Gender justice remains elusive in the Malayalam film industry


In April 2021, SAG-AFTRA, the trade union for entertainment industry professionals in the United States, standardized its procedures for filing complaints of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry through a digital platform called “Safe Place”. , which would locate patterns in complaints and prevent repeat offenders from going unchecked. While the #MeToo movement in the United States has led to some affirmative action, such as the creation of the Anita Hill-led Hollywood Commission to protect the rights of complainants without fear of reprisal, the response to the movement has been lukewarm, even hostile. . — in many other industries, including South Korea and India.

Take, for example, the 2017 assault on an actor in Kerala, which continues to rock the state. The assault and subsequent events — which led to the survivor going public with her identity and seeking the intervention of the Chief Minister to ensure justice — are a blatant manifestation of male privilege and show a disregard for professional dignity and personal of women working in the industry. In other cases, we have seen brief statements of apology; but the majority of the allegations have been countered by libel suits – a strategy of silence seen with filmmaker Leena Manimekalai and journalist Priya Ramani. Most telling is the sheer apathy with which even the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) responded to the 2017 onslaught, which was allegedly orchestrated by another actor. While both actors were still part of the organization, the survivor received little support.

The formation of the Women in Cinema collective in 2017 is the result of such institutional silences that allow sexual harassment, unequal pay, and a lack of safe workspaces to prevail. From its inception, concerted efforts were made to delegitimize the COE as an exclusive space constructed through a bond of class privilege. While there is room for improvement in the WCC’s broader coalition-building efforts, particularly with women’s collectives outside of film, social scientists such as J Devika have noted that there are “common threads of patriarchy running through our (separate) struggles.” This patriarchal hegemony can be seen in the way the actions of the COE are monitored and held to higher standards than organizations such as AMMA or the Federation of Film Employees of Kerala (FEFKA). Even media platforms are guilty of perpetuating such gendered expectations. Take the WCC press conference in 2018, when members speaking to the media were met with a barrage of questions, demanding they reveal the names of the harassers, as if only declaring the names could legitimize their claims. One wonders if reporters would have addressed an AMMA meeting in the same way. Shortly after the formation of the WCC, as part of its Silver Jubilee celebrations, AMMA staged a “comic” skit which derogatorily depicted a thinly veiled reference to the WCC through the organization. fictitious “WhatsApp Women Empowerment Group”. Among his many offensive strategies was the inclusion of a character who was shown to be negotiating an abusive marriage – a tactical move to delegitimize the political conscience that led to the constitution of the COE in the first place. Such diversionary strategies emerged as part of a hypermasculine tradition of labeling women as “emotional”, “lacking real organizational skills”, and as a “group of feminists” pushing their personal agendas.

When one considers the orientation of the WCC, it is not difficult to see why such responses are emerging. The WCC is holding film organizations to account and calling for the establishment of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) under the Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redress) Act 2013. Although this has yet to materialize in Malayalam cinema, one wants the Film Chamber of Commerce (FCC), FEFKA and AMMA to proactively set up a complaints mechanism that does not alienate the complainant. While the functioning within workspaces should be addressed using the ICC mechanism, it is equally crucial to ensure that cyberattacks against actresses are also dealt with firmly, as fan groups are ready to rallying around the male stars, regardless of their infractions.

The film fraternity’s recurring demands to release the Hema Justice Commission report speaks volumes about how reports from constitutional bodies end up in the attics of the bureaucracy. In 2017, the Kerala state government set up a three-member commission headed by retired High Court Justice K Hema to explore “options for improving women’s security, better pay, conditions of service and the creation of a conducive working environment”. Despite submitting the report to the government in December 2019, it has not yet become a public document. While one can understand why the Commission might not want to make the full content of the report public, in particular to preserve the confidentiality of the respondents, one can wonder whether an amended version redacting the parties concerned is not within the framework legal and ethical possibilities. The material collected by the Commission is crucial for policy actions relating to gender equity in the film sector. Failure to make public its key findings and recommendations restricts meaningful engagement on the issues highlighted by the Commission and mocks the work, emotion and time invested by those who testified. What we need are not just judicial commissions, but concrete possibilities to implement corrective measures to improve the conditions of women who work or want to enter the industry. Along with infrastructural support and financial resources, working conditions must be inclusive enough for any long-term changes. While the state government’s decision to form a film regulator to resolve labor disputes is certainly a welcome move, only careful deliberation can tell us whether it will have the desired impact. As we do not have a comprehensive data set on issues related to gender, wages and labor rights in the film industry (apart from the survey launched by the WCC), now is the time. come to review the filmmakers’ contributions. Perhaps a survey of the working conditions of film workers could show how apprenticeship and unpaid work are normalized in the system as a way forward. And at every step, we must remember that it is never about work or gender, but about work and gender. Intersectional thinking is essential if we are to see lasting change in this industry, and perhaps we would all be well served to remember Audre Lorde’s saying, “There is no single issue fight because that we don’t live on a single issue. Lives.”

This column appeared for the first time in the paper edition of January 13, 2022 under the title “Slow motion justice”. The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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