Let’s start at the beginning. This didn’t begin three weeks ago when the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (A.M.M.A) made the controversial decision to reinstate a member who had been arrested for allegedly masterminding a colleague’s abduction and assault. It began, in fact, over a year ago, just after the assault had taken place on February 17, 2017, when the survivor needed all her colleagues to stand with her. Yes, there was that meeting in Kochi, a gathering of the who’s who of the Malayalam film industry where everyone expressed their anguish at what one of their own had gone through. But within weeks, as the first whispers emerged that actor Dileep, one of the most powerful men in the industry, might have been involved, there was disquieting silence.
That’s when the first cracks appeared in the pedestal upon which so many Malayalam film fans, myself included, had placed our favourite “heroes”, Mohanlal aka Lalettan and Mammootty aka Mamukka. It was Mammootty, then general secretary of A.M.M.A, who presided over the meeting where it was decided that Dileep should be expelled from the association. And yes, the superstar had himself announced this decision to the press. But, we heard, it had been the public outcry and pressure from the newly-formed Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), political parties and younger stars like Prithviraj that led them to do so. That’s when we first asked ourselves — were our heroes so invested in upholding a toxic, misogynistic culture that they couldn’t find it in themselves to support the survivor without being forced into taking a stand?
The cracks only deepened when, a few months later, actor Parvathy Thiruvoth was heavily trolled for making a critical observation about Mammootty-starrer Kasaba. All she did was express disappointment with how the film played up derogatory remarks about women as part of the hero’s machismo. That she was within her rights to do so didn’t matter to outraged fans of the star, who took it upon themselves to show this “Feminichi” her place (Feminichi, according to those who began lobbing the word at Thiruvoth and other “upstarts” like her, refers to a woman who is a misandrist, but claims to be a feminist). The trolling escalated to rape threats and threats to her family, leading Thiruvoth to lodge a complaint that led to the arrest of one man. And superstar Mammootty’s response to all this? Two weeks after the online harassment campaign began, the actor said in an interview that he didn’t “go after any controversy” and that he had not assigned anyone to respond on his behalf. If we cut through the seeming reasonableness of his statement, one thing becomes clear: There was not a word of support for a beleaguered colleague and nary a plea to his fans to stop the abuse.
The pedestals finally broke and the idols fell last month when the general body meeting of A.M.M.A, led by newly-elected president Mohanlal, unanimously decided to reinstate Dileep, who is currently out on bail. How anyone with any sensitivity to the matter could have even considered such a step baffled many on the outside and far too few on the inside.
Matters were not helped by Mohanlal’s week-long silence, as the controversy snowballed, and when a statement came from the “complete actor”, it was far from enough. At once condescending, passive-aggressive and obtuse in a way that only comes from the arrogance of privilege, the statement showed Mohanlal failing to take responsibility for causing pain not just to the survivor, but to many colleagues, supporters and fans. Stating that “the leadership had to stand with the majority opinion, in keeping with the democratic nature of the association”, the actor went on to list the “charitable” activities carried out by A.M.M.A, before finally swinging back against “those who stand outside and fling mud” at the association. It was the ugly, defensive stance of a hero with feet of clay.
But these are not the heroes we need or deserve, and thankfully, we’ve found new ones to admire and respect. The survivor of the February 17 assault who broke industry convention and filed a complaint against the men who attacked her is our hero. As are all the women of Malayalam cinema who stood firmly with her, regardless of who or which vested interest they might anger.
In an industry that plays by the rules of a few powerful men, it is no small matter to come together and form something like the WCC. It takes great courage for a young woman actor to speak critically of a superstar’s movie, as Thiruvoth did and it is an act of bravery for women like filmmaker Geethu Mohandas and actors Rima Kallingal, Remya Nambeesan and the survivor to protest A.M.M.A’s unconscionable decision by resigning from an association that has the power to make or break their careers.
In a powerful TEDx talk she gave earlier this year, Kallingal spoke about what it took for her to break her silence about the long-tolerated misogyny of the Malayalam film industry. Her privilege as an artist, she said, had afforded her both the opportunity and the responsibility to act for change. “It is not possible to stand up in the middle of that kind of privilege and not do what you can do for a world that is inspiring us to do our art,” she said, “It is not possible to turn a blind eye to the sexism, ageism and casteism that exist in our society and that is (sic) reflected in our cinema content. You cannot not be disturbed by the fact that an artist community is not trying to change that narrative. You cannot not be disturbed by the fact that an audience community of the most literate, open-minded and progressive state in country today is not vehemently asking for that change in narrative.”
Even if the former heroes of the Malayalam film industry have failed us in this, our new heroes are leading the charge towards a better future.