Mollywood, misogyny and the Kerala conundrum
The battles of a pioneering women’s collective in the Malayalam film industry, formed after the rape of a star, mirror the social contradictions in Kerala, a state outsiders often believe to be progressive
Time, in the Gregorian calendar, is divided into B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini), but some women in the Malayalam film industry a.k.a. Mollywood have a new calendar. “Like Before Christ and After Christ, time for us has now been divided into a sort of before-this-incident and after-this-incident,” says actor Parvathy.
The young star is referring to the abduction and rape of a top Malayalam woman actor last February, for which superstar Dileep has been chargesheeted by the police as a conspirator. The shock of the attack led to the formation, in the same month, of Kerala’s Women In Cinema Collective (WCC), a first-of-its-kind banding together of film artistes to fight gender discrimination, with an official announcement coming in May 2017 at a meeting with chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
“We have had discussions earlier about how we want things to change for women in the industry, but it would all stop at queries and wondering and ‘maybe we should do this’ then getting swamped with work and not thinking about it,” Parvathy, who is a founder member of WCC, adds. “But when this incident happened, we realised that water has gone over our heads, nothing else was more important now, not even work, because working like this is beneath our dignity.”
The assault, Dileep’s arrest and the hostile reaction to WCC from sections of Mollywood have the potential to cause considerable confusion among observers elsewhere in the country. Kerala, after all, has long been admired beyond its borders for its extraordinary performance on various human development indices.
According to the 2011 Census, Kerala has a 93.91 per cent literacy rate against a national average of 74.04 per cent. It is also one of only two states and union territories that recorded a positive sex ratio – more females per 1,000 males. These figures have been a double-edged sword though. They have resulted in the exoticised image the state enjoys, that of being a social paradise, among non-Malayalis viewing it from afar. Experts and insiders, however, are aware that there exists a parallel reality of deeply entrenched patriarchy constantly curbing women’s freedoms.
What Many Men Said
On February 17, 2017, a female Malayalam star was abducted and subjected to sustained sexual violence while she was travelling in a car between cities on work. The survivor chose to file a police complaint, and a shaken Mollywood stood united in the demand that the culprits be caught. The spontaneous outpouring of empathy abated in several quarters though when police investigations revealed the involvement of Dileep, one of a trio of male stars ruling Mollywood, the others being the legendary Mohanlal and Mammootty. Dileep had allegedly masterminded the crime as a vendetta against the survivor for what he felt was her role in his divorce from another Mollywood stalwart, Manju Warrier. He apparently believed Warrier had learnt from the rape survivor about his affair with a colleague.
In July 2017, Dileep was arrested and spent 85 days in jail before getting bail in October. Even as his trial is on, last month he was reinstated by the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA), the apex body of Malayalam actors from which he was expelled last year following his arrest. That move, under Mohanlal’s presidentship of AMMA, has been widely condemned by state politicians, the Kerala Women’s Commission, south India-based media, several film artistes and large sections of the public. However, it exemplifies the divide in the industry where Dileep wields immense clout in his multiple avatars as a money-spinning star, producer, distributor, theatre owner, and a man in a male-dominated industry.
An early low point in the discourse favouring Dileep came last year when National Award winning actor-director Salim Kumar swore by his friend’s innocence and demanded in a Facebook post that the woman be subjected to a lie detector test (he later apologised for his remarks). Producer Saji Nanthiyattu, currently a secretary of The Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce, kept up this narrative when he told Asianet News: “The woman was harassed only for two-and-a-half hours, but Dileep has been harassed for four months and has suffered mental agony. Doesn’t Dileep have human rights?”
Last week popular Mollywood actor Mamtha Mohandas told the press: “If a woman gets into trouble, I feel somewhere she is responsible for it. Because if I have gotten into any sort of trouble where I have felt that someone has spoken to me with disrespect or in this situation, a sexual assault or a sexual abuse or anything indicative towards that manner, I feel I would have entertained some part of it.”
On the other hand, even though most men in Mollywood have stayed quiet, several leading lights like directors Kamal, Aashiq Abu and actor Prithviraj Sukumaran have been vocal in their support for the survivor.
How does one explain the Kerala paradox?
Kozhikode-based screenwriter Deedi Damodaran, a WCC founder member, is not smitten by the rosy façade Kerala presents. The state’s high education stats for women are “all rubbish”, she says. “We never talk about the Phase 2 of the statistics. We never ask: where do all these educated women go?” Most go home, according to latest available National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data. At 19.1 per cent, the female work participation rate in urban Kerala for 2011-12 was higher than the national average of 14.7 for urban women, but vastly below the 55.2 per cent for the state’s urban men. The figure for women in rural Kerala is lower than the national average for rural women.
“We have educated housewives in Kerala and not-so-educated housewives in the rest of the country,” says Damodaran. “Just as we say that the Indian education system is designed to make better clerks because it was designed by the British overlords and we haven’t changed it, similarly in Kerala we educate women to be better housewives, so that you don’t need a tuition teacher for your daughter or son.”
Writer NS Madhavan, a retired bureaucrat and former MD of Kerala State Film Development Corporation, also speaks of an increasing “gentrification” of Kerala society, with increasingly visible displays of wealth among large sections of the people in contrast with the earlier simple lifestyle the state was known for. “Whether Communist or from Congress, they have all become like Bengali bhadralok,” he says. “Go to a CPM leader’s marriage and his daughter will also be wearing 3-4 kilos of gold. They have a paradigm that this is the life of people who have arrived.”
Madhavan feels “as a part of this gentrification they have imbibed many fixed ideas, which includes patriarchy” that is evident in the dramatic increase in the number of Hindu women wearing sindoor and the number of Muslim women in purdah in recent decades. Among the many influences he lists, he explains: “Muslims have seen a lot of exchange of ideas between Wahabi-controlled Saudi Arabia and Kerala, and Hindus have probably got many north Indian customs from movies. There is a silent assumption that north Indian customs are the real Hinduism and Wahabism or whatever you see in the Gulf is the real Islam.”
So how is it that Mollywood is the only Indian film industry where women have risked their futures by forming a collective to oppose injustice? The answer lies in education, Kerala’s long-running Communist influence, a tradition of public protest and acute mass political awareness when imbibed by individuals with liberal, multi-cultural upbringings. A scrutiny of the backgrounds of WCC founder members is in itself illuminating. Many have had pan-India and even global exposure while growing up and/or through work, some are not even based in Kerala, several operate in multiple film industries (a circumstance that serves as a safety net), and their average education levels are high.
Producer-writer-director Anjali Menon, another WCC founder member, perfectly illustrates this. She was born in Kerala, brought up in the Middle East, graduated from a Kozhikode college, is a double post-graduate (according to her blog, she has a Masters from Pune University and another from London International Film School), works in Mollywood but lives in Mumbai.
Menon explains the many worlds within one Kerala as being a consequence of the co-existence of extremes, “from the extremely liberal to the extremely conservative”. She also points to a heightened gender awareness among women growing up in Kerala “if they are people who have chosen not to shut down their senses”. She adds: “When such people with strong opinions enter an industry that has had a dominantly male conservative culture, there’s bound to be friction and divergent views.”
This is the Kerala enigma that fascinates sociologists and economists, including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen for whom the state has been a pet subject for decades now. It is from this clash of cultures within one society that has emerged a brave woman who chose not to stay silent about her assault, and a women’s collective, born eight months before the Harvey Weinstein newsbreaks in Hollywood led to the worldwide ‘Me Too’ movement.