South Indian actresses are done with sexism, and they're speaking out
South Indian film industries, like trolls, have strange “ideal standards” for women and some actresses are speaking out against them
By Sharanya Gopinathan
In 2013, Malayalam actress Nazriya Nazim complained about a director going behind her back to use a body double in a “steamy” scene (exactly what happened to Hollywood actress Amber Heard) for a Tamil film. At the time, Tamil actress Nayanthara was quick to tell Nazriya that this is an industry where “glamour” sells and everyone knows it, so it looks funny for actresses to complain. Meaning, chill babes. It was a distressing exchange, but it drives home, in a sickening fashion, just how par for the course sexism in the industry really is.
Until now though, it seems like it was just something that people silently accepted, no matter what they really feel about it. The abduction and sexual assault of a popular Malayalam actress in February 2017 has thrown the doors wide open to conversations on sexism and discrimination, and it feels like south Indian actresses understand that this is their moment to speak out. It could be the fact that their colleague was sexual assaulted on her way home from a shoot that struck a nerve in an it-could-have-been-me way, or more likely, it acted as the sort of the tipping point in people’s hearts and the media, like the 16 December Delhi gangrape did in the national imagination. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that this is a moment that south Indian actresses are using to create something really special with, and it’s not just for themselves.
Tamil actor Jyothika who has close to a decade’s experience in the Tamil film industry, has had to play her fair share of annoying roles. Industry insiders will tell you that even at the height of her stardom she was on the receiving end of institutionalised sexism on the sets. Earlier this week, when she made a series of pointed remarks at the audio launch of her new movie Magalir Mattum, it clearly came from her experience about how the industry works, and you could see how visibly eager she was to talk about it.
Addressing her remarks to male directors, she talked about the way they cast women in their movies, and asked them to portray women on screen more responsibly. The best part was when she casually slammed directors for their sheer hypocrisy saying, “Physically, you won’t give your heroines the kind of dresses the women in your homes would wear, but at least, mentally give them roles with some intelligence.”
Uh, burn! I irrationally processed that remark in a vice versa way: that she meant male directors portray women in clothes they wouldn’t dream of permitting the women in their homes to wear. But even if you don’t read it like that and go by the more palatable (and reasonable) assumption that the women in directors’ lives have lots of agency, it’s still a hilariously pointed attack on male double-standards. She finished by saying that irresponsible films which portray women in dangerous ways are socially responsible for “what’s happening to women all over India”.
Which is great. While her own experiences in the industry fuelled some of the fire in her statements, she took the moment to contextualise her experiences and observations against the backdrop of implications for women nation-wide. It’s about time, of course. People have been talking about the impact that cinema contributes to rape culture for decades now, but the fact that leading actors who have a huge stake in the business are talking about it means two things: that they’ve clearly had enough of it, and that the stakes for everyone are so high they don’t care what the consequences are.
And the consequences of pissing off men in the south Indian film industry can be huge. Just ask popular Malayalam actresses Manju Warrier and Bhavana. Back in 2014, soon after Dileep and Manju Warrier got divorced, Bhavana said she’d been “unofficially banned” from the Malayalam film industry because she supported Warrier in the divorce. Rumours say that subsequently, alpha-sexist Dileep vengefully ensured that she missed out on several films.
That divorce was also the source of more sexism, most of it targeted at Warrier. When the divorce was made public, the Malayalam media took the opportunity to go full-Neanderthal: Warrier was called a bad mother because her daughter chose to live with Dileep and not her, and her decision to return to the movies was lambasted as proof of how unfit a wife and mother she had always been.
So when she lent her voice to the Dalit women-led workers collective Pembilai Orumai, a day after they announced their strike against Kerala Power Minister MM Mani on 23 April (for calling them “boozers who engaged in indecent activities” during successful agitation for workers’ rights in 2013), it was clear that the sub-text was that she was done with misogynistic allegations being lobbied at women who well… do anything. Her carefully worded statement on Pembilai Orumai’s agitation was addressed to Mani, but it could have been addressed to anyone, from Dileep to trolls to the Malayalam media in general. She said that there are some men (emphasis mine but I feel would have been hers also) who think they can just say whatever they want to women, and added that the minister’s remarks were an affront to all women who try reclaiming their dignity and standing on their own feet. It really drives home how easy it is to find the commonalities in women’s experiences, especially on sexism and discrimination. You listening, Dileep?
Bhavana, for her own part, has taken this moment to assert her identity and strength. On April 1, she gave an interview to the Malayalam women’s magazine Vanitha making allusions to sexual assault, saying her life has seen “dark events”, and that she has “memories that she wishes she could erase”. She said she believes it was people within the film industry who acted against her, and that for the sake of all women, she wouldn’t rest until they’re punished.
She also reclaimed the narrative around her experiences in a subversive way. While everyone is always happy to see a certain kind of victim (weeping and broken), Bhavana reclaimed the narrative in an interesting and surprising way: through a tea ad. She starred in one that made allusions to the events mentioned in her Vanitha interview, leading trolls on social media to imply that she would say anything for money. Bhavana, I hope, just laughed her way to the bank, because, well, give me one reason why not? When it seemed natural (to some) for news outlets to profit off of their bizarre coverage of her life, it was unexpected and empowering to see Bhavana take the reins and make what she wanted of the events in her life, and to make no attempts at being the kind of victim the media (and patriarchy) wanted to see.
The media and patriarchy, of course, want to see very specific things from women. After Malayalam actress Amala Paul divorced her film director husband in 2016 when he told her she couldn’t act any more, she was trolled for posting pictures of herself on social media in what can only be described by regular people as nice, normal clothes. Trolls, however, felt that she was dressing too glamorously to suit a woman who had just gone through a divorce, whatever that means.
South Indian film industries, like trolls, have strange “ideal standards” for women. Actor Parvathy recently pointed out that the industry has a racism problem, like Hollywood, and that it has an intersectional effect on women. She pointed out that a woman would never get a complex role like the dark-skinned Vinayakan in Kammattipaadam, a gangster movie starring Dulquer Salmaan, because of the industry’s obsession with fair-skinned women. She also referred to the sexual assault of the leading actor to say that she too had suffered sexual violence in the industry. She said she wasn’t speaking out to punish the perpetrators, but so that women across the country understand that this happens all the time, and to let them know that they aren’t a minority.
All of these women who have spoken out since the abduction and assault of the Malayalam actress have been doing so in different ways and on different platforms, but interestingly, they’re all bound by the fact that they’re doing it for the greater good. Whether they’re speaking about sexual assault, like Bhavana and Parvathy, or casteism, like Parvathy and Manju Warrier, or sexism, like Manju Warrier and Jyothika, they’re all using their personal experiences and platforms at this crucial moment to make a larger point about all women. It’s clear that the assault of the actress has created an impetus for women to come together and stand up for something much larger than themselves.
And as interesting as the different observations that the actors are making, it’s the timing and the vehemence with which they speak that’s really opening up the moment that the Malayalam actor’s assault had sparked. All the statements made carry the note of long-held frustration. They sound like they’ve truly had enough, and aren’t going to be taking any more shit from anyone. And most excitingly, they sound wonderfully self-assured in the weight of their own beliefs, experiences and identities, and damn any of the consequences. They sound like women speaking truth to power.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine