In 2000, actor Revathi welcomed the new millennium by directing a film, Mitr my Friend, shot largely in the US (the film released in 2002), with an all-woman crew. It was only a rare departure from the norm. Just the other day, while browsing through old photographs on location, we saw women only in the background, carrying lights, pulling focus and assisting in carrying equipment — step onto a set in Kerala and except for a handful of women, it’s a totally male dominated space. This unnatural skew has led to a whole host of problems.
On May 18, a group of 15 Malayalee women film professionals met Kerala Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan with a petition, apprising him of the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective and requesting an inquiry into gender issues of the film industry. This move was met with much consternation: from poking fun at a selfie being taken with the CM to suspicion about the “bad portrayal by women” of the Malayalam film industry, the reactions were varied. It was almost as if a Pandora’s box had been opened.
— CMO Kerala (@CMOKerala) May 18, 2017
What prompted all of us to suddenly get together? The immediate catalyst was a much-publicised incident that took place with a colleague, who had the guts to speak out. Sympathy flowed for her, but nobody seemed to be asking the right questions or providing any answers. That case is now being handled by the police, but what of the many other incidents where we are told not to raise a hue and cry? Or, what of the actress who fights a lone battle against the hotel staff who violated her privacy? A culture of normalised silence holds sway.
— Sundance Institute (@sundanceorg) May 24, 2017
However, what started as a group of women supporting a colleague became a conversation about our profession. Some of us were older, some younger, but the questions remained the same. Why are there so few women in the Malayalam film industry? Why are the Vishakha Guidelines, and subsequent Justice Verma committee report, not applicable in our workspaces? If I’m a film professional, do I have no maternity, health care or insurance benefits? Why does my contract not ensure that I have certain basic facilities available while I’m working? If I have a security issue while working on a film, and not just on location, who do I go to? Where are wage structures which look objectively at contribution and commerce? What about the (in)famous casting couch? Why are there no informal spaces of interaction where women can participate with dignity? Are there stories that women need to tell?
The history of the women’s movement shows us that it was only when impossible questions were asked, that women gained rights and freedom which were unimaginable at some point in history. The Women in Cinema Collective is an amalgam of women who are in the process of raising those questions. Like any creative profession, the threads are complex. The journey is also one ofself-discovery. A lot of us have taken things for granted. The Collective’s discussions are broadening thoughts about equality, rights, women’s spaces, transgenders, different ways of looking, content, relationship with co-workers, training programs, and technology.
This questioning arises from a larger perspective of the worldwide scenario. The gender bias in Hollywood is well known. Women like Geena Davis have, for years, been vociferous critics of the gender imbalance in the media. Despite all the talk of diversity, the percentage of women directors in Hollywood fell by 2 per cent last year to 7 per cent in 2015, The Guardian reported earlier this year.
The group that’s now come together in Kerala, defines itself only as a working group and intends to register the organisation very soon. Membership will be opened and a democratic process of functioning will be followed. The collective then hopes to set up a legal cell, a counselling cell and function as a research and advocacy group. We intend to work with all existing organisations and unions within the industry. The meeting with the chief minister was crucial because it is only an agency like the government that can study the current status. Unfortunately there is little data available on the current state of affairs. The study will put forth recommendations based on current legal and gender practices.
Many years ago at the International Film Festival of Kerala, a guest asked me if we had any women in Kerala — mostly men had come to watch his film. Kerala has a paradoxical situation: development and health indices match that of any European nation, but a deeply embedded patriarchal social system continues to deny women many spaces. The film industry is similarly ridden by this paradox. Malayalam films are considered some of the best in the country but a gender bias is ingrained. Women are seen as less equal, and lip service is paid to old fashioned notions of protection and care. Demanding an equal space is considered overstepping the line.
The corollary to the lack of participation of women in the filmmaking process is content. Popular depictions teach girls and boys about how culture sees them in turn: their worth, their relative value and the roles they “should” play. The representation of gender in cinema goes a long way in shaping imaginations and identities, aspirations and ambitions.
Many years ago Mahatma Gandhi proved that it was the “feminisation” of the freedom struggle that made it so successful. In an age when women did not step out, he motivated them to participate, and be equal stakeholders. Women seek a film industry where gender is not a disadvantage. Jokingly, we say that perhaps a statutory title “no person was discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, caste or gender, in the making of this film” could be an important step!
(Bina Paul is a member of Women in Cinema Collective & vice chairperson, Kerala State Chalachitra Academy.)