(This article was first published on 29 January 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after the sexual assault allegations against Malayalam film actor and producer Vijay Babu.)
Actor Archana Padmini was “truly relieved” after she spoke to Justice K Hema committee three years ago, in a deposition that lasted for a whole day. Now, two years after the three-member committee submitted its report on work conditions and gender discrimination in the Malayalam film industry, Padmini feels “ashamed” of having spoken to the body, she told The Quint.
Hema committee, which was formed in 2017, had submitted its report based on the depositions of scores of women in the industry, in 2019. The report is not yet released – and its recommendations not implemented.
Padmini is also an associate director and film curator. “The committee broke my trust,” she said.
Padmini recently read in a media report that Justice K Hema revealed the identity of a woman actor who had deposed before the committee. “I read that Justice Hema said that the woman actor would be the right person to tell, ‘who did what to whom.’ That statement, if it was indeed made by Justice Hema, should be condemned in its totality,” Padmini said.
The statement indicated that the woman actor would know the details of assaults that other women in Malayalam cinema had endured. It also outed her name without her consent, even though she is a survivor.
In an attempt to explain why women actors feel distrustful of the committee, to which they had once shared their struggles and experiences, Archana Padmini revealed parts of her deposition to The Quint. The actor had exposed before the committee the very hierarchical structure of the industry, that affects lives of people in cinema. Earlier The Quint had carried parts of actor Divya Gopinath's deposition to the committee.
Should a Woman be Attacked While Working in Films?
According to Padmini, it was not the committee but the Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) that she had trusted first with her experience. When she was assaulted on a film set five years ago, she approached FEFKA with a complaint.
“When FEFKA authorities heard my complaint, I felt that they really understood what I had endured. I did not realise, at first, that they were only tactically dealing with me,” Padmini said. Despite the complaint, the accused person ended up getting work, even as Padmini was unable to find work for a considerable period, she said.
Hema committee was formed after a Malayalam woman actor was abducted and raped in Kochi, Kerala in February 2017.
Malayalam film actor Dileep was accused of having conspired to get the woman actor assaulted. The case is currently being tried in a Kerala court. Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), an organisation formed in 2017 in the aftermath of the actor assault case, had earnestly collaborated with the committee.
The three members of the committee were retired judge K Hema, south Indian actor Sharada, and retired bureaucrat KB Vathsala Kumari.
“I was so hopeful when I deposed. I felt that some substantial change would come with the committee's aid. But after statements from individual members of the committee surfaced, I realised I can expect very little from the committee,” Padmini, who is a member of the WCC, rued.
Actor Sharada, in a statement, had reportedly said that women who have faced problems within the industry should consider professions other than cinema.
The committee had been maintaining that they have decided not to release the report considering privacy concerns of women who had deposed.
But are women professionals in the film industry being let down continuously by watchdogs?
A Feudal, Hierarchical Industry
“They wrote down, verbatim, our depositions. These depositions detailed out the many bad practices in the industry,” Padmini said. The committee should at least bring out general observations that spring from the essence of women’s testimonies. These depositions, in fact, reveal how the Malayalam industry has failed its workers, especially women.
The crux of Padmini’s deposition dealt with the very structure of the film industry.
She wanted the committee to understand that the Malayalam film industry is “hierarchical and feudal,” as it is governed neither by government regulation, nor legally bound work contracts. “You should know how these hierarchies work. For example, the unprofessional way in which ‘lower rung’ technicians and ‘junior’ artistes are treated, reveal the feudal structure,” she explained.
Remuneration is never promised on contracts. “You get money, if you are lucky.”
The committee heard it all.
For Archana Padmini, the committee’s attitude has been one that others in the film industry too had reflected, one of understanding without any material change. “In the industry, everyone says that they are with the survivors. But the problem arises when we want some action to follow, and support the solidarity.”
In the 2017 actor assault case, leading actors including Mohanlal had said that they will support the survivor. However, actor Dileep ended up acting in at least 10 films during the last five years.
When Padmini walked into the film location of director Anjali Menon, she was told there is an internal complaints committee to which she could voice her concerns, if any. “Everyone was happy with the ICC.” But, most production houses in the industry have neither instituted ICCs nor defined workspace.
Alarmingly, except for the film stars, directors and producers, no one else gets a work contract in the industry.
“There is not even a single piece of paper which defines the workspace,” Padmini explained. Moreover, private entities and individuals govern production. Title registration of films is governed by producers’ chamber, a private entity. There should be government control in the industry," Padmini said.
The other alternative is putting a defined workspace in place, like the one that exists in the Mumbai film industry. “Payment, duration of work and nature of work are all defined in Mumbai film industry. Work and workspace are hence defined,” Padmini explained. As a "glamour quotient" is associated with films, in Malayalam film industry, work is defined as a “lucky opportunity,” for which one should be grateful.
Could the committee not have released such observations made by women professionals of the industry?
Women in Cinema Make Some Changes
“They say they are scared of me, after I started working in the WCC. In a way, it is good, because when someone calls you for work, you know for sure that it is indeed for work that they have called. The WCC, that way, ensures safety,” Archana Padmini laughed.
The WCC has been demanding the right to work with dignity and safety. “We are here to fight and stay. Not run away from cinema, like actor Sharada, a member of the committee seems to want us to do.”
Women in the industry had relived several of their painful experiences to the committee, hoping that a solution would come soon. “Even the delay in releasing the report, is a betrayal of that trust,” Padmini asserted.