Sexism, patriarchy in the film industry make women's collectives the need of the hour across film industries
It was the film industry which gave us the term casting couch. Today it remains a professional body where that couch has become almost institutionalised. The metaphorical casting couch is the place where young newcomers, seeking to break into the world of glamour and glitz, are often forced to offer sexual favours in return for roles. And it continues to exist because the laws regarding sexual harassment in the workplace have never applied here.
In the movie industry, the workplace is amorphous and diffused. Artistes work on individual contracts as do most of the technicians. Individual production houses do not take any responsibility for the floating population of film crews, who are supposed to look out for themselves. There are trade unions which cater to various categories of employees, but none of them specifically addresses the problems of women.
The film industry has always been a male dominated field. It actually has its roots in stage productions where in the early days even the heroines were men! Women were reluctantly admitted into cinema — initially as eye candy — because films sold better if the heroines were actual women.
Everyday sexism has become normalised over the years. In the early days, women accepted every kind of discrimination and harassment, meekly and without question. They were just awed that they were included in this special world. But times have changed. Today, women enter this field not because they were pushed into it by their parents or because they were reluctantly allowed in. They are there because they want to be there. They are professionals who worked hard to get where they are and they resent the old patronising attitudes. They know how to speak up and stand up for themselves.
But is that enough? At the top rungs of the ladder, women might be able to sit with their lawyers and get better contracts worked out. They can also protect themselves from harassment to some extent. But what about the large mass of women… the extras, the group dancers, the aspiring starlets, the production assistants and many others, for whom the job means survival? To whom do they appeal when things go wrong? What do they do when they get pregnant or have small babies to nurse? Do they get proper changing rooms and toilet facilities on site? Do they get properly paid?
These are questions which have been asked before, but they have rarely resulted in anything concrete being done. Finally, it took the horrific abduction and assault of a leading film star in Kerala to shake the women in the Malayalam film industry out of their comfort zone and into positive action.
“Some of us had been thinking about forming an advocacy group for women in cinema,” said film editor Beena Paul who is the vice chairperson of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy. She was telling me about the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective which she and her colleagues had started. “But this incident really jolted us. If this could happen to a person like her…”
The moot question was, in such a situation, where could a woman go for help?
Much has been written and said about the actor who was assaulted and threatened with blackmail. She proved to be a really brave and strong woman who went directly to the police. But what if she were more vulnerable, like many of her other women colleagues who are voiceless?
Beena Paul, along with veteran actor Revathi formed a WhatsApp group with other women professionals who were friends and colleagues of the actor who was assaulted. They brainstormed. knowing they had to act fast. The result was a nascent forum for women in the industry whose first mandated task was to ensure that their colleague got justice.
And so WCC (Women in Cinema Collective) was born. The 21-member committee consisted of eminent women from the Malayalam film industry including veteran actress Revathi, award-winning director Anjali Menon, leading actors Manju Warrier and Rima Kalingal, cinematographer Fowzia, award-winning editor Beena Paul and others.
They met Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan with two main demands: they wanted him to ensure that the case was followed up, and they wanted him to establish a commission to study gender issues in the Malayalam film industry. He was very supportive. Within a couple of weeks, he set up a three-woman committee consisting of retired judge Hema, ex-director of Kudambasri Valsalsa Kumari, and veteran actor Sharada.
Meanwhile even as the case continues to unfold, more and more women from the industry are speaking out. Young lead actors Lakshmi Rai and Parvathi spoke out about being sexually harassed right at the beginning of their career.
And when sexist innuendos and remarks were made at AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes), the WCC was quick to intervene.
For example, well-known Malayalam actor Innocent, who is also an MP and president of the Association, said that the casting couch no longer existed in the Malayalam film industry. He also made some disparaging remarks about women. “Those days are long gone,” he said to an India Today correspondent. “The moment you make an imprudent request to a woman in this day and age, it will be shared with people like you. They will speak about it openly. But if the women are bad, they may share the bed.”
The WCC objected to his remarks and quickly pointed out that already many young leading actors had spoken out about the continued existence of the infamous couch.
As a film journalist, I have interviewed women actors ranging from top stars to small-time actors who do bit roles. I’ve also interviewed other women professionals in the industry…directors, editors, makeup artistes, dance choreographers and playback singers. Their lives are not easy. Their work hours are long and unpredictable. They often have to be constantly on the move. Women actors in particular have added problems. Often on location they don’t have proper changing rooms or toilets. They feel unsafe when they have to travel by themselves at ungodly hours. Female artistes earn much less than their male counterparts. And at the bottom end of the ladder, they are additionally treated with disdain and disrespect.
And they have no forum to which they can complain. No authorised body which can offer them proper guidance or help. Most importantly, none of the supportive legislation which other working women have access to, is applicable to the women working in the film industry. Let alone the Vishaka Guidelines which pertain to sexual harassment in the work place, even other basic provisions like maternity benefits, crèche facilities, proper contracts ensuring safe and comfortable work environments, insurance benefits and so on are denied to them.
In 2008, when I was researching my book Unbound: Indian Women @ Work, I spoke (among others) to a couple of women who specialised in to doing 'item numbers' for Hindi movies. Their pressures were different. They had to constantly appear attractive and sexy and their very looks and seductive dance moves sent out the wrong signals even to their own colleagues. As a result, exchanging sexual favours for assignments was a norm. One of them told me that in the beginning she would cry every time senior people from the industry made a disparaging remark about her costume or dance and would go into shock when she was asked for a sexual favour. But she soon learnt that it was the only way she could survive in the industry.
Will the Women’s Collective be able to stem this sort of deep rot which is rooted in unbridled patriarchy? Will it be able to ensure that the women in this field get the same benefits which their sisters in other professions have? And most importantly will women in other film industries across the country emulate this path-breaking move and set up more such collectives?