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Singer Chinmayi Sripaada on how joining the #MeToo movement changed her

The rebellion of playback singer Chinmayi Sripaada and the aftermath of her dissent.

Trained in Carnatic and Hindustani music, Sripaada burst into the limelight in 2002 after she participated in a reality music show on a Tamil channel in 2000. (Photo by: P. Ravikumar)

The Ananda Vikatan Award, a golden statue partly shaped like the nib of a pen, given out by a popular Tamil language weekly magazine, stands on a side table in Chinmayi Sripaada’s Abhiramapuram home. A week ago, the 34-year-old playback singer won the Best Singer award for the song Kaathalae Kaathalae from last year’s film 96, that has Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha in the lead. Sripaada has sung six of the eight songs for the blockbuster Tamil film.

The adulation that surrounds her songs on the internet is overwhelming. “Vera (another) level song,” says one YouTube comment. “I can’t control my emotions, tears” writes another fan from Kerala. At the award function, Tamil actress Trisha, clutching her own golden statue, looked at Sripaada and said: “I sometimes felt she was more Jaanu (Trisha’s character in the film) than me.”

Seated somewhere in the middle rows, Sripaada smiled back at her. The awards that went out that day celebrated a rich year in Tamil cinema — and movies that challenged social order — but in that sea of people Sripaada was on her own. “A lot of people from the industry pretended not to see me that day,” she says.

Four months ago, in October 2018, swept by the courage of the collective in the #MeToo movement, Sripaada decided to share a story from her early days in the Tamil film industry. She took to Twitter and called out Vairamuthu, a powerful and prominent Tamil literary figure and lyricist, for sexual misconduct.

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“Until then, the feeling of being a ‘victim’ was ingrained in my mind,” says Sripaada. She was an only child to a single mother and she sang in Tamil cinemas — in conservative Chennai it was more than enough to refuse renting out houses to the mother-daughter duo. “I constantly felt like I couldn’t go through with this. My parents separated when I was a year old. There wasn’t a day in my life when I didn’t grow up knowing I was raised by a divorcee. My grandfather had to stop by every now and then to be the male face of the house,” she says.

But there she was taking to Twitter after journalist Sandhya Menon first shared an anonymous allegation about how Vairamuthu had sexually harassed an 18-year-old woman who had gone to meet the poet for a project. Sripaada first retweeted it with a comment sharing a similar allegation made against Vairamuthu to her anonymously, but it only took 24 hours for her to share her own story: first, an invitation to his hotel room when she was 17 or 18 years old while on tour in Switzerland, then groped by him in his office in Chennai, where she was so frightened that she ran out leaving her slippers behind. “If #MeToo had not happened, I would have probably shared what happened to me with maybe 10 to 15 people in my circle. But I started hearing about stories from my own fraternity (Tamil film industry) and I thought I must speak up,” she says.

Trained in Carnatic and Hindustani music, Sripaada burst into the limelight in 2002 after she participated in a reality music show on a Tamil channel in 2000. She was 14 then. Her career began with a performance of Oru Deivam Thantha Poove for the 2002 Mani Ratnam film, Kannathil Muthamittal. There was no looking back after that. She went on to sing Tere Bina and Mayya from the Hindi film Guru (2007), Sahana from the Rajini-starrer Sivaji (2007), Sara Sara in the 2011 film Vaagai Sooda Va, Sairat jala ji in the Marathi film Sairat (2016) and several other hits across south Indian films. “When I performed Oru Deivam Thantha Poove on stage for the first time at a charity concert, I had a mishap and fell off the stage. Mr Vairamuthu was the first person to call home to check on me. I remember being in awe of him. I thought I should learn to be a good human being from him,” she says.

Since calling Vairamuthu out, work has dried up for Sripaada in the Tamil industry and she has been banned by the dubbing association over what she calls a “malicious campaign” — she had called out the association head, actor Radha Ravi, for allegations of sexual misconduct. She has since taken them to court. “I have lost work on five films, including Petta (Rajinikanth’s latest blockbuster). I have been recording music in Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu. But strangely, I am not getting any work in the Tamil industry,” she says. While she is hesitant to pin it to her dissent, Sripaada does find it unusual. “Especially after a blockbuster like 96. A general life cycle of a hit is six months to a year,” she says.

After she spoke up, Sripaada says criticism came to her from all sides. People levelled caste-based accusations against her, saying she was backed by right-wing organisations to speak against Vairamuthu. Others tweeted past examples of her praising Vairamuthu’s lyrics, and a photograph of him attending her wedding in 2014. In October, Sripaada clarifying why she had had to extend an invitation to him — she hadn’t told her husband or in-laws about the incident then. “I had to invite him because I invited every industry veteran, his other family members; not inviting him would mean having to explain why,” she tweeted.

Her moment of reckoning has taken its time in coming, but Sripaada says after a childhood grappling with insecurities, she knows what it takes to speak up for herself. The support of her husband, actor Rahul Ravindran, too, has been invaluable. “As much as I speak about patriarchy, I realise my strength comes from my marriage, my husband. He has made me see that I am among the few people in the south Indian film industry, not counting Kerala, to call out people. I can’t be emotional, I have to be rational.”

In October, Ravindran took to Twitter in support of his wife: “…My wife might be an inconvenience to you because she’s a rare breed that (sic) has the courage to speak up. You might see her as a threat to status quo. That of male privilege. Deal with it. Like it or not the world is changing. It will be an equal world soon… the voices will get louder until then.”

Last week, Sripaada tweeted a video of Vairamuthu at a public event in Chennai being welcomed by the bigwigs of the industry, including actors Rajinikanth and Nassar. “I often hear people dismiss allegations against him, saying his contribution to Tamil language is incomparable,” she says. This glossing over makes sense to her, even if it is difficult to accept it. “The number of predators are many and they are all in positions of power. So they rehabilitate each other,” she says.

She has been following developments in other film industries, including in neighbouring Kerala, where one of its biggest superstars, Dileep, was accused of plotting the abduction and abuse of a female colleague. “He is signing back-to-back films. He got a hero’s welcome and the allegations against him were serious. What do you say about a society like this?” she says.

Sripaada says she has changed as a person since she went public with her story. “What do we need at this point? We need work done in a manner in which it doesn’t require us to sleep with someone or be groped by someone. We need to be taken seriously. Somebody has to listen to us and if it means speaking the language they understand, I’ll do that,” she says.

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This article appeared in print with the headline ‘ Standing in the Way of Control’