A nearly three-minute video, shot in front of reporters of Bengaluru’s leading media channels last month, is one of the most curious, but revealing, responses to the #MeToo allegations that have surfaced in India’s southern cinemas. In it, Kannada actor Sanjjanaa Galrani is being made to apologise to the director of the 2006 film Ganda Hendathi, Ravi Shrivatsa. A few weeks before, she had accused Shrivatsa of intimidating and forcing her into doing multiple kissing scenes in the film. She was a 16-year-old when she acted in the film, a Kannada remake of the 2004 Bollywood film Murder.
Sitting by her side is V Nagendra Prasad, the president of Kannada Film Directors’ Association, who is seen interrupting her, and forcing her to tailor her words. “There is no suppose. Don’t say ‘if’ they have been hurt. The directors’ feelings have been hurt and that’s why we are asking you to say sorry,” Prasad says. At one point, Galrani tries to counter him, saying, “I have feelings too.” Despite the apology, she said she stood by her account of what happened to her on the film’s sets in Bangkok. “I had been told that there would be one kissing scene. I was made to do about 30 or 40. My mother, who was travelling with me, was asked to stay back at the hotel on that day,” she says. She also spoke about intrusive and voyeuristic camera angles the director used.
While there have been murmurs of disquiet amid some filmmakers over the coercive nature of the apology, Prasad’s role — in effectively silencing an actor — has been largely hailed. “At first, she spoke but not properly. So we did a second take…Tab bhi woh thoda tricks play kar rahi (She was still playing tricks). So I interrupted her,” he says, when we caught up with him a couple of days later at the Bangalore Press Club.
Shrivatsa had moved the directors’ association after Galrani’s account in October, alleging that his character was being slandered in public. “He agreed that what she said happened but he said he did everything for the movie. Some directors hit, some request, everyone has a different way…,” says Prasad. A meeting of the directors’ association then decided that Galrani should be asked to apologise. “No, we did not ask her to present her case before us,” says Prasad.
Galrani said she apologised because the “directors’ association was on my case.” “I stand by whatever I have said. But I want to put this negativity behind me. And there was a lot of pressure on me. It is not that I have been defeated by this apology,” she told The Indian Express.
A couple of months after the #MeToo fire spread to cinema guilds in the south, the signs of a pushback to women speaking up is evident. And it centres around the fear of losing work. “(Malayalam actor) Parvathy had told me to be prepared. That the price of speaking out is that I would not get work. And it is true,” says Chinmayi Sripaada, a popular singer in the Tamil film industry. In October, Sripaada spoke about the improper behaviour of Vairamuthu Ramasamy, senior lyricist, early on in her career. Her account was backed up by another singer, and others in the industry have spoken about the “open secret” of Vairamuthu’s reputation (he denied the allegations). A month after she spoke out, Sripaada’s membership was summarily terminated from the powerful dubbing union. “This basically means that they have legally taken away my right to work,” says Sripaada, who also dubs for Tamil language films. “It is different from whispers and speculation that I might lose work. That is also happening. In the last month, work has dried up,” she says. She says she will move court against termination — allegedly for not paying Rs 200 as membership fees. The members of Malayalam cinema’s Women in Cinema Collective, formed after the assault on a fellow actor in which megastar Dileep is an accused, have also spoken recently of not finding work.
Filmmaker Kavitha Lankesh, who is the chairperson of Film Industry for Rights and Equity, an organisation formed recently to address instances of sexual harassment in the Kannada film industry, pointed out that the understanding of a safe workplace for women is lacking in the industry. “Even while doing intimate scenes, it is possible that an artist is uncomfortable. She should be allowed to speak out,” she says.
Like most film industries, Kannada filmdom lacks sturdy mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace. “The most common way of dealing with such complaints is to convince both parties to compromise. Also, if women speak up, they struggle to find work and then disappear after a few years,” Lankesh says.
What would the directors’ association have done if Galrani had refused to apologise? “Why should we pressure her? There was no pressure. Not just the directors’ association, even the (Kannada) artists’ association president (the late actor and former central minister, Ambareesh) told her that she had done a mistake. If she had gone against them and not apologised, then she knows very well what would have happened. I don’t,” says Prasad.