(This article was first published on 26 January 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after the sexual assault allegations against Malayalam film actor and producer Vijay Babu.)
Malayalam actor Divya Gopinath does not want to talk about the #MeToo complaint she had raised in October 2018, but she does want Justice K Hema Committee report, which had documented the problems faced by women in the Malayalam film industry, to come out. Why?
Regarding the complaint, she got a “closure of sorts,” she said, as the accused rendered a public apology to Gopinath, but the committee, which promised her “justice,” has not yet made its recommendations public. The committee submitted its report in 2019 but it is yet to be released.
In an attempt to bring out the full extent of harassment that fellow women actors have been facing in the Malayalam film industry, Gopinath shared with The Quint some parts of what she had deposed before the committee.
“I have had to relive the traumatic experiences that I had faced. I have had to retell the experiences which other women had faced, to the committee. For what? So that its findings can be suppressed?” Divya Gopinath asked.
Silence of the Committee
The Kerala government constituted the Hema Committee, in 2017, at the insistence of the Women in Cinema Collective, which also petitioned Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The committee members included judge K Hema, south Indian actor Sharada, and retired bureaucrat KB Valsala Kumari.
Gopinath, who had spent hours deposing before the committee, told The Quint, “Apart from the details of the #MeToo complaint, I told the committee about women actors who find no place even to relieve themselves during work hours. I told them about women actors who do not get even a safe place to sleep. I told them about women actors who do not get paid after work.”
The committee was constituted in the aftermath of the abduction and rape of a woman actor in February 2017, in which Dileep – a Malayalam film star – is accused of having conspired and paid prime accused Sunil Kumar alias ‘Pulsar’ Suni to sexually assault the woman actor. The assault was filmed.
Even as the heinous crime became the focal point of public discourse on abuse and gender discrimination within the film industry, individual women working in the industry have had to speak up, also because the Hema Committee has been refusing to publish its findings.
In January 2022, the survivor of the 2017 case issued a statement on Instagram. She wrote, “This has not been an easy journey. The journey from being a victim to becoming a survivor. For 5 years now, my name and identity have been suppressed under the weight of the assault inflicted on me."
From the scores of actors and technicians who deposed before the committee, its three members had also collected proof to support the allegations. While a majority of the complaints were about gender discrimination and unbearable work atmosphere within the industry, there were also those who reported sexual harassment.
Should Women Actors Not Get a Toilet?
Many women professionals in the industry, including Gopinath, deposed before the committee between 2018 and 2019.
Despite several appeals from the Women in Cinema Collective, even the state government has not showed any signs of implementing the recommendations.
Justice Hema told the media in January this year that individuals who had deposed before the committee can make their experiences public if they want to.
Gopinath explained what women have been facing in the industry: “I remember an instance when a woman actor was stopped from using the caravan of a star. She wanted to use the toilet in the caravan. This, when supporting actors were forced to go to a distant place, a private house, to relieve themselves.” The actor did not want to reveal the location of the incident.
There should be at least 10 toilets available for women actors on each set, she added.
No Legal Aid, No Place To Sleep
The Women in Cinema Collective was constituted after some women stars in the industry broke away from the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), accusing the body of discrimination. Since 2019, the collective has been asking the state government to make the recommendations of the committee public.
But what struggles – of women actors and technicians – have not yet seen the light of the day due to the committee’s silence?
Gopinath revealed why she approached the commission in the first place. “I deposed before the commission because I neither had the mental strength nor the financial means to go through the legal process, in connection with my #MeToo complaint,” she said.
Ironically, she was speaking to The Quint on 21 January, at a time when actor Dileep, aided by his lawyers, had approached the Kerala High Court to get anticipatory bail in a conspiracy to murder case that is connected to the actor assault case.
After the recent revelations of a former friend, director Balachandra Kumar, Dileep is now accused of having conspired to murder the investigating officers of the 2017 actor assault case.
Gopinath spoke of a woman actor, “I told the commission that a woman actor was not given a safe place to sleep while she was working on a film." The actor was first given the director's room. While the director moved out, he kept returning to the room for 'small talk'. "The woman actor finally had to sleep in a common area,” she stated.
Could a work contract, that defines provision of stay, have helped?
“Women in Malayalam film industry do not have work contracts, using which they can fight for their rights. Moreover, on most sets there’s no Internal Complaints Committee (ICC),” Gopinath said. While even male actors do not get work contracts, only in one film – Virus, by director Ashiq Abu – did she come across an ICC.
"The moment I reached the set of that film, I was told I could raise complaints, if needed, to three people who are part of the ICC. That immediately made me comfortable as I felt supported."
Before the committee, Gopinath had spoken about the disheartening, even threatening, working conditions. "I expected the committee to study experiences like the ones I told them to come up with a report that could bring notable change within the industry," she said. But raising objections had only led to loss of opportunities.
The Price of Speaking Up
Divya Gopinath said, "I come from a privileged background. So I could speak up." She was referring to her parents who are both trade union leaders. Gopinath has also "studied acting" by completing a master's programme in a renowned college in Kerala.
But did she not take on people more powerful than herself? Gopinath said she is an emotional person. "There are so many people who do not have any job, other than the work in films, to support them." She made a choice to speak up.
“I have had to raise complaints against what I have seen happening in the industry. I did that for posterity. I am fighting so that young women of the next generation will not have to face the same problems,” Gopinath said.
The young actor has been working in the industry for just over four years. Several women in the industry have been sidelined for speaking up, she pointed out. "Forget getting roles, some people are not even called for auditions because they had raised issues in the past."
Will the Hema Committee and Kerala state government stand up for both the silent women and the women who have had no choice but to speak up?