Negotiating dissent in Malayalam cinema: How the industry has failed its women

At this moment, the Malayalam film industry seems cosily cocooned in the warm shades of patriarchy, manly privileges, and increasingly, ‘anti-feminism’.
Negotiating dissent in Malayalam cinema: How the industry has failed its women
Negotiating dissent in Malayalam cinema: How the industry has failed its women
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The TV screen and social media sites around are abounding with ‘call outs’ by the hour. Veterans of big and small screens, and young wonders in the business of entertainment have fallen pathetically off their pedestals all around hit by the lashing waves of #MeToo disclosures. Young comedians who made us laugh our hearts out with their whacky, witty comments on the petty and the profound are standing exposed of their crude insensitivities. Young women – and also some men – in premier academic institutions across the country are naming and shaming their sexual abusers on social media. Most of them are speaking out after several years, even after decades. Many of the talented and self-made women were preyed on in their creative primetime and lost out on life-time opportunities to bloom and flourish. They have suffered unspeakable mental and physical agony through several years. But they are speaking up now, emboldened by the solidarity wave that started in the far-off Hollywood.

This show of strength and conviction is enlightening and inspiring. It was heartening to read about the resolve of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), an umbrella entity with about 500,000 members from 20 odd film artistes associations (including the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image or MAMI, Cine and TV Artistes' Association or CINTAA and Indian Film and Television Directors' Association or IFTDA) to deal with ‘workplace’ issues faced by women artistes head on.

In the press release issued on 10th October, the Federation expressed its ‘pain and anguish’ at the reported incidents of sexual harassment and announced in no unclear words its ‘strong stand against the perpetrators of such crimes’. The press release further says: “We have opened our gates to females working in the film and TV industries to come and register their complaints without any fear or hesitation. Our legal team is there to guide them, support them in their incessant struggle to be victorious after nailing the culprit before the altar of justice”.

The Producers Guild of India (PGI) issued another media release to announce its decision to constitute a 12 member committee to address the issue of sexual harassment. We are informed that it is planning to conduct workshops and special sessions to guide setting up of appropriate processes at workplaces like film sets and offices. Very reassuring interventions, indeed.

And I am personally delighted to see that all these statements use the term ‘workplace’ with ease and conviction to refer to the many sites of film production. My thoughts are now with the Malayalam film industry.

Several months ago a group of accomplished women artistes in this industry came together to form a collective – the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) - precisely to convey the urgency to address ‘workplace’ problems that concern them. These are women who have contributed exceptionally to the aesthetic and commercial growth of the Malayalam cinema as actors, editors, directors, screenwriters etc. They have been trying to bring sanity and substance to the debates on a host of issues relating to safety and dignity of women in the field of filmmaking, where their labour and intellect are invested equally as their male colleagues to co-create the cultural experience that is cinema.

But the system appears to be adamant in its resistance to leveraging the expressions of dissent to look inward and change. The mammoth organisation of creative workers that the industry has set up – the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) - that revels in its associational prowess, welfare oriented initiatives, and leadership by illustrious stars, has not been able to come out with definitive statement of action and strategy like the FWICE.

It is over a year since a leading lady artiste of the industry was brutally attacked in a busy city by a group of individuals with intimate connections with it as service providers. Formation of WCC was a very natural, proactive move in a self-help mode. We must remember that women’s collectives and associations are part of all spheres of engagement everywhere – academic bodies, political parties, trade unions etc. They work as critical organisational arrangements in the struggle for transformation and progress by keeping in focus the very distinct issues of women that may otherwise be lost sight of. One has to only look back at the vibrant role played by women’s collectives and mobilisations in the 1980s and 1990s in India and globally to fight for a host of civil rights for a dignified life.

But the Malayalam film industry seems to have lost the opportunity to prove the quintessential progressive streak of the Malayali society by extending strategic support to WCC in designing a forward-looking framework to address some of the deeply entrenched biases and anomalies in the system, and thus create a base for embracing a brand new vision for the Malayalam cinema – just, inclusive, and transparent.

Quite appallingly, one got the feeling that the current leadership of AMMA perhaps lacks the knowledge and sensitivity to deal with complex issues like gender justice, workers' rights and cinema’s intimate interlinkages with progressive social trends. The skit staged by AMMA on the night of a prestigious award show in May this year was an eloquent example of its callous ignorance of the working of gender in society and cinema. This was presented by six women artistes (including one who won the prestigious national award for best actress the previous year), two superstars, and a prominent actor who is a vocal advocate of another superstar, currently an accused in the case of assault against the female actor mentioned earlier.

Thematically and creatively it was an obnoxious production, to say the least. It did not mask the intention to damn and trivialise WCC in the public sphere. The women in the skit mouthed dialogues that were plainly ridiculing their own dignity and self-respect, shamed their own bodies and intellect, justified gross acts of violation of women’s dignity shown in contemporary films, undermined the wonderful possibilities of organising, took digs at their own colleagues who dared to stand up to their rights, and drooled at the sight of ageing male superstars, who played cameos with suggestive props and gestures.

The skit was justified by the association representatives as an innocuous act conceived by some of the women artistes. Evidently, such an explanation was meant as a declaration that WCC is not in the imagination of all women working in cinema, and many of them enjoy being dumb muses of the leading men in the industry. The act appeared a loud public statement of AMMA that women in the industry desire and deserve their unequal status. The subsequent public statements made by AMMA through some of its leaders and members – including women members - have made it very clear that present Malayalam filmdom is seriously crippled in its social sensitivity, sense of history, intellectual quality and ethical moorings. The constitution of women’s cell within AMMA – seemingly as a response to WCC’s PIL in the High Court to urge AMMA to have an internal complaints committee - is an important pointer of this.

The cell is led by senior artiste KPAC Lalitha along with Ponnamma Babu and Kukku Parameswaran. While Lalitha’s cluelessness about managing dissent and complaints from her women colleagues and her complete lack of understanding of gender dynamics was showcased in a recent press meet (where she asked her fellow women artistes to keep quiet about unpleasant and violent experiences to maintain peace within the ‘big’ film family), the other two were active participants of the crass, anti-women stage act of AMMA mentioned earlier.

At this moment, the Malayalam film industry seems cosily cocooned in the warm shades of patriarchy, manly privileges, and increasingly, ‘anti-feminism’ (grossly mutilated ‘male’ version of that, of course). It is painful for all those who are watching from afar anxiously and hopefully how the new ideas and initiatives of the younger generation would blend with the extant wisdom to make Malayalam cinema reach for creative heights. How pitiful is that for a cultural institution embedded in a socio-political heritage that is respected globally for its democratic and welfare oriented development outlook?

One still hopes that the leadership of AMMA and other powerful trade organisations within the Malayalam film industry take notice of how quickly and strategically FICWE and PGI could respond to the crisis in Bollywood. Hindi cinema by no means is a ‘clean’ industry - it has all the trappings of a hyper-commercialised, hero centric, male dominated cultural production site. But it seems that the industry is better aware of and sensitive to the waves of change brought about by mobilisations everywhere in current times when information travels with the speed of lightning. May be it is more wary of the potential collateral loss from the reputational risk of gender insensitivity given its complex and more ambitious economic calculus spanning markets across continents. If a sense of good economics leads to socially responsible behaviour, none would complain.

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