Telugu film industry's response to #MeToo must address a more insidious issue — internalised sexism

Hemanth Kumar

November 12, 2018 15:29:07 IST

The #MeToo movement — which saw a resurgence in India this October — has undeniably changed the discourse around how women are treated at the workplace (and elsewhere). As scores of women have stepped forward with their testimonies of harassment and assault, stories from the media and entertainment fields have especially been in focus — be it Tanushree Dutta’s reiteration of her decade-old misconduct charge against Nana Patekar, or Sruthi Hariharan’s account of Arjun Sarja’s inappropriate behaviour during the making of Nibunan.

Even amid this outpouring of stories that constitutes the second wave of #MeToo in India, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the systemic abuse of power by a privileged few. However, it has served as a tipping point, forcing people to acknowledge the skewed scales of agency and power in film industries.

Earlier this year, actress Sri Reddy was at the forefront of this movement, and soon after, several actors, directors, producers among others vowed to bring in guidelines and measures to improve the work culture in Telugu film industry. This October, when #MeToo and #TimesUp flared on our social media timelines, another round of discussions was held among women from the Telugu film industry.

Taking a cue from the Malayalam film industry’s Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), Tollywood came up with VOW — Voice Of Women — an initiative to empower women in Telugu cinema to speak out against sexual harassment among other things. Samantha Akkineni, Nandini Reddy, Supriya Yarlagadda are among the personalities spearheading this initiative; however, VOW is still in its nascent stages and it could take a while before the industry brings in strict curbs on workplace harassment.

#MeToo impact: Leading personalities from the Telugu film industry have set up Voice of Women

#MeToo impact: Leading personalities from the Telugu film industry, like Supriya Yarlagadda, Nandini Reddy, Samantha Akkineni have set up Voice of Women

Like several other industries, Tollywood has responded swiftly to #MeToo, but it continues to grapple with a larger and more insidious issue — that of internalised sexism. This is seen especially in terms of writing better roles for actresses and giving them equal importance in the creative process.

For a long time now, actresses have highlighted the lack of strong roles for them in Telugu films, and it is clearly reflected in the choices they were forced to make. There’s no denying that Tollywood is a male-dominated industry which celebrates the heroes who draw the audiences in droves. However, that’s not an excuse for filmmakers and writers to offer poorly-written characters to even the biggest of the female stars.

Most leading Tollywood actresses appear in a romantic track alongside the hero. The template for such parts includes a fair amount of stalking before she gives in and falls in love with the hero. Her character disappears from the story at this point. This recurring theme fails to take into account the importance of consent and personal boundaries, and legitimises to the idea that if you pursue someone long enough, you’ll win their heart. Not only do Telugu films fail to address these issues, but also normalise stalking and other unacceptable behaviour. Not to mention the plethora of fat jokes, body shaming, and a general indifference to the intellectual and emotional sides of the female characters’ personalities. Writers and directors have seemed content to brush these issues under the carpet.

The Telugu film industry’s obsession with commercial cinema has shaped the way roles are written for women. The glorification of men, who are at the centre of the story, has had a cascading effect on characters for women, especially the younger lot, leaving them little to do in a ‘man’s world’. The very fact that actresses have to underline a ‘performance-oriented role’ in a particular film signifies how hard it is to find these empowering projects.

In recent years, there have been select female-led films and mainstream movies that have tried to redress this imbalance. However, change has been remarkably slow to come to commercial cinema in general.

The debate over whether society influences films or vice-versa will continue. The impact of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements on the discourse surrounding gender, identity and representation over the past few months, has presented Telugu filmmakers and writers an opportunity to set the right precedent through their work. The issues highlighted in this column may seem unconnected to the #MeToo movement, but they are intertwined in more ways than one. The very fact that actresses might lose work if they don’t toe the line drawn by those in power; the very fact that they have to settle for less or don’t get the same challenging roles that are usually reserved for men; the very fact that they are deemed inconsequential in the bigger picture shows that they don’t have the same agency as their male counterparts.

The #MeToo movement isn’t just about women speaking up against sexual harassment, it’s also a rallying cry for equality and the onus is on the entire industry to create a level playing field. It’s also true that nothing changes overnight, especially in a film industry that adheres to a framework in which patriarchy is deeply entrenched (in how men have defined the rules of filmmaking and business for decades altogether).

Social media has helped amplify the voices of dissent. It would be a pity now, if the rallying cry of #MeToo were to go unheeded by the Telugu film industry. The hope of course, is that it will herald real and significant change for the years to come.

Updated Date: Nov 12, 2018 15:29 PM