‘Superstars who are sharing sexual assault survivor’s post, where were they in the last 5 years?’: Anjali Menon

The actress assault case shook the Malayalam film industry and Kerala’s public consciousness in 2017, and its repercussions can be felt to this day. The horrific incident ended the belief that the industry was a happy workplace inhabited by larger-than-life celebrities. Young women actors, who had rarely spoken about the toxic work culture prevalent in the industry till then, formed a separate collective called Women in Cinema Collective(WCC)  to voice their issues, and claimed that the Malayalam actors association was undemocratic.

The state government was forced to look into the internal functioning of the film industry, which was run by superstars till then. What left many aggrieved was the studied silence of the influential actors, including many senior women actors, on issues raised by the WCC.

The formation of WCC was a landmark event in the history of Malayalam cinema. They publicly questioned the toxic patriarchal tendencies inside the industry and the Malayalam actors association. As big and famous actors remained silent in public, many of them questioned the need for a separate women’s organisation in private, ridiculing the WCC as ‘Feminichis’. The organisation, however, has been working silently towards a more democratic and gender sensitive film industry. They have also supported the survivor and have been demanding that the government should implement recommendations made by Hema Commission, which was appointed to study the gender discrimination inside the industry. Director Anjali Menon, who is an active participant of WCC, has shared her experience working with the collective, their stance on Hema Commission Report and their demands.

What is your stance on Hema Commission report not being disclosed?  

This sort of study is unprecedented in India. A lot of effort has gone into this study, and we will all like to see results. In the film industry, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (POSH) is yet to be implemented. Despite the mandate of courts, we as professional women in a workplace don’t get the benefits of that right as the industry doesn’t practice it. In this context, when a study has been done and the results are yet to be disclosed, and POSH is yet to be implemented, we are at a disadvantage. Through our own individual as well as collective experiences, we know that there are problems that need to be addressed. These are systemic issues. We want the findings of the commission to be officially presented. They are being held back for many reasons, but the findings of the report should be presented. A list of recommendations was released, but we are unclear on what basis those recommendations have been made. You are telling us solutions, without revealing what the problem is. We, as women working in this industry, are well aware of the problems, but there’s a need for them to be officially documented. The whole purpose of the study was to document the issues in the industry officially. So it’s unfair to say the official document is there, but we’ll not share it.

What about the recommendations made by the commission?

When questions were raised in the state assembly, a list of recommendations were provided by ministers. We are unable to understand the context of the recommendations, for which we need the findings. When a recommendation for e-toilet on movie sets is made, they need to explain why it is necessary. They should reveal that these many films are made on yearly basis and these many women are working in these films. Women are now working in all departments of the film industry, and the issues that concern them should be revealed, as well as the reason that force women to leave the industry. These findings need to be published.

Why do you think government is holding back the commission report?

I’ve no idea why they are holding back the report, but it is definitely not helping the women in the industry. Once the issues are documented, only then can we talk about solutions. We are talking about an industry which is in complete denial. When these issues were raised initially, many retaliated with ridiculous statements, maintaining Malayalam industry is one big happy family.

What was the last communication WCC had with the government?

Our last meeting was with Veena George, Minister of Health and Family Welfare. The department of Women and Child Development also falls under her ambit and it is the nodal agency for implementation of POSH. We have engaged in very detailed discussions with that department, and put forward our proposal on how we could implement POSH. However, we’re still awaiting action. After that meeting, we’ve written to the Chief Minister and Minister of Cultural Affairs. We have also partnered with Sakhi, an organisation that works mainly in gender. We’ve put together a report titled ‘Women shaping narratives’. In this report there’s a specific report called ‘Shift focus’ which focuses on the best practices to address issues faced by women in the industry. This report was also submitted to the government.

What are your immediate demands from government’s side?

Firstly, the findings of the commission should be revealed and in correlation to that the recommendations should be made. This is not only about sexual harassment, the industry’s work culture does not maintain gender equality. The number of women who leave the industry because of this trend is extremely high. The working conditions are not conducive for women.

What do you think about the social media support given by some Malayalam stars after the assault survivor posted on Instagram?

In these past five years, what have these superstars done to ensure that the kind of incident will not happen again to another woman working in the industry? It’s too little, but I am glad she’s getting this support. Something is better than nothing.  But they can do so much more as they wield a lot of power in the industry. Many of them are producers, and if they were to change things on their own set, that itself would be a significant change. I’ve communicated with many of these young stars, but they’re comfortable with the way things are.

How was your experience working with WCC for the past five years?

The last five years has been very challenging, but at an individual level and as a collective, this has really been a phase of growth for us. We’re all different people now, very strong minded. I had a wonderful opportunity to learn, to know different kind of women, share their experiences, and recognise my privileges. It’s been a very enriching experience. I am proud that now people think that there’s somebody watching over them. They are mindful on the sets, even if they joke about it. I’m very proud today to see the survivor has spoken about her journey in these 5 years — becoming a survivor from a victim. It’s nice to see media has also taken that up. To know that she has has confidence and faith to continue the journey and saying she’ll continue the fight is heartening. It is the same thing the survivor has said. It’s part of the same fight. Look at all of us who are part of WCC, what have we gained from this? In terms of career, we may have lost many opportunities but gained in terms of growth. We don’t want any new girl who is coming to this industry to face the biases and oppression we have faced. All of us are speaking in the same voice. The onus on improving this space is only on us? What’s everybody else doing?

As an industry when a new technology comes in, say OTT for instance, everybody has adjusted and adapted quickly. However, when it comes to something so basic, there’s no will to adjust or adapt or change the industry . Why is that? The people who shared her post, if they had done anything to change the scenario, there would have been very visible changes in the industry.

On women working in other departments of cinema

As a director, I’m at liberty to make my choices. I’ve had my own share of discrimination, which is the reason why I’m terribly motivated to be working on all this. But more than actresses, the women in the crew are affected. Actresses are far more privileged than the unknown women working in the crew. Nobody wants their interview, what they go through, and their experiences. Most of them have a 6 to 9 schedule, toil hard and go back, unsure about their safety and their pay. Those people deserve more attention.

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