There was a celebration outside the Girija Theater in Kerala’s Thrissur on July 3, Monday, as Dr Girija KP, the owner of the establishment, joined several women gathered outside the premises and thanked the media in Kerala for getting her through a tough time. It was only a few days ago that Girija appeared before news channels, bursting into tears over cyber-attacks against the theatre. This led to a show of solidarity by women’s wing members of the Chamber of Commerce who flocked to the theatre to watch movies and stand up for Girija.
Girija has a legacy of single-handedly reviving the old Girija theatre that was run by her father. He named the theatre after her and in those days, the place was infamous for exhibiting only A-rated movies. Her experiences outline the struggles of a woman entrepreneur who has fought many odds to run her business and now braving organised cyber attacks against her and the theatre. The ones attacking her and trying to bring her business down are not people known to her, but their acts have spiralled into multiple roadblocks for Girija, who sought help from authorities and the media several times.
The cyber attacks against Girija started in December 2018. This was when Rajinikanth’s film 2.0 was released, and she received the 3D print for screening. “I already had a silver screen for 3D projection. Therefore, I didn’t consider buying a new one. But when I tried and tied it to the screen a week before, I realised there were many lines,” she explained. Silver screens can be used for all kinds of films, but until then, Girija had thought they could only be used for 3D films. So she folded and kept the screen away. But she later learnt that silver screens were not supposed to be folded, they should only be rolled. This mistake led to folds appearing during the screening as well.
“I ordered a new screen, but it arrived only the day after the release. So I told the people who had come to the theatre on the release day what the issue was, and that I will refund their amount. I said if they want to watch it, they can, and that a new screen was coming the next day,” she said. “For anyone who wanted to watch the film on the release day, I didn’t charge anything extra for the 3D glasses. I told everyone exactly what the screen’s condition was.
But a young man who came for the second show took a picture of this and put a Facebook post. It was shared very widely, almost as if it was sponsored. In a group called Thrissur Talkies, where people discuss the films being played in different theatres in Thrissur, people were continuously posting these links,” she explained.
Girija said she did not know how to approach the Cyber Cell and hence, went directly to their office and showed them her phone asking for help. “I told them that someone was continuously copy-pasting this message everywhere,¨ she said.
Later, the Cyber Cell found the person behind this and she said that when she attempted to talk, he allegedly said his friend, who had just graduated from the Thrissur Engineering College, was leading the cyber attack against Girija theatre and alleged that this friend was being paid by someone in the film industry for this.
Girija still has no clue who was behind this attack.
As a child, Girija was constantly ridiculed for being the daughter of a man who owned a theatre that played soft- porn. From refusing to come home from her college hostel during her holidays to later embracing her father’s business and fighting relentlessly to revive the almost defunct theatre, Girija’s journey is well-known for most Keralites. It was after a struggle of almost 7 years that Girija was able to revive the theatre in 2008.
The 2018 cyber attacks had already shaken Girija, and that is when some fake reports about Girija theatre being shut down emerged, citing that the staff had Covid. Girija said there was a one-day closure as she had fallen sick and some of her staff had to help her to the hospital. “That night, I saw a scroll on TV that health workers came and sealed a theatre because of Covid. They were saying that the owner and staff all had Covid. When I checked which theatre it was, they were saying it was Girija. Such an incident had not happened at all,” she said.
News channels Manorama and Mathrubhumi called Girija to check, and she told them that this news was untrue. “I told them I locked it on my own accord and that the key was with me. I told them I did not have Covid and that I was going to get admitted to the hospital for a blood transfusion the next day,¨ she added. However, the relentless cyber attacks took a toll on her mental health, and she had to quit her teaching job at the Al Azhar Dental College in Thodupuzha to cope.
Girija also recalled another attack from 2021, when the film Kurup was out. Some people went about alleging that she was degrading that film and disrespecting Wayfarer Films, a film production and distribution company owned by actor Dulquer Salman. Screenshots from an Instagram post were widely shared. The post called Kurup an ‘average film’, and alleged that Girija theatre was stopping the screening of the film. Girija had told the media at the time that these were fake screenshots and part of a targeted attack.
“People were sharing the post with messages like “fans of Dulquer and Mammootty should react”. So they essentially wanted to incite people into coming and vandalising my theatre,” she said.
Girija had taken Kurup for one week of screening since that was the agreement. “The shows were housefull, but I still stopped the screening as per the agreement and did not extend it because I had promised to release another smaller movie. I did not want to break that promise, even though it was a new company and I had no surety whether it would become a hit or not,” she recalled. (This was Jaaneman, which also turned out to be a big hit.)
¨One of Mammootty’s representatives eventually called me and said they trusted me and that I need not fear. They said they know that someone else had a hand in this. They said one person from the Mammookka fans group, who has a YouTube channel, would come and see me, and that I just need to tell them the truth. That is how I escaped from that attack. They essentially rescued me,¨ she added.
After she left her job at Al Azhar, Girija had decided to concentrate on the theatre alone. “I started another Facebook account. Now they are trying to get my social media handles locked. I eventually got a promotion team, but the page they started also got locked. Both the Facebook and Instagram accounts were locked. Two accounts were notably targeting the official Girija Theatre page, claiming copyright on every post I put up,¨ she said.
She also started getting ´restriction´ message notifications on her personal social handles. Many producers started denying films to the theatre for screening, and Girija says that those who target her have good connections in the industry. ¨Even when it is a hit film, they may be giving it to literally every other theatre in Thrissur except mine. In the second week, hit films usually get a wider release. So when that happens, I ask producers to give me the film as well, but they don’t,¨ she said.
Girija said she spoke up now because she has reached a breaking point. Despite hiring a team to promote her theatre, cyber attacks continued, and she felt the need to seek the help of the media. She doesn't know who is attacking her, just that the attacks have been consistent. She suspects that there is one theatre owner trying to attack other theatres though. But there is no proof for that. After her experience of being targeted through cyber attacks came out, producers and distributor associations in Kerala held a meeting with her, extending support. Former MP Suresh Gopi, minister P Rajeev, and many other politicians also called her and assured solidarity. The show of support from the women’s wing of the Chamber of Commerce at the theatre was also part of the moral support that they wished to convey to Girija.
Girija now believes she will get some relief as the public outrage, she hopes, may have given a signal to her harassers that she is no longer all by herself in this fight.
With inputs from Haritha John