Gender equality remains elusive in the Malayalam film industry

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

Take for example the attack on an actor in Kerala in 2017 that continues to rock the state. The attack and subsequent events – which led to the survivor recently making her identity public and seeking intervention by the Prime Minister to ensure justice – are a blatant display of male privilege and show a disregard for women’s professional and personal dignity, those in the working industry. In other cases we have seen short apologies; However, a majority of the allegations have been dismissed by lawsuits for defamation – a strategy of silencing observed in the case of filmmaker Leena Manimekalai and journalist Priya Ramani. Most telling is the sheer apathy with which even the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) reacted to the 2017 attack, which was said to have been directed by another actor. While both actors remained part of the organization, the survivor received little support.

The formation of the Women in Cinema Collective in 2017 was the result of such institutional silence, which allows sexual harassment, wage inequality and a lack of safe workspaces to prevail. From the beginning there has been a concerted effort to delegitimize the WCC as an exclusive space constructed through a combination of class privileges. While there is room for improvement in the WCC’s larger coalition-building efforts, particularly among women’s collectives outside of cinema, social scientists such as J Devika have noted that there are “common threads of patriarchy that run through our (separate) struggles.” This patriarchal Hegemony is evident in the way WCC actions are monitored and held to higher standards than organizations such as AMMA or the Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA). Even media platforms are guilty of perpetuating such gendered expectations. Take the WCC press conference in 2018, when members who addressed the media were met with a barrage of questions demanding that the names of harassers be revealed, as if attribution alone could legitimize their claims. One wonders if the journalists would have addressed an AMMA meeting in the same way. Not long after the founding of the WCC, as part of its Silver Jubilee celebrations, AMMA staged a “comic” skit that derogatorily featured a thinly veiled reference to the WCC by the fictional organization WhatsApp Women Empowerment Group. Among the many objectionable strategies was the inclusion of a figure known to be negotiating an abusive marriage – a tactical move to delegitimize the political consciousness that led to the founding of the WCC in the first place. Such diversionary strategies came across as part of a hypermasculine tradition of labeling women as “emotional,” “no real organizational skills,” and “a bunch of feminists” pushing their personal agendas.

Given the WCC’s focus, it is not difficult to see why such reactions arise. The WCC is holding film organizations accountable and is seeking the establishment of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) under the Sexual Harassment Against Women at Work (Prevention, Prohibition and Remedy) Act 2013. While this has yet to materialize in Malayalam cinema, one would wish that the Film Chamber of Commerce (FCC), FEFKA and AMMA proactively implement a grievance mechanism that does not offend the complainant. While functioning within workspaces needs to be addressed using the ICC’s mechanism, it is equally important to ensure that cyberattacks targeting female actors are also dealt with vigorously, as fan groups are willing to rally behind male stars, regardless of their offences.

The film fraternity’s repeated calls for the Justice Hema Commission’s report to be released speak volumes about how reports from constitutional bodies end up in the attic of bureaucracy. In 2017, the Kerala state government established a three-member commission, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice K Hema, to explore “options for improving safety, protection, better pay, working conditions and creating an enabling work environment for women.” ” to investigate. 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 wish to publish the full content of the report, particularly to protect the confidentiality of respondents, one wonders whether an amended version redacting the affected parts would not be within legal and ethical possibilities located. The material collected by the Commission is crucial for action at policy level on gender equality in the film sector. The non-publication of the key findings and recommendations limits meaningful engagement with the issues highlighted by the Commission and ridicules the work, emotion and time invested by the Witnesses. What we need are not just judicial commissions, but concrete ways to implement corrective measures to improve the conditions of women who work or want to enter the industry. In addition to infrastructural support and financial resources, the working conditions must be inclusive enough to enable long-term change. The state government’s decision to set up a film supervisory authority to settle labor disputes is to be welcomed, but only careful consideration can show whether it will have the desired effect. As we do not have a comprehensive data set on issues related to gender, pay and labor rights in the film industry (apart from the WCC-initiated survey), the time has come to consider the contributions of filmmakers. Perhaps a survey of film workers’ working conditions could show how apprenticeships and unpaid work are normalized in the system to move forward. And at every step we have to remember that it’s never about work or gender, it’s about work and gender. Intersectional thinking is key if we are to see lasting change in this industry, and perhaps we would all do well to remember Audre Lorde’s dictum: “There is no fighting over a single problem because we don’t live a single problem.” Life.”

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 13, 2022 under the title “Justice in slow motion”. The author is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

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