A couple of days ago, two Malayalam actresses recounted – on their Instagram stories – the harrowing experience of being groped during a crowded promotional event at a mall in Kozhikode, Kerala. Videos of the incident showed one of the actresses retaliating, smacking the man who sexually harassed her.
While social media was quick to call out the harasser and the organisers of the event, who failed to handle the crowd gathered at the mall, some of the comments, unsurprisingly, were downright insensitive:
‘Women can do anything now! Why are there cases only against men?’
‘If you dress like this, then things like this will happen.’
‘Why did you put yourself in a situation like that?’
These are comments that women have been subjected to time and again by partners, family, friends, neighbours, teachers, and random people on the internet. Of course, if you’re a woman celebrity, everyone has a say in your life.
In addition to the age-old gyaan on how to dress, the actress was also criticised for slapping the harasser and posting about the incident on social media. Instead of writing social media posts, she should have just complained to the authorities. Now, it’s too late, and later, she will say #MeToo – this was one Instagram user’s invaluable advice.
Interestingly, some of the social media users even had an issue with the other actress not responding to the assault when it happened. “I faced a horrendous experience, and so did my colleague. She was able to respond, but I wasn't able to. I froze for a second when it happened. I'm still numb from the incident,” she had posted.
The Average Malayali’s Double Standards
Incidentally, the incident occurred a day after Malayalam actor Sreenath Bhasi was arrested for abusing a woman journalist during a promotional interview for his upcoming film. Bhasi ‘lost his cool’ when the interviewer asked him a question about the title of the film and the actors he worked with. After insulting her work on camera, the interviewer said he went on to abuse her and her crew off camera. Another video of Bhasi hurling abuses at an RJ also resurfaced after the complaint.
But some users on social media had a really good explanation for his outburst(s): Bhasi lost his cool because the interviewer’s questions were ridiculous. Of course, he should not have abused her, but his anger is justified. There is a need to improve the interview culture. Others had an even better explanation: He was high and wasn't thinking straight. (It's easier to rationalise abuse if the abuser is not 'in his senses'.)
But the truth is, men and women, especially celebrities, are held to different standards of behaviour by the average Malayali. The two incidents differ – in that Sreenath Bhasi was just posed with a question he didn’t want to answer, but the two actresses were in a room full of men, their bodies being violated – an actual threat.
In other words, though Bhasi was penalised for abusing the woman interviewer, she was still trolled extensively for her questions. And while the actresses suffered a violation of their bodies, they were still judged for the clothes they wore and how they reacted to the incident.
These double standards are deeply ingrained in the Malayali psyche and are built into the film industry of the state. It's only fitting, therefore, that we examine the larger culture of hypocrisy that lives on.
Culture of Hypocrisy
The Malayalam film industry has its own share of hypocrisies – the biggest being the likes of Dileep, Vijay Babu, and Liju Krishna. Actor Dileep, accused in the 2017 actress assault case, received ample public support when the incident was first reported, with many discrediting the survivor's complaint. Even recently, the survivor was subjected to disgusting comments about her clothes in an organised social media attack. “There are people trying to send me back to darkness,” the actress wrote on Instagram after these comments resurfaced.
Meanwhile, Vijay Babu, who was accused of raping a colleague earlier this year, recently produced and acted in a movie. In April, he reacted to the survivor’s complaint of rape by going live on Facebook and revealing her identity, thereby subjecting her to slander and social media attacks. Babu, like Dileep, is a powerful figure in the industry. And while Bhasi was temporarily banned by the Kerala Film Producers’ Association, Babu and Liju Krishna, another film persona who has been accused of rape, are yet to face any action.
It wouldn't be far off the mark to say that this culture of hypocrisy comes largely from decades of hero worship in Malayalam cinema. While the industry is making strides on-screen with feminist narratives of late, its organisational bodies and the Malayali society at large are still grappling with the idea of changing the status quo.
WCC & the Hema Committee
The formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a group that aims to promote equal opportunities and equal spaces for women in Malayalam cinema, was also a reaction to a crime – the 2017 actress assault. Institutionally and in public forums, the WCC has had to wage battles, primarily due to the powers that be, i.e., the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA).
Several members of the group were consistently trolled on social media and called sexist slurs, ranging from 'vedi' to 'feminichi'.
The same year, the WCC asked the Kerala government to form the Justice Hema Committee to examine the working conditions of women in the film industry, the report of which has still not been released. From matters of confidentiality to technicalities, the government has still kept the report under wraps, solidifying the culture of hypocrisy that persists in the film industry.