched show like ‘Bigg Boss Tamil’, Kamal Haasan shoulders the responsibility not to peddle misconceived notions about sexual harassment or how an ‘ideal’ victim should behave. But that has not been the case so far.
Kamal Haasan
Kamal Haasan

“Vichitra censored the names in her story. She never said, ‘This scoundrel did this to me.’ This shows her maturity,” said Kamal Haasan, the host of Bigg Boss Tamil after actor Vichitra, one of the contestants, shared a harrowing story of how she was sexually harassed by a famous male actor in 2001. Vichitra went on to say that she quit the industry shortly after that because she had received no support from the actors’ union. But what Kamal chose to dwell on was how she did not “express wrath” and had spoken about her harassment “maturely” without revealing the harasser’s name.

There have been many instances in the latest season of Bigg Boss Tamil, a reality show hosted by actor and politician Kamal Haasan, when sexual harassment has emerged as a discussion point. Initially, he spoke up about women’s safety after a contestant named Pradeep Anthony was accused of making several women on the show uncomfortable. After Pradeep was evicted, Kamal delivered a monologue – laced with political undertones – about how he would have exited Bigg Boss if Vijay TV, the channel that broadcasts the show, had not shared his views on women’s safety.

In the days following Pradeep’s eviction, Kamal’s posts on Instagram were spammed with comments on how Pradeep was dealt an unfair hand and with requests to reinstate him in the show. Some comments also mocked Kamal’s political ambitions and how his party, Makkal Needhi Maiam, would never come to power in Tamil Nadu.

Meanwhile, Kamal quickly subjected the women in the Bigg Boss house to scrutiny. Whether he was under pressure after widespread outrage from Pradeep’s fans is not known, but his reactions to subsequent allegations from other contestants highlight his unwillingness to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment in his own industry. Even his response to Vichitra reinforces the expectation that survivors speak about their experience without “blaming” their perpetrators or “appearing affected”, thereby validating the construct of an “ideal survivor”.

Kamal then went a step further and tried to prove that he was not responsible for Pradeep’s eviction. Episode 42 started with Kamal replaying clips showing Pradeep’s eviction process and constantly reiterating that it was the contestants who had wanted Pradeep to leave and not him. Kamal further said that the eviction process was democratic.

The host then played clips where contestants Jovika, Poornima, and Maya said that they did not know Pradeep would receive a red card and be asked to leave. He went on to poke fun at them by implying that they must be suffering from ‘colour blindness’ as they could not differentiate between red and yellow. A yellow card is issued as a warning to contestants before they are evicted.

The women who raised allegations against Pradeep found themselves having to defend various comments they had made in passing after his eviction. At the same time, jokes were cracked at their expense, they were infantilised and talked down to by the host, and asked why they showed a red card to Pradeep if they felt bad about his departure.

As the studio echoed with loud cheers from the audience, Kamal then asked if the allegations against Pradeep were even true despite claiming before that he believed them.

Read: Pradeep’s eviction from Bigg Boss Tamil 7 and the misogyny that followed

By orchestrating this exercise, Kamal seemed to be acting diametrically opposite to the statements he made in his monologue. It made little sense for the host to belittle and put the women on the spot simply because public opinion on Pradeep’s eviction was not in his or their favour.

Kamal’s problematic opinions on sexual harassment do not stop there. It was after this that he praised Vichitra for not revealing the identity of her abuser. Conveniently glossing over the problem of sexual harassment that exists in the film fraternity, he did not once acknowledge how the actors’ union refused to support Vichitra or how the police did not take her complaint as there was no visible marker of the abuse. Instead, with his praise Kamal peddles the idea that there are ‘acceptable’ ways to speak about one’s abuser – being gracious, protecting their identity, and expressing sadness not anger.

However, Kamal’s ever-changing positions on the subject do not come as a surprise. In the first ever season of the show, when women contestants accused actor Bharani of getting unnecessarily close physically during tasks, Kamal asked, “Don’t you travel in buses? Don’t passengers get physically close to you there?”

Kamal’s public opinions outside of Bigg Boss have also been quite problematic. In an interview to Thanthi TV in 2014, the actor was responding to a question on how women can tackle sexual harassment. While he said they must be bold, Kamal also added, “Be brave, be happy that the media is exposing such crimes. If there are a group of guys who want to harass a woman on the streets and if they see a good girl, they will feel sorry for her and ask their friends to leave her alone. But if a woman spits at them, they will chase behind her as it is a signal for them. If the woman says she will hit them [the harassers] with a stone, they will grab her hand. If women walk away with dignity, the men will be ashamed. You can’t take up sticks and sickles for this. If your conscience is clear, nobody will approach you.”

These statements are not too different from what he expressed on Vichitra’s allegations. He once again places the onus on women to protect themselves from sexual harassment rather than teaching young men to refrain from harassing anyone.

Kamal himself has been accused by actor Rekha of kissing her without consent during the shooting of the 1986 film Punnagai Mannan. In an interview to TNM in 2020, Rekha alleged that she had no idea that the scene would involve a kiss, but later found that it had been discussed between Kamal and the director of the film, K Balachander. She also noted that neither Kamal nor Balachander apologised to her, but acknowledged that the movie gave her a break in the film industry. Rekha was only 16 and had just finished Class 10 when she shot for Punnagai Mannan.

Read: Fact remains that I didn’t consent to it: Rekha on ‘Punnagai Mannan’ kiss with Kamal

While Kamal’s comments on sexual harassment are controversial, he is part of a larger problem that exists with shows like Bigg Boss. Across languages, the show has been prone to controversy as it is designed to push participants into conflicts. While superstar hosts of these shows are culpable for peddling problematic notions, the show itself needs to be criticised for allowing and airing these opinions.

As for Kamal, he should address his past behaviour and statements before making impassioned speeches on sexual harassment and women’s safety.

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