Every day seems to bring a new high profile case of sexual harassment in American media. It began with accusations against Harvey Weinstein. This week NPR’s senior vice president of news was forced to resign over allegations against him.
But this problem is hardly limited to the U.S. For the past several months one of India’s major film industries has been made to face up to similar problems in its own ranks after the sexual assault of a prominent actress. In reaction, women movie stars, directors and other film professionals have formed an unprecedented coalition to fight back.
They call themselves the Women in Cinema Collective, and the group includes some of the biggest names in “Mollywood.” That’s the nickname for the industry that produces movies in the 35-million-strong South Indian state of Kerala in the local language of Malayalam — and which is not to be confused with “Bollywood,” the better known nationwide Hindi-language film industry based in the city of Mumbai.
Launched in May, the WCC has been lobbying both the industry and political leaders for a host of reforms — ranging from setting up an official complaints system through which women could report harassment and get justice to the stipulation that production companies must provide such long-denied basics as toilets appropriate for women on set.
Perhaps no one is more surprised at their newfound activism than the women themselves.
“None of us thought we could all stand up and ask for the same thing,” says Rima Kallingal, a prominent movie actress. “None of us thought of it.”
That all changed on an evening last February, when a Mollywood actress got into a chauffeured car hired by the company producing a film she was working on. According to a judge’s summary of allegations made by the state prosecutor, suddenly another vehicle rammed the car from behind. A gang of men jumped out of that vehicle and forced their way into the actress’s car. Over the next couple hours they drove around with her as their prisoner, taking photographs and video as they sexually assaulted her.
“I can’t even imagine the psychological pressure she went through when she was in that car,” recalls Kallingal, who is a close friend of the actress. (As a matter of policy, NPR does not name individuals who are the alleged victims of sexual assaults unless they choose to be identified).
Kallingal believes that, whatever their aim, the assailants assumed the actress would be too traumatized or ashamed at the prospect of the photographs being made public to report the crime.
“That’s where she proved everybody wrong,” says Kallingal. That same night, after the actress was set free, she contacted the police.
“I still remember going to meet her the very next day,” says Kallingal. “How she stood like a rock and was so clear that she was going to come down on every person who was involved in this.”
Within days police had arrested several men, including one whom the actress had recognized during the attack as someone who had driven her car during a previous film shoot, according to the judge’s summary of the prosecutor’s allegations. (An attorney for the man told NPR his client will be pleading not guilty in the case and was not involved in the attack.)
Kallingal says that in India survivors of a sexual assault are often either blamed or pitied as somehow irreparably soiled. So the actress’s defiance was a watershed moment.
“She changed the whole narrative with that single act of bravery.”
She also inspired her female colleagues to start a conversation they’d never had before. At first they were simply phoning each other out of shock — and to discuss ways they could lend the actress their public support. But the fact that the attack had taken place on a work trip, and, allegedly at the hands of someone who had been employed in the film industry, soon prompted deeper conversations about how safe any of them could feel in an industry that is loosely organized and requires them to show up at all manner of odd hours to remote locations where all but a handful of their colleagues are men.
The more the woman talked, the more they confided in one another about instances of sexual abuse and even assault they had faced on the job.
“It was like we opened a can of worms,” says Parvathy Thiruvothu, another top actress. “It was really shocking for everyone once we got together, about 20 of us, that we have been either assaulted or faced the casting couch in the industry over years and we’ve never spoken about it even with each other. We were all made to believe that it was just us, just that one incident, [that] it doesn’t happen to everybody.”
The stories they shared ran the gamut: Women getting slapped for expressing creative differences on set. Male actors and directors making lewd comments on set or sending suggestive texts late at night. Directors and male stars or even male crew members insisting that a woman, including not just actresses but support staff such as hair stylists, sleep with them over the weeks that a film was being shot — and docking a woman’s pay or getting her blacklisted if she refused. For some women, refusal wasn’t even an option.
“I was assaulted,” says Thiruvothu. On one of her movies, a powerful man in the industry “would expect me to be in his room to discuss scenes and be physical with me. I was really young at the time, and for him to say ‘It’s okay, you know, it’s very normal’ and for me to try to escape — and I didn’t. I was forced to be intimate.”
What’s more, she says, in conversations she’s now had with other Mollywood women, they’ve told her this same man assaulted them as well — and that he’s one of a few men who appear to be repeat offenders. “These men are still reigning in this industry as powerful people,” she says. “We have our Weinsteins here.”
But when it comes to naming them publicly, that’s where the parallel with Hollywood ends. Whereas Weinstein’s accusers have been greeted with virtually universal support from both their colleagues in Hollywood and the wider public, Mollywood women say they worry the reception would be very different if they were to take on major figures.
“We would be plucked out. We would be hushed down,” says Thiruvothu.
And not just because of the blaming and shaming that anyone reporting sexual assault in India may face. In India, being in the movie business in particular can open a woman to accusations of having loose morals, says Bina Paul, a veteran film editor: “It’s considered rather taboo to enter cinema.” So much so that the first hurdle a woman often faces to joining the industry is her family’s disapproval.
Thiruvothu agrees. “Even now as an actor, the way I get comments on social media is that, ‘Hey, you sleep around. You’re not even a pure woman, you’re just a whore.”
So when cases do come to light, says Paul, “it’s always twisted [as] she was willing to, or she wanted to get ahead in her career.”
As for the film industry itself, Mollywood’s treatment of the actress who was attacked in February hasn’t inspired confidence among the women of the WCC. In July police charged one of the industry’s most famous actors with hiring the gang that carried out the attack. According to the judge’s summary, the prosecution alleges that the actor, Gopalakrishan Padmanabhan Pillai, who goes by the stage name Dileep, bore a grudge against the actress for precipitating the breakup of his marriage by conveying information about him to his then-wife, with whom the actress was close friends.
An attorney for Dileep says he was not involved in any way. And to the dismay of the women in the WCC, some of the most prominent men in Mollywood have started speaking out in Dileep’s defense.
Kallingal, the actress who is close friends with the survivor of the February assault, does not dispute these men’s right to maintain Dileep’s innocence until he is proven guilty. But she says that by neglecting to simultaneously express concern for the actress they have been essentially conveying that “they stand with him and not with her.” Worse, she says, “there are people who are questioning [the actress’s] morality, her integrity, her character even.”
Thiruvothu and others say this climate explains why few women in India’s other film industries — including Bollywood — have come forward through the #metoo campaign that has proven so galvanizing in Hollywood.
“I have friends in every single Indian film industry,” says Thiruvothu. “This is not just an issue of [Mollywood].”
How to change the culture of silence? The women of the WCC say they concluded that the first step was to band together.
“We thought our individual voices were not strong enough,” says Kallingal. “So we should voice our opinion strongly together, in one voice.”
Among their key demands is the establishment of a complaints committee with the power to investigate charges of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination and to punish the perpetrators with sanctions ranging from reprimands to dismissal — even to legal charges, if warranted.
Indian law actually already requires companies of a certain size to institute such systems. But because the film industry functions more informally — with crews coming together for film shoots for several weeks, then disbanding — the assumption has been that the law does not apply. Now the WCC is consulting legal experts to assess if that’s really true, and, even if so, what legal steps would be needed to set up a complaints adjudication system for their industry.
In May members of the WCC also met with the chief minister of the state of Kerala, who agreed to their request to appoint a commission that is now studying the question.
But while addressing harassment is a top priority, the WCC also wants to find ways to remedy a host of other forms of gender discrimination that its members say contribute to making their industry inhospitable to women: unequal pay; a lack of maternity benefits; failure by management to provide bathroom facilities for women on set; contracts that permit movie producers to substitute a nude body double without an actress’s consent; and just a general culture of not treating women’s contributions seriously.
“In every way they belittle you,” says Kallingal.
They’re also exploring ways to bring more young women into the industry — state-sponsored scholarships to study at film schools, for instance, or state laws that would incentivise companies to hire more women. And not just as actresses or hair stylists. Right now says Paul, “You don’t have women gaffers. You don’t have women technical staff. We’re so outnumbered. You go on to a film set and there are three women and 80 men.”
In addition the WCC is encouraging the industry’s professional associations to start training workshops on appropriate workplace behavior. For instance, says Thiruvothu, the men who comment on a woman’s body on set, “they really do feel that it is normal to do that and that it’s actually a compliment.”
But she says it’s not just the men who need educating: “The women have been taught to giggle and allow it. We all are part of the problem. We all think it’s okay.”
Indeed the women say their conversations have made them realize how much they had internalized the view that they should minimize inappropriate behavior by men for the sake of keeping the peace.
Thiruvothu recalls how from childhood, whenever she was pinched or groped — like the time when she was 17 and a man at a shopping mall grazed his hands over her breasts and then just walked past — adults told her it was best not to make a scene.
“That’s how society has trained us — to take it all in and implode,” she says. “I think we’ve imploded enough. It’s coming out now.”
Freelance writer Chhavi Sachdev contributed reporting to this story.