A full seven months before allegations of rape and systemic sexual abuse blew up on American producer Harvey Weinstein, the Kerala film industry had faced its own moment of reckoning. In February last year, an actor was abducted on her way to a shoot, and sexually assaulted in a moving car. As investigations revealed, this was no random crime by a feral gang on the loose. Instead, the victim’s fellow actor, a darling of his audience and a powerful member of his fraternity, stood accused of hiring the hitmen to abduct and rape her.
But one year on, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) has welcomed actor Dileep back into its fold without waiting for the process of justice to take its due course — he had been expelled in the immediate aftermath of the case. He was reinstated a few days ago, after actor Mohanlal became the president of AMMA. Four women actors, including the survivor of the assault, have resigned in protest. Other women film professionals in Kerala have seen this for what it is — a powerful cabal of men ganging up to save one of their own. Three other women actors have demanded a meeting of the AMMA to discuss the issue. Their solidarity with the survivor does not come without a cost. When women actors of the industry formed a collective last year to demand a workplace without sexual harassment, they were met with hostility, taunts and innuendo. They were abused as feminichis (a slang for feminists) by a vicious internet troll army. That they are choosing not to back down now will also end up hurting them — film industries everywhere are run by a ruthlessly enforced omerta of thou-shalt-not-speak-against-the-powerful. This episode has only highlighted how little control Indian women artistes have in film industries. World over, the #MeToo movement has triggered a backlash against the transgressions of powerful, talented — even brilliant — men, who have kept women in place even as they made cutting-edge, progressive cinema and art. But here, there is little debate beyond the verses of hero worship.
So, what will it take for Kerala to say time’s up — for misogyny and sexual abuse? First, its mega-stars need to reconsider their insensitive and insulting stance towards the survivor and fellow women actors. And if they will not, Kerala’s civil society ought to stand by its women actors as they challenge a deeply patriarchal establishment.