Kerala had the misfortune of witnessing a Facebook live by actor-producer Vijay Babu, who, with no regard for the legal system, named the survivor of sexual assault who had filed a complaint against him, while placing himself as a victim.
The body language and tone of the actor reeked of privilege and toxic masculinity, which does not come as a shock to Malayali viewers anymore – thanks to the likes of actors Dileep, Vinayakan, and many more.
The whole incident tragically followed a pattern that we are all familiar with by now. A powerful man is accused of sexual assault by a woman. Immediately, a witch-hunt is set in motion, where the character of the woman, her intentions, her profession, and every aspect of her life are put under scrutiny.
It is this mob mentality that gives the Vijay Babus and Dileeps of the world the audacity to challenge the law and order and to openly proclaim that they would put a stop to movements like #MeToo.
But then again, in the landscape of the south Indian film industry, it has always been the women who have been chagrined when they showed the courage to speak out or take a stand.
Brave Women & the Consequences They Face
Singer and dubbing artist Chinmayi Sripada, who came out against the predatory behaviour of poet-lyricist Vairamuthu, along with 17 other women, faced massive consequences for speaking out.
Chinmayi revealed in an interview with The Hindu that after her involvement with the #MeToo movement, her work quickly started drying up, and she was also terminated from the dubbing union.
All this while, the accused had no dearth of projects and was even awarded the ONV Cultural Academy award, which, thanks to the relentless efforts of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) and Chinmayi, the academy decided to reconsider.
But the reality remains the same for women who speak out – incessant character assassination, attack by the social media trolls, and most importantly, loss of work, and neglect from the keepers of law and order.
Women Actors Criticised for Personal Decisions
It is not just when a woman calls out a man that the inherent misogyny in the industry bares its ugly teeth. Even a personal decision, such as a divorce, can lead to slut-shaming of the women in the industry.
The trolls came rather ruthlessly for Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Tamil-Telugu actress, when the news of her divorce from actor Naga Chaitanya broke. While Naga Chaitanya's social media was filled with sympathy, love, and bright wishes for his future, social media was quick to come to speculations about Samantha's family values, career, and choices.
When two people in a marriage decide to part ways mutually, why is there such a contrast in the way their decisions are perceived by the public? It is unfortunate that it has become so normal and commonplace for a woman to be vilified when she challenges the conventional roles of a daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, or mother.
Is it a carefully crafted PR mechanism that is at play here or is it just the way the public has been conditioned by pop culture, which has dictated gender roles over the years?
A similar witch-hunt was faced by leading Malayalam actress Manju Warrier, who walked out of a 17-year-long marriage because her daughter did not accompany her and chose to stay with her father.
The social media trial she was put on was almost soap-opera-esque, questioning her femininity and motherhood all because her daughter chose to stay back with her father and she resumed work in the film industry with a regained glory.
She was not even spared by her ex-husband, actor Dileep, who, in an endeavour to gain self-pity, frequently evoked the fact that their daughter chose to stay with him. However, it is this very man who is now the 8th accused of the sexual assault case filed by a popular south Indian actress, who was allegedly abducted and sexually assaulted in 2017.
This case had gained a lot of traction in the media as it perhaps might have been the first time ever that an actress came out and filed a formal complaint.
The Impact of Case Against Dileep
Dileep's has been one of those cases in which evidence has surfaced pointing to the accused trying to influence the investigation in multiple ways. It was also the repercussion of this case that led to the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) in the Malayalam film industry and the formation of the Justice Hema Committee.
This committee was constituted under the Department of Cultural affairs in 2017 and is touted to shed light on the discrimination and harassment faced by female artistes in the Malayalam film industry. However, its report, which was submitted to the Kerala government in 2019, has not yet seen the light of the day.
This is where even the government becomes an accomplice in the cruel injustice that is being meted out to women in this industry. Sadly, it is not just the government that stops in its tracks when a powerful man is involved in a crime against a woman, the judicial system also appears to be cowering.
The survivor in Dileep's case, through one of her social media posts, said:
"Though I am not the one who had committed the crime, there have been many attempts to humiliate, silence, and isolate me."
This public scrutiny, aided by the political and judicial system's loyalties in cases like these not only protects men like Dileep and Vijay Babu but also gives them the audacity to challenge the system and invalidate the trauma of their victims.
The system has been massively failing women for a long time now. This is one of the reasons why in addition to moving legally, women are forced to share and relive their trauma on social media to protect other women from the same predators.
While this takes immense courage, it is also a cry for help or support because they might not stand a chance if they only take the legal route.
In Vijay Babu's Facebook live, he tries to position himself as a victim, trying to play out to the sentiments of the public by dragging his mother, wife, and child into the narrative, which is a common tool used by men in these situations.
Since the live, where he portrays the survivor as someone who "used" him, there again is a widespread discussion on consent. Unfortunately, this is the second time in the last two months a supposedly "woke" population failed to grasp the simplicity of consent.
The previous incident was when actor Vinayakan callously ridiculed the concept of consent at a press meet last month. When it comes to brass tacks, consent is simple, but when it comes to these powerful, toxic men who are not used to being denied what they want, it becomes complex. And unfortunately, we live in a world where our system can easily be bent to criminals' whims and our legal system has become two-tiered as a different set of rules apply to men in positions of power.
Vijay Babu, who revealed the survivor's name on a Facebook live is still absconding. This now is the tipping point of the 'two-tier' Indian justice system, one for the wealthy and powerful men and another for ordinary citizens.
Failure to arrest Vijay Babu under IPC Section 228A, despite clear video evidence watched by the entire state, will be the marker of the complete deterioration of our system.
(Meenakshi Sajeev is a writer, published poet, and corporate communications consultant. She has worked with the UN Environment and is currently with IBM. The author is based out of Bengaluru. You can find her on Instagram @menakshee.)