Recently in Mumbai for the 20th edition of Mumbai Film Festival, Kerala-based actor Parvathy, who was part of a panel on #MeToo, talks about the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) constituted by women in the Malayalam film industry, which has been speaking up against sexual harassment. In this interview, she talks about the need for a pressure body that will take constructive action after the predators have been exposed.
Sexual harassment has been an open secret in any Indian film industry. In Bollywood, it took the shape of the #MeToo movement recently. What was the catalyst to launch Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) in Kerala?
The catalyst for the launch of WCC was the gruesome incident that happened to our colleague last year (February 17, 2017). She was abducted and sexually assaulted in a moving car. For many years, women remained silent for the fear of being victim-shamed. But she didn’t. She immediately filed an FIR and followed it up with a court case. We came together within a week of the incident in order to stand by her. We slowly realised by coming together to support her, we were also becoming the voice of many who still haven’t spoken up. Many still don’t realise there is lack of a dignified workspace. Educating ourselves of what consists of an equal and dignified workplace and ensuring that our industry focuses on prevention and prohibition of any violation then became our main focus.
What do you see are the key differences between the movement in Kerala and in Bollywood?
In Kerala, there was no acknowledgement of the prevalent practise of sexual harassment by any film body. After the incident, there were words of solidarity expressed by few members of the industry supporting the survivor but we didn’t see any tangible procedural action taken either to aid her or help the case in an unbiased manner. WCC became the much needed voice of dissent. We became a pressure body of sorts that made sure the questions don’t die down without answers. Those in positions of power need to be held accountable and we made sure they either spoke or act upon issues in timely manner, even if it meant arm-twisting them into acknowledging that there are rampant issues faced by us that can no longer be ignored; either for their comfort or just because it has been the status quo for decades. After Archana Padmini spoke up about Sherin Stanley, the first reaction from the head of the cine workers’ association was that she is lying. The Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) said they will take action against the offender. Three days after their announcement, we were about to commend FEFKA for having taken correct action when we decided to double check. People tend to assume that an announcement amounts to action. That is almost never the case so we brought it up with them. From speaking up consistently to measures taken for constructive actions and to follow up on those diligently is what we need to see not just in Bollywood, but the entire film industry. It’s great to see woke members speaking up because even that influences masses but there is a need to keep up the momentum if we want revolutionary changes at our workplace.
Why do you think women in Bollywood have not banded together like WCC?
Not everything needs to come under the media scanner, so I really hope that those who have come together would pave the way for more to join. There are many directors who have given joint statement that they will never work with the offenders. There are many actors and technicians who are participating in the formulation of a way forward. We saw at MAMI how several sessions on awareness were held where WCC was made a part of. Mainly because there was a solid understanding that the platform can be used to further the awareness on how we can participate in the movement in a more fruitful manner. I commend these efforts, yes! However, while keeping in mind my limited understanding of Bollywood, there are still many who have chosen comfort over speaking up. That makes up for a majority, sadly. This detachment perhaps comes from what’s at stake for them. Apart from three or four, none of the leading actors here have spoken up either in support or openly questioned the practices. Some journalists in Mumbai tell me journalists are told they cannot ask questions related to #MeToo at press conferences. At this point, it is very crucial to take a stand on this and I hope that more would join in.
Do WCC members face hostility from the women who have chosen to remain silent?
Not really. What is worse though, is their silence on the issue. They wish to alienate themselves from the movement and are aware that being seen associated with us might affect their chances in the industry. I see where they are coming from. Being threatened, trolled and slut-shamed every day can be scary. However, we have chosen to clean up this septic tank. We have a long term vision for the future and these are nothing but stumbling blocks. We are creators of art. We already have the power of our craft. What we need to remind ourselves is that we have the fundamental right to claim the space that is rightfully ours. It is our fundamental right to work with dignity. What we also need to remind everyone else at our workplace is that our space is not mutually exclusive to their’s. This learning and unlearning will take time. It will be faster if more people are willing to listen. I am hopeful that, in time, they will.
In what ways has it affected work?
As outspoken actresses and technicians, we already at the risk of losing work. Even before WCC, or the previous few films that I worked on that became commercially and critically successful, I was clear about socio-political matters. Women like me were already getting singled out as “difficult” or “too demanding” simply because we question the status quo that stripped women daily of their rights. After WCC and my opinion on the movie Kasaba was expressed at IFFK (2017), there was an organised smear campaign and calls for boycott from fans associations that also went on to death threats too. However, I am not the only one. Hairstylists and other technicians get asked if they are a part of WCC. A kind of screening process, maybe. These tactics, however, will not last. Like I said earlier, we have women who are smart and talented. Nothing is going to stop them from creating work. WCC as a collective force will be screening every every attempt that keeps work away from where it should rightfully go. In due time, it will be clearer that co-existing isn’t a utopian dream after all.
What does it take to be a part of WCC?
Being current. That is what it takes to be part of WCC. It basically involves educating ourselves and others consistently through various channels. We have meetings for our programmes and awareness campaigns to organise. We take turns speaking in public and attend hearings for the Justice Hema Commission, which has been formed to study the gender gap in the film industry. This is a very time-consuming effort but we are aware that unless we empower ourselves with knowledge of the law, association bylaws and technical frameworks, we will keep getting beaten at this game. Equipping ourselves with this knowledge allows us to debate it out with the system. And that’s important because today, MAMI may have reacted to #MeToo, expelled films by the men accused, and also given us a forum to talk about sexual harassment but where is the next platform that will do so? We have to constantly create those. WCC is committed to it.
Talking of MAMI, the festival booted out films produced by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane in the wake of the controversy around Vikas Bahl and Phantom. But Netflix has sanctioned the next season of Sacred Games, which is being made by the very two filmmakers. How do you view this?
The message it sends is that one cannot depend on the system. It may also discourage women from speaking up because these people are back in positions of power. Maybe some others have been asked to lay low till the “controversy” dies down. But the question to be asked is what legal body conducted the inquiry for Netflix? Would this inquiry be nullified if an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) comes in place. Lack of transparency while handling these cases can terribly delay and tamper the progress of a much needed restructuring within the industry. Bigger production houses can set examples for smaller ones by making sure they engage in open conversations with those who question their practices. The power of a collective that includes people from all departments can really fortify the movement and keep a check on the progress, making sure we do not take a step back or become complacent at any point.