After Actor Bhavana’s Sexual Assault Complaint, Kerala Mulls Law for Protecting Women in Cinema
“I did not want to come back to the industry and work as if nothing was wrong.” Actor Bhavana, who has worked in the Malayalam film industry for 20 years, said this in an interview last week. The actor withdrew from cinema in 2017 after experiencing sexual assault in a moving vehicle. Actor Dileep, a hefty name in the industry, was the prime accused in the case. Bhavana spoke of sexism, power, and exclusion within the industry.
In light of the actor’s account, the Kerala government recently announced plans to implement legislation that would protect women in the film industry. The proposed legislation would take into account recommendations from reports commissioned earlier (the Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Justice Hema Commissions), which were appointed solely to study the problem of gendered violence in Malayalam cinema. Several actors in the past have spoken of patterns of harassment and discrimination — tacit or otherwise — by different stakeholders.
A legal framework to safeguard the interests of actors in the film industry has been a longstanding demand by several civil society groups and activists. In 2019, when the Justice Hema Committee report was submitted, the hope was that it would offer compelling insights on how the film industry systemically silences women. However, the report has been kept out of the public domain citing “privacy” issues.
“I seriously believe that the government is trying to protect some of the abusers… this act of the Kerala government shows that at least for now, the government is on the side of the abusers. The film industry has not been notified as a workplace and no efforts have been made to constitute Internal Complaint Committees,” said Advocate Harish Vasudevan.
Security, safety, and parity of women at the workplace — in this case the film industry — comes under the purview of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, also known as the POSH Act. The Act takes into account some of the Supreme Court guidelines in the landmark “Vishaka” case that emerged in the aftermath of the sexual assault of a woman named Bhanwari Devi. The Vishaka guidelines are often the benchmark used by PoSH committees across workplaces.
In February this year, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) in a petition to the high court urged the Kerala government to form Vishakha Committees on sexual harassment within the Malayalam film industry. The Kerala Women’s Commission later also pointed out that collectives such as the Cine & TV Artists Association (CINTAA) had failed to constitute a grievance cell. This, despite being mandated to do so by the Supreme Court in the Vishaka case and the PoSH Act.
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Arguably, the protection of women in cinema is a problem panning all film industries. #MeToo’s tidal waves have managed to submerge the unchallenged figures of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. In India, the progress has albeit been negligible — as individuals like Rajkumar Hirani and Vikas Behl continue to thrive despite sexual harassment charges. A 2016 study found a worrying trend about representation in the Indian film industry: there was one woman for every 6.2 men. The report also noted the hesitation many women face in entering the theatre industry in India — citing concerns about safety as a tangible reason why fewer women participate in theatre than men.
The Vishaka guidelines as an extensive framework put the onus of a safe working environment on the employer. When applied to the film industry, a similar level of accountability would then lie in multi-faceted contexts — including production, pre-production, shoot, or post-production settings.
That there exist guidelines to discourage workplace harassment and protect survivors of abuse further contextualizes the issue at hand. Actors like Bhavana feel compelled to withdraw into anonymity to avoid unfair scrutiny from a misplaced social order, while abusers continue to dominate the silver screen without a whiff of facing consequences.
“The Malayalam film industry itself is complicit in pushing the stakes so high in the first place, even as it allowed the actor to enjoy a more or less unscathed career,” Rohitha Naraharisetty wrote in The Swaddle. “Many prominent actors and directors protectively closed in around Dileep, even as the survivor, an actor herself, was left out in the cold and vulnerable to greater harm. In a letter to the Chief Minister of Kerala, the survivor addressed an MLA’s comments about her not showing “appropriate” victim behavior by asking: “Should I have killed myself?” Others like Mohanlal and Mammootty have also continued to assert their power unchallenged in Malayalam cinema for decades.”
It was only in January this year when Bhavana put out an Instagram post revealing her identity as a survivor of sexual assault. “My mind convinced me that I am a survivor, not a victim anymore,” she said in the interview.
Arguably, the implementation of anti-workplace harassment guidelines and setting up efficient and robust internal complaints committees are the bare minimum steps to address gender-based issues in the cinema industry. Workplace rights play out in multiple other ways — everything from pay parity, safety, equal opportunity to adequate gender representation in all forms of the creative process are domains worthy of greater scrutiny.
Archana Padmini, a curator and actor, aptly said: “Essentially, all we are saying is that we would like to work without being sexually assaulted.”