Malayalam actress abduction case: How the film industry has been 'cartelised' by few male actors
For the last six days, what has been keeping Kerala’s overcrowded media alive is the abduction and assault of a top-ranking movie heroine in Kochi, allegedly by a gang led by a driver who is known to many leading names in the industry.
Although women getting a raw deal in the industry is nothing new, a top actor getting abducted on the roads of Kochi during normal night hours has shocked the state because it was audacious and unprecedented. The kingpin of the gang has been arrested in a dramatic swoop when he tried to surrender in a court with his accomplice, albeit after a delay of six days, and is currently being interrogated.
Ideally, the story should have been that of shock, public outrage and the clamour for action with a fair dose of gossip because it concerns the world of glamour; but not in Kerala. In this case, the story is not just about the distraught heroine any more, but also about how the media have speculated about the possibility of an insider job. This angle has upset the industry, particularly when some online media and TV channels hinted at the possible involvement of a top male actor.
The “victim” now is not the female actor, who underwent a scary two hour ordeal in a running vehicle — almost similar to the incident that led to the gang-rape and gruesome murder of a girl in Delhi in 2012 — but the man who is upset that his name has been sullied. And promptly, the industry has decided to boycott the media: on Wednesday, the film chamber in the state announced that no one from the industry would respond to questions from the media. In other words, the film industry has decided to boycott the media on anything related to this case just because they asked uncomfortable questions.
The profusion of online media as well as TV channels has been extensive in Kerala and it has changed the complexion of news gathering and dissemination compared to the past when it had been monopolised by a few old newspapers. The new media entrants are still asking questions because they genuinely feel that a well known actor couldn’t have been abducted and abused for a few hours on the busy city roads by a petty criminal without connections. They do feel that there is a larger conspiracy and that needs to be dug out. In fact, the demand first came from the industry itself when Manju Warrier, the most respected female actor in Malayalam, said that she suspected a criminal conspiracy.
What makes people from the movie industry suspect is their own conduct, particularly in the recent years. The industry has become a monolith that has been cartelised by a few people — obviously male stars — and a few associations that they directly or indirectly control. If anybody gets into their bad books, they get into the bad books of the movie industry itself. If such a fate befalls anybody, he/she will be out of work. Reportedly, by her own admission, the abducted actor was a victim of this carterlisation and organised professional boycott because she didn’t toe the line of a male star. It was remarkable that she just disappeared at the peak of her career and had to find work elsewhere in south India.
When an actor, who had been subjected to such spiteful professional isolation, becomes a victim of organised crime, the media tend to ask questions. That’s what the movie industry, particularly its leading men, are angry about. The assault may well turn out to be a one-off incident, as some claim, but the monopolies and power structures driving it, even inadvertently, cannot be overlooked because the victim in this case was already marginalised. And this marginalisation is not new — many actors and technicians, including a nationally recognised veteran such as Thilakan, had been viciously excluded and targeted by the industry in the final years of his life. Some of them vanished from the scene, while some are fighting back with little or no success.
Today three associations control the industry: one for the actors, one for the distributors and one for technicians. And curiously, their interests overlap and they all tend to work towards the same intent — absolute control that can be traced to the interests of a few male actors. And their biggest weapon against dissenting voices is boycott. These associations appear to be the subsidiaries of a single family-run conglomerate because they represent the interests of the male stars and their cronies.
Either they themselves, or through their proxies, they are the office bearers of all the three associations. The most bizarre was when the distributors' association, was recently taken over by a male star and the accomplice of another male star. The technicians’ forum is dominated by men, whose subsistence depend on the whims (industry parlance is “dates”) of the male superstars. Interestingly, the stars, either directly or through surrogates, are actors, producers, distributors and theatre-owners and hence can have a finger in every pie. And without them, there is no mainstream cinema. To survive, one has to be their vassal.
In a democratic society with rule of law, such an arrangement is called monopoly and it’s illegal. Most of it may be illegal even under our Competition Act (2002), which is derived from the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution. The Act does address issues such abuse of “dominant position”, “anti-competitive agreements” and cartelisation among others.
In the wake of the actor’s abduction and abuse, the government of Kerala has now vowed that it would cleanse the state’s movie industry of its unsavoury practices. However, it remains to be seen how effective it could be because many of these stars and their cartels are fellow travellers of the ruling CPM. Demolishing it will not be easy because their inflated male egos, cartels and business interests are politically empowered.
Perhaps it’s time some somebody else read the Competition Act to them. A defiant director, who has been a victim of vicious and prolonged industry boycott, Vinayan, has taken his case to the Competition Commission and is awaiting its verdict. A positive verdict might change things a bit, but unless the ruling party withdraws its support to the exaggerated male ego, things are unlikely to change.