For more than a year, an organisation of movie actors in Kerala has been the target of allegations of patriarchy and misogyny for its equivocal stand on the abduction and rape of an actress, allegedly at the instance of a top male actor. But today with the resignation of four well-known female members, it has slipped deep into a morality and credibility crisis.
The organisation in question is AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists), a monopolistic club that exerts a vice-like grip on the Malayalam movie industry, and the members who have resigned are those who have been on a warpath against it for its alleged support to the accused rather than the survivor in the rape case.
One of the members that resigned today was the survivor herself. She had been a top actress in Malayalam until she fell out with the accused a few years ago. In her resignation note, she said that she was quitting because AMMA had not only failed to restrain the actor from damaging her career in the past, but also chose to support him, rather than her, when she went through her recent ordeal.
The other three members — Rima Kallingal, an actor hailed not only for her acting prowess but also for her political integrity, Ramya Nambeesan and Geetu Mohandas — said they were resigning in support of the survivor. In strongly worded separate statements, they hit out at AMMA for its alleged injustice, patriarchy, inhuman attitude, monopoly, lack of democracy, and betrayal among others.
Rima, who has been the most vocal against AMMA, said the resignation was also to ensure that the next generation wouldn’t have to compromise on their self-respect in their workplaces.
Four resignations from an organisation of a few hundred people, including most of the top names in the industry, may not signify much in terms of its strength, but it does point to a lack of a moral compass.
Last July, when the actor accused in the case — Dileep, one of the three highest paid male stars — was arrested for allegedly contracting the abduction and rape, AMMA appeared to have been on his side. Although some agitated younger members forced an “eviction” of the actor, a large number of its members stood by him and even made public statements. Earlier this week, to the surprise of many, AMMA said that he had been taken back into the organisation. Both the mainstream and social media decried the decision.
This development raised eyebrows because an organisation that “expelled” him when he was arrested has taken him back when he is charged. In fact, at the time of the arrest, Dileep was only an accused, but today there’s an additional burden of a chargesheet by the state government which says he indeed committed the crime. Although it’s a court of law that has to adjudicate on the charge, he is still not exonerated and by taking him back, AMMA has not only set a bad precedent, but also has sent out a message to the survivor that its sympathies are indeed with him.
AMMA’s move is immoral, by any yardstick
By any yardstick, it’s immoral, and unjust to the survivor because she too is a member of the same organisation. Dileep may not have committed the crime at all, but when the State is prosecuting him, rightly or wrongly, the association should have taken a legally and morally correct position – that’s to keep him out till he is cleared of the charges. Instead, they took him back through what appeared to be a cheeky intervention of a member in its general body meeting.
This controversial decision reinforces the widely held charge that AMMA is a patriarchal monopoly controlled by the cartels of the superstars of Malayalam cinema. At the top of the pyramid are ageing megastars Mohanlal and Mammootty, the uncrowned chieftains of the industry, and Dileep, arguably one of the richest, with commercial interests in the entire movie value chain. Besides his role in AMMA, Dileep also controls FEOUK (Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala) — a conglomerate of producers, distributors and theatre-owners.
Although it denies such charges, an organisation of technicians called FEFKA (Film Employees Federation of Kerala) acts as an adjunct to AMMA in enforcing its monopoly. There have been several instances in the past when actors and technicians have been barred from work either by AMMA or FEFKA for disobeying their diktats. In fact, being in the bad books of AMMA, can invite a virtual ban from FEFKA as well. The distribution networks also came under the control of the cartels when Dileep engineered the creation of FEUOK last year. Perhaps no other movie industry in India is afflicted by such monopolistic inbreeding because it’s too small to accommodate multiple power structures. Those who want to survive has to be either at the top or be their supplicants.
Thilakan, an award winning veteran, had accused both AMMA and FEFKA for behaving like “mafias”. He was out of work in his final years because of a ban by AMMA that also found endorsement from FEFKA. Similarly, Vinayan, a director of many hit movies, was barred from work for a decade; but he fought his case in the competition commission that found the office-bearers of both AMMA and FEFKA guilty. Another veteran actor, who recently won a state award, had also been banished for some time.
It remains to be seen if the resignation of the actresses leads to a revolt that’s capable of dismantling the patriarchal cartels in the industry. Going by the response of the mainstream and social media, they are certainly not alone. There are many more actors, both men and women, on the other side of the fence. The redeeming fact is that unlike in the past, the dissenters also have significant commercial and political clout. The new avenues of film production and distribution and the changing aesthetics and demography of audiences also may help them in their fight. Probably, Malayalam cinema has finally come of age in challenging its manufactured homogeneity and classist and patriarchal power structures.
It’s indeed a pity that to survive in an industry, it’s not just merit that one requires, but the patronage of a few old men. In fact, that was the summary of today’s resignation notes, Dileep was just incidental.
Will Rima’s revolt change it? Possibly yes, because nobody in the history of Malayalam cinema has spoken with such political clarity and resolve.