Manju Warrier, Parvathy, and more: Kerala heroines take on patriarchy in Malayalam film industry
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Manju Warrier, Parvathy, and more: Kerala heroines take on patriarchy in Malayalam film industry

After the sexual assault of a popular Malayalam actor in Kerala, Manju Warrier,Parvathy, Bhavana, Anjali Menon, Geethu Mohan Das, Rima Kallingal and other prominent women in Malayalam cinema have come together to form the WCC to represent their interests.

regional movies Updated: Jun 05, 2017 17:01 IST
Naveen Nair
Naveen Nair
Hindustan Times
Parvathy,Bhavana,Anjali Menon
Senior actor Manju Warrier leads the group that fights for gender equality in Malayalam film industry.(Facebook)

It is certainly a significant moment when a group of women raise their voice and openly challenge male domination. It becomes especially significant when it happens in a highly patriarchal set-up, like the Malayalam film industry.

That is how the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) was formed. Led by ace actress Manju Warrier, it includes Parvathy, Bhavana, Anjali Menon, Geethu Mohan Das, Rima Kallingal and other prominent women working in the industry.

Geetu Mohandas won Sundance Institute Global Filmmaking Award 2016 on 30 January 2016 for her script of yet-to-be shot film Insha Allah. (Facebook)

After the abduction and sexual assault of a popular Malayalam actor in Kerala, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) held a meeting to tackle safety issues in the industry. But that went nowhere and prominent women in Malayalam cinema came together to form the WCC to represent their interests.

This is undoubtedly a bold step forward because these 21-odd women, who have been at the receiving end of sexism and patriarchy in the Malayalam cinema industry for years, have now shown their open defiance as a unit. Well-known actor Thilakan and director Vinayan had fought against this system in vain.

“We know what we are up against. But we strongly feel that enough is enough. There should be corrective measures in place to ensure that gender sensitivity prevails. Casting couch is a reality here. Unless we bring our workplaces into an institutionalised system, this harassment will never end. This is our objective,’’ Vidhu Vincent, an award-winning director and a prominent member of the WCC told Hindustan Times.

A 13-member delegation led by Manju Warrier and Beena Paul met Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on May 18 to seek his support. Sources in the chief minister’s office said that the Left Front government, which was waiting for an opportunity to regulate the industry post the flak it took after the abduction episode, was only overwhelmingly forthcoming. The actors too agreed that the chief minister promised all help.

Nascent Steps For Equality
Warrier is a household name in Kerala and enjoys a massive fan base in the state. So she was the obvious choice to lead the current women’s charge. Warrier, who had first appeared on the silver screen in 1995 opposite actor Dileep, had to quit acting in just four years, at the height of her career, after getting married to the actor.

After ending a bitter matrimonial dispute with Dileep that saw them parting ways legally, she returned to the screen in 2014. Her comeback didn’t just win her accolades, but her movies — How Old Are You, Ennum Eppozhum and KarikunnamSixes — were reflective of the assertive woman fighting for equality.

It was a rare initiative that the industry was embracing, after a brief stint in the late nineties when Warrier frequently played the lead. Many say that Warrier, being one of the seniors, would have naturally led the way, but the present bunch of women actors and directors in Mollywood too have been voicing their opinions against sexism through their work.

Actors like Parvathy TK, Rima Kallingal, Sajitha Madhathil, Remya Nambeesan and directors like Anjali Menon and Vidhu Vincent have been doing films that have always wanted to usher in that change.

“This is not something that happened one fine day. What happened to Radha (name changed to protect identity of actor who was molested) has been the catalyst, no doubt. But certainly, the creative work this generation of women in cinema have been doing is calling out for an equal pedestal, and has now empowered them to form a forum to raise concerns,’’ Been Paul, the artistic director of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) and a prominent voice in WCC told HT.

Radha, on February 17, alleged that she was abducted while on her way to Thrissur from Kochi and molested by a seven-member gang, led by ‘Pulsar’ Suni, a history-sheeter. What happened to Radha is both the catalyst for WCC’s formation, and is also reasserted in the collective’s (soon to be formally registered) primary demand.

In its list of demands, the WCC is asking for a mandatory sexual grievance cell that will bring every shooting location under its ambit. The organisation has urged the state government to ensure that the idea of a ‘workplace’ needs to be well-defined when it comes to cinema too. Besides these, the women have also asked for subsidies for production crews that have 30 percent women, PFs for women who had to leave work due to pregnancy, reservations for women in government-owned studios and better wages.

Sajitha Madathil, a state award winning actress and the deputy secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi, recounts the inconveniences she had to put up with at shoot locations. Madathil says that once she had to change in the kitchen of an unused house, always under the fear of a hidden camera being present. At another location, she and a female co-star had to walk down three houses to use a washroom.

“For years this industry has been reluctant to acknowledge its mistakes. Either it always took a pseudo moral high ground or brushed issues under the carpet when it came to harassment. Now, we are all realising the need to gender sensitise the industry, and it was natural for us to make the first move,’’ Madathil told HT.

While gender sensitisation is the key agenda of the WCC, wage disparity is but its by-product — many talk about how the yardstick for better wages is not creativity but gender. While a superstar like Mohanlal or Mammootty makes anywhere between Rs 5 to 10 crore per movie, an equally talented and experienced actor like Manju Warrier or a 2017-state award holder Parvathy makes as low as Rs 25 to 40 lakh. This abysmal disparity is the same at almost all levels in the industry.

“There are hundreds of women who call me saying they want to work in the industry. But a lot them shy away thinking about the insecurity inside the industry. That has to change,’’ added Vidhu.

Government Promises To Step In
Taking a step forward, the state government decided to appoint a high-level panel (at the earliest) that would study the situation and condition of the women working in the industry.

The Chief Minister who also controls the Home Ministry portfolio has even agreed that the antecedents of all the support staff at a shooting location, like light boys, housekeeping and drivers would be thoroughly vetted by the local police. The prime accused in the actor abduction and molestation case, Sunil Kumar alias Pulsar Suni, was her driver.

Veteran actors say that anyone who holds a membership with either the AMMA or the Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) roams free at shooting sets, irrespective of their past. No check is done even before giving away a membership. This is what the government aims to now change.

But there are others who feel that this is easier said than done, considering the hand-in-glove status some in the industry enjoy with politicians and top criminals in the state.

Veteran actor KB Ganesh Kumar, who comes from a well-known political family in the state, has also been a minister in the erstwhile Oommen Chandy-led UDF government. Which gives him the advantage of knowing both politics and cinema very well — Ganesh, knows how politically influential the current leaders in the industry are, as well as in the ‘underworld’, including sharing a close relationship with drug mafia gangs, real estate dealers and hardcore history-sheeters.

After all, the film world’s nexus with drug peddlers came to light two years ago when a few actors and directors were caught with the drugs in Kochi.

“What happened to Radha is a fall out of the criminalisation of Malayalam cinema. Let us be honest about it. The rivalry between actors only led them to patronise these elements. Nothing can be achieved without weeding them out,’’ added Kumar.

Senior producer Suresh Kumar points out how his wife and erstwhile superstar Menaka almost got trapped a few years ago in the same manner as Radha did. Kumar says that if such an incident could happen to a senior actor like her, one can only imagine the daily plight of juniors.

To a large extent, the Mollywood of today is the mirror image of what the Bollywood of the 90s was when external forces called the shots in the industry. But there are few who say breaking this alone will not serve the purpose of gender sensitisation.

The Malayalam film industry is run from within itself as a big political entity too. Here, the final word is film associations’, regardless of the issue and often those who run the show twist matters to serve their interests.

Director Vinayan, who has had to pay a heavy price for having severed ties with these associations, says to expect change is a near impossibility in Mollywood. “Let us be very clear the opposite side will play every game possible to break this new gender-based unity. The real acid test will be when some of these prominent actresses face a tough situation, like not getting a role because of pressure from the existing association. So you cannot be sure what the future will look like, though some of us really want this to make results,’’ Vinayan told HT.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

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First Published: Jun 03, 2017 10:50 IST