The irony: Rima was talking about sexual harassment when trolls came for her dress

At an event in the Regional IFFK in Kochi, Rima Kallingal was speaking about the need for IC in Malayalam cinema and sexual harassment. However, people commenting on the video seemed to be more concerned with what she wore.
Rima Kallingal in black
Rima Kallingal in black
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In clear, measured words, Rima Kallingal explains why film sets in Malayalam cinema need an Internal Committee (IC), as mandated by law, to deal with sexual harassment complaints. She has been at the forefront in the fight for rights of women in the industry for the past several years, voicing thoughts and opinions few have dared to. She is also one of the founding members of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) formed in the aftermath of the sexual assault on her friend and fellow actor in 2017. So, when she speaks about the need for awareness around sexual harassment, you know it comes from the right place. Unfortunately it is not what she says about IC or sexual harassment that seems to have got the attention of many on social media, but what she was wearing while saying it.

Rima is dressed in a casual white shirt and denim skirt, and seated on a stage with others to talk about sexual harassment at workplace. They are at the venue for the Regional International Film Festival of Kerala (RIFFK), in Ernakulam. As she speaks, others with her offer further explanation on this very important topic.

“All unions in the film industry should have clear study classes on what all amounts to sexual harassement. Many of us, including women, do not recognise it when we face it. This morning, a girl called from a film set and said that an assistant director told her he will “show her afterwards.” You don’t have to stand any of this. That’s what we need to understand. The [lewd] comments you hear on the set when you work, other people [threatening] about costing you job opportunities – all of this amounts to harassment. Not only sexual harassment, but any unfair treatment should be reported. It is unbelievable that so far we don’t have one (a structure like the IC) in the film industry in Kerala, a state that everyone looks up to,” Rima says during the event.

She mentions the Vishakha guidelines and the need to sensitise and impart knowledge to everyone in the industry about them. But none of it appears to have seeped through the painfully narrow minds of a number of Malayalis who couldn’t seem to process anything beyond blue denim skirts and what they mean. It is no secret that Malayalis are yet to come to terms with the fact that women have legs. Less than two years ago, many young women had to educate appalled Instagram users who suddenly found to their horror that Anaswara Rajan, a teenage actor, had legs. With three clear words – Women Have Legs – a troupe of female actors had then joined the bandwagon. “We do too,” they said.

Clearly, it did little good. Under a video of Rima’s speech, one commenter – an elderly man if his photo isn’t fake – discovered that Rima has legs and is sitting with it! Another person, with a young woman’s profile photo, thought that this is not the attire one must be wearing to talk about sexual harassment. To questions asking what was prescribed in the Constitution as a suitable costume, this user gave no reply. A third person, apparently hurt – a crying emoji – said that women are beautiful if they avoided “stimulating dress.”

It would sound like an imposition, the one you get as punishment at school, writing something over and over again, if we even begin to say how wrong and sickening such behavior is. But, for the sake of documentation, here you go: women can wear whatever they choose to, for the 19867584th time. 

Moral policing on the street, inside someone’s house, and publicly on social media, is one of the basest behaviours, and something you’d think people would be ashamed to admit they are inclined to do. But almost proudly – perhaps due to the anonymity that social media can give – they expose themselves, showing show how vile they really are. The user with the photo of an elderly man who commented on Rima’s legs – making a very problematic insinuation that the cameraperson can’t be blamed – does have people calling him out in the replies, in terms and tones much worse than his. The user with the young woman’s display picture is asked to listen to what Rima has to say, too.

Having to say that that’s the irony of it all sounds so obvious and repetitive that I feel inclined to quote the Malayalam saying: parayunna ningalkillengilum kelkunna enikundu nanam (even though you who say it have no shame, I, hearing it, do). In the video, Rima has been talking about sexual harassment, about why you don't need to take anything lying down - not even a word or a gesture that's problematic. And there are these trolls, coming right beneath the video, as if to demonstrate what the problems she spoke about are. We are the problems she was referring to, the comments aptly show. 

But then Rima might have been wearing a priest's robes and still hearing a whole load of trash, thanks to the tag she's been gifted with long ago for speaking her mind: "feminichi". They can't stand a woman speaking about her rights and they will attack her whatever she wears, however patiently she says it. A few years ago, Rima was wearing a black sari, the thanthaya Kerala vesham (proper Kerala wear) as people like to claim, when she spoke about how women in the house were discriminated against even when a fish fry was cooked and handed out. In her nearly 15-minute TED talk about gender discrimination in cinema, this is the line that then caught the Malayali imagination, and was used to pounce on her with abuses online.

Forget the clothes and the words; she could be on stage completely silent but sitting next to one who spoke out for women's rights, and be booed at. That's what happened during the release of Mayanadi, a film she produced and her husband Aashiq Abu directed. There were trolls for the film simply because it was produced by Rima, who had sat next to Parvathy Thiruvothu when she spoke out against misogyny. 

By that logic Aashiq too is customarily dragged in, to all controversies remotely circling Rima or WCC. This time too, someone's tagged him into a comment to sarcastically say it was good that he supported his wife’s clothing choices - as though it is anyone’s decision but Rima’s. 

If you do a Google search on Rima Kallingal, auto suggestions vary from Rima's age to her husband's name to even specific caste extensions to her name. That is a lot of interest for someone they seem determined to be angry with. But best of all is Rima's reaction to these repeated outbursts - none, zilch, zero. A woman who speaks so much for the rights of all, choosing to ignore the filth that falls on her walls, that's got to hurt haters the most. 

Views expressed are author’s own.

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