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#MeToo flame is still burning bright

Campaigns like #MeToo against sexual harassment continue, driven by determined women coming together to understand why it happens and how it can be challenged

Firstpost print Edition

The #MeToo movement may not be making headlines but it continues to make waves. Campaigns against sexual harassment continue, driven by determined women coming together to understand why it happens and how it can be challenged.

Across the world, women have shared stories of abuse and harassment, and have named their harassers and abusers. Around a year ago, Telugu actress Sri Reddy put the spotlight on quid pro quo, or the so-called casting couch, in the film industry. Reddy, who stripped in protest outside the Movie Artists Association in April 2018, said members of the film industry demanded sexual services and photos of private parts from actresses in return for work.

Reddy talked about this dimension of sexual harassment again, at the #MeToo Moment in Our Film Industries conference, held in March in Hyderabad. She and Hyderabad-based activist Chandramukhi were felicitated here for their fight against sexual harassment.

At the conference, organised by Hyderabad’s Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Reddy asked why anyone should have to have sex for work. This is my work, she said, why should I have to sleep with anyone to be able to do my work?

Women across the film industry are asking these questions. In the last few years, women from regional film industries have come together, seeking a better working culture. These include the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) in Kerala, the Tamil Nadu-based South Indian Film Women’s Association, Film Industry for Rights and Equality in the Kannada film industry and the Hyderabad-based Voices of Women. These associations include actors, directors, technicians, and other members of the film industry.

These associations are examining the reasons that enable sexual harassment within their industries. Chief among these is women’s extreme vulnerability as workers. Industry practitioners talk about lack of clearly defined workspaces, and, often, the absence of a clear employer-employee relationship due to the presence of contractors and middlemen.

Several practitioners say they don’t receive contracts. These conditions make implementation of the anti-harassment legislation a challenge, says advocate Vasudha Nagraj. For instance, is sexual harassment during auditions covered under the law? Is a script reading in a hotel room? Where do workers go with their complaints without contracts to establish they were hired?

The problem is compounded by films’ content. Women are routinely stereotyped, and mature roles are not written for them, says Asha Achy Joseph, who heads the communication department at Kochi’s Sacred Heart College.

On the other hand, as director Mohana Krishna Indranganti points out, men are written as macho, and the male actors who portray these characters come to identify so heavily with them that they begin to see themselves as macho and hyper-masculine.

Also, homophobia prevents men from speaking out when they are harassed, says singer and dubbing artiste Chinmayi Sripaada.

To address these issues, the movement has confronted governments and the film industry, but the response has been mixed.

Film practitioners and activists are challenging sexual harassment as a form of workplace harassment. On WCC’s appeal, the Kerala chief minister appointed the Justice Hema Commission in 2017 to look into women actors’ issues. The commission has not yet filed its report. In 2018, the WCC moved the Kerala High Court for the setting up of an internal complaints committee in the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists.

Seven Telangana-based activists have filed a public interest litigation in the Telangana High Court, requesting a high-level committee to examine the conditions of women film artistes. The Telangana government appointed a committee in 2019.

Industry responses have also been uneven. One audience member at the conference reported seeing a notice about sexual harassment at the Hyderabad-based Annapurna Studios. This seems to illustrate what veteran film editor Bina Paul identifies as some care being taken by an industry that has been shaken up.

However film critic Anna MM Vetticad describes how Bollywood has been silent on accusations of sexual misconduct against Rajkumar Hirani and girlfriend beating against Salman Khan.

And while men accused of harassment have lost work, so have women who have made accusations. Sripaada reports how, despite having several hits to her credit, she hasn’t received song offers from the Tamil film industry in months.

For activists as well those in the film industry, standing up to harassment has been difficult. Several say the process has been exhausting and has affected their health. Others have lost friends for speaking up or upon joining film women’s associations.

But they are not giving up. By coming together, these associations have sown the seeds of a national movement against sexual harassment in the film industry.

The question before us now is how it will grow.

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