The Karnataka High Court on Wednesday will hear the plea of senior Kannada actor Arjun Sarja, asking for dismissal of a sexual harassment case against him. The wave of #MeToo testimonies reached the Kannada film industry last month, when actor Sruthi Hariharan in a Facebook post accused Sarja, an iconic action hero, of inappropriate and lewd behaviour on the sets of the film, Vismaya, in 2016.
On October 27, Hariharan filed an FIR under sections 354 (assault or criminal force on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 354A (sexual harassment) and 506 (criminal intimidation).
“During the rehearsal, Mr Arjun hugs me. With no forewarning or permission, he runs his hands intimately up and down my back. He pulls me closer with my body taut against his and asks the director if we could use this idea of foreplay in the scene,” she had written in the Facebook post. Sarja, 54, denied the allegations and filed a defamation case against Hariharan.
Hariharan told The Indian Express that she was spurred by the accounts of actor Tanushree Dutta in Hindi cinema and singer Chinmayi Sripada in Tamil film industry to speak up. “I thought that if I keep quiet now, I would be guilty for the rest of my life. It was important to speak up, to say that a particular act is wrong…This is not only a story of victimhood. We are all questioning power, and what it allows another person to do,” she said. “I have faith in the court of law.”
While Sarja declined comment, his daughter Aishwarya Sarja claimed that Hariharan’s allegations “were baseless, a planned strategy, hatched over a month or two, to defame my father.” “All the video footage of the promotion for Vismaya shows her praising my father, and where she says she is a big fan of my father,” she says. “Even the director and the producer have denied her account of the events,” she says. Two witnesses, a makeup artiste and an assistant director, who worked on the sets, have deposed before the Cubbon Park Police in support of Hariharan’s statement.
Hariharan’s allegations have created a storm in the industry, because the man she accuses is a powerful and popular actor. Sarja is a Gowda in an industry dominated by Vokkaligas, best known for pro-people roles in films such as Gentleman. He is described as the “original six-pack” man, and his action films have gained him a largely male fandom, much like Salman Khan’s in Hindi cinema, that has reacted with rage against Hariharan on social media. “I have not opened my social media accounts in days because no one likes to be hated. The harassment calls and character assassination have gone on and on,” Hariharan said. “Because I once answered a question in a radio interview about a favourite sex position, it is being used to show that I am a woman of no character. It is being argued that someone who speaks like that should have no problem with a man’s touch. No one understands the difference between consent and lack of consent.”
Among the few people from the industry who have stood by Hariharan are Prakash Raj and Kavitha Lankesh, prompting a strange twist to the case. Prashant Sambargi, an associate of Sarja, described the allegations as a left-liberal conspiracy against him. “She is playing out a script given to her. It is a programme to derail Sarja’s construction of a large Hanuman temple near Chennai and his commitment for cow protection. The people who popped up to show solidarity to her, like Prakash Raj, are known for their love of beef-eating and for their role in the anti-BJP campaign during the Karnataka elections. If you look at #MeToo campaign in India, it has only targeted actors like Nana Patekar and Arjun Sarja, who belong to a different ideology,” he says. Aishwarya said she would not like to comment on the political angle. “But the facts are clear. He is a Hanuman worshipper, and my sister and I just gifted him a cow recently. If it pisses off and angers someone, I don’t know.”
Hariharan, who has worked in Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada films, started out as a background dancer in films. Through her performances in off-beat films such as Lucia and Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, she has garnered a substantial following. She is also a member of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) of the Malayalam film industry. “Here, I feel like a single voice. There is no collective like the WCC,” says Hariharan, who has spoken about the existence of the casting couch in the Kannada film industry before. “There are no internal complaint committees on films or film sets, no place where we could go to. This has never been spoken about, let alone addressed. The individual chambers in these industries have been getting complaints for many years, and they have always dealt with it in the best way they think is possible. Which is, compromise,” she says.
Hariharan said she was against giving the case a political colour. “It has been politicised because Prakash Raj and Kavitha Lankesh are on my side. I think it gives them an excuse to overlook the actual problem in hand,” she said.