(This article was first published on 16 April 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after the sexual assault allegations against Malayalam film actor and producer Vijay Babu.)
Three years ago, I wrote to retired judge, Justice K Hema: “We in Kerala are standing at a distance from the laws provided for working women in the media and entertainment industry. It is very important to have a legal system which will be adhered to by all bodies (film unions and associations), and take us closer to the rest of the media and entertainment industry in India.”
Do note that such problems exist not just in Kerala but also in other industries, where speaking up about these problems is still a taboo.
In Kerala, we, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) approached Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan with an appeal, in May 2017, that contained many requests, including a request to officially study and act on the working conditions of women in the film industry. Please remember that WCC came together and took this step following the kidnap and sexual assault of our colleague, a leading Malayalam woman actor, in Kochi, Kerala.
In response to our request, Justice K Hema Committee was appointed in 2017 – a historic progressive step towards women's empowerment. The government gave the committee seven specific terms of reference.
Justice Hema Committee comprised three members including retired judge K Hema, south Indian actor Sharada, and retired bureaucrat KB Vatsala Kumari.
In the next two years, when the committee conducted its study, WCC and its members were constantly contacted for information, support, and recommendations.
Study Done, But to No Respite
Finally, on 31 December 2019, the committee submitted its report to the government.
On the day of submission, the committee spoke to the media about its findings. This was a milestone because the official study reported and endorsed what many women had been trying to voice.
But, that was the last we heard of the findings. Two years down the line, the findings of the report remain a secret. Why?
It is to be noted that none of the bodies linked to the industry or government departments, which are responsible for ensuring safety of women at their workplace, have neither asked for the report nor its findings. If no one can know the findings of the report, what was its purpose?
Why Others and I Deposed Before the Committee
In 2018, I attended a group deposition called by the committee where dozens of women from the industry spoke out. We were all talking loudly, and everybody could relate to everyone else’s experience. Besides group depositions, several individual depositions were also given.
Drawing from the hope that this collective had in the committee, I requested the committee members to put in place a system, because many problems in the Malayalam film industry are systemic.
The problems are part of the work culture in the industry. I was expecting the committee to question the very gender norms which govern the film industry, and so did many other women who had shared their workplace experiences.
There has been much talk about sexual harassment in the industry, which is a serious issue. But, there are other issues too. I have rarely spoken about these but I am sharing these thoughts here, to explain why it is not right to bury this monumental and iconic collation of women’s experiences in the Malayalam film industry.
Toxic System and the 'Woman' Director
When people think of women in cinema, they expect them to be either actors or hairstylists. In 2007, when I was working on my first film Manjadikuru (2008), a majority of my crew were men. This was when a manufactured image of what a director should be, was prevalent.
The director was always thought of as an aggressive man – a hyper-masculine person. A petite, soft-spoken woman just didn’t fit the bill.
During the shoot of Manjadikuru, people would drive in, just to see a ‘woman director.’ On other film sets, people asked aloud whether a woman director could, in fact, do the job.
From those times, the composition of my sets has changed, with a growing number of women professionals taking up roles of assistant directors and heads of department. But the Malayalam film industry has lived long with the concept of a real director being male.
Let me explain. When Manjadikuru released, a senior producer called to ask if I had hired people in the theatre to clap at the end of the movie. When Bangalore Days (2014) released to box office success, many preferred to believe that the producer or the cameraman had actually directed the film.
When the song Aararo of Koode (2018) released to wide acceptance, there were social media comments asking if the last film’s (Bangalore Days) producer had shot the song. This showcased a mindset that a woman just cannot do the job.
Today, I laugh it off and move on, but it has taken years to develop a thick skin.
Undermining the Work of Women Crew
I have a large collection of incidents to narrate, if you ask me. An example: Bangalore Days (2014) had an unprecedented shoot schedule – 75 days. While shooting over 50 days has now become a standard in Malayalam film industry, back in 2013, there was talk that I did not know what I was doing. The producer of the film was constantly told that he would lose money.
I was fortunate that the producer and I had a working relationship beforehand. He had seen me work even within a month of childbirth. He chose to keep his faith in me.
In another instance, woman crew member told me that their own production head or HoD, used ‘vadi…podi’ (curt address) language to address them. Women are not given respect in the industry. Sexist behaviour and body shaming are all common experiences.
In closed circles, women speak openly about such behaviour, in which even the bigwigs indulge. Such gender-biased behaviour infringes upon your creative process and basic sense of self-respect. It undermines your confidence.
Making a film is difficult, but making a film while having to deal with deep-rooted sexism is actually torture. Earlier, I rarely spoke about it because I always tried to be positive and move forward. But now, I speak up because everyone needs to know that it’s not only some women-crew who have experienced this. I did too.
In my films, I have had women who have worked in Kerala and those who have worked in other film industries. These two sections of women have completely different expectations when they walk onto a film set.
The women who have worked in Kerala are familiar with the systematised gender discrimination. Whereas, people who come from outside do not think of their gender at all. One of them once asked me “Why do you work here? And why are you making us work here?”
With the increase in the number of women entering the Malayalam film industry, one would expect things to change. However even now, women are treated as if we do not belong.
To be a woman in the industry is still a fight for rights.
Women Who Disappear After Working in One Film
It is true that one has to be tough to survive in the industry. But for women behind the camera, the journey is even more arduous. The industry breaks our spirit. I ask: Why are there so many women who work on just one film? Why do they not turn up for a second film? Those who have survived in the industry are fighters because we have not come up the easy way.
A young assistant director said it right: “Why do I have to choose between my self-respect and my career? Why can’t I have both?”
Women are highly unsupported. To be part of film bodies in Kerala, one has to have one published work. If one faces problems in the first film, one would have nowhere to go for help or guidance. If anything adverse happens in the first film, nobody will get to know. Nobody will protect you. Hence, often women crew disappear without a trace after their first film.
To prevent this abysmal attrition, there should be a system which validates women’s role in the industry. Everyone should have an official ID as a worker in the industry from the very beginning. Otherwise, women will remain unprotected.
As a woman director, one has to constantly prove one’s capabilities. That is, people who had told me that I did not know what I was doing in the first film, grew silent only when I wrote a commercial success (Ustad Hotel). Only when I directed a hit film (Bangalore Days), did they recognise that I am a bankable director.
The same is not expected from men. As a man, if one wants to be a director, one is a director from the very first day on the set. For a woman director to be accepted, her films have to ring really loud in the box office.
Wouldn’t the Hema committee want to expose this intrinsic bias that forces women crew to struggle more than what their male counterparts do?
What Did I Expect From Hema Committee?
I wrote to the committee, “For such a change to come in our work culture, it requires four areas of work. One is, documentation of women’s rights in the industry. Two is, legal directives to reduce the gender gap. Three is, redressal mechanism for complaints from working women. Four is, activating the existing unions and associations roles in taking up responsibility for their members’ conduct and background, including penalties for any oversight.”
I stand by this. There should be accountability in the film workplace.
Unions which want to ensure work for their members should also ensure police verification of each person. Each member's criminal history, if any, should be reported to the employers.
Given the nature of our work which take place in multiple locations, during unconventional timings, we are vulnerable. Therefore sexual offenders should be blacklisted and not permitted to work. Unions and organisations who support such people should be held accountable for their conduct.
Now the Kerala High Court has clarified that every production is a workplace which comes under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Act, 2013. It will be interesting to see how the industry culture evolves in view of this judgment.
But the Hema committee findings should have been made public and the industry should have ensured the institution of a system, to counter the problems other than sexual harassment as well.
I expected the committee to gather the experiences of all the women, who had deposed, and make a list of findings based on our common experiences. I expected each term of reference provided by the government to be addressed and studied thoroughly. I expected the official findings of the committee to be released publicly.
Now, I expect the government and industry to work together to resolve the problems and make the industry a professionally run workplace. If that does not happen this whole exercise would be a failure.
Justice Hema Committee report could have been that historical milestone which measured the exact distance the industry should travel to make the film workplace fair. But right now, it is just as useful as a missing milestone.
(Anjali Menon is a director and screenwriter in the Malayalam film industry. Her films include Manjadikkuru, Ustad Hotel (script), Bangalore Days and Koode. This article is based on Anjali Menon's interview with Nikhila Henry.)