“Not just on sexual harassment, the industry work culture does not uphold gender equality”: Anjali Menon
The actress’ assault case shook the Malayalam film industry and public consciousness in Kerala in 2017, and its repercussions are still being felt to this day. The horrific incident ended the belief that the industry was a happy workplace inhabited by larger-than-life celebrities. The young actresses, who had rarely spoken about the toxic work culture that had prevailed in the industry until then, formed a separate collective called the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) to voice their issues and claimed that the actors’ association Malayalam was undemocratic.
The state government was forced to look into the inner workings of the film industry, which until then had been star-driven. What has left many aggrieved is the studied silence of influential actors, including many high-ranking women, on the issues raised by the COE.
The formation of the WCC was a landmark event in the history of Malayalam cinema. They have publicly challenged toxic patriarchal tendencies within the industry and the Malayalam Actors Association. While big-name actors remained silent in public, many questioned the need for a separate women’s organization in private, ridiculing the COE as “Feminichis”. The organization, however, has worked silently towards a more democratic and gender-sensitive film industry. They also supported the survivor and demanded that the government implement the recommendations of the Hema Commission, which was appointed to study gender discrimination within the industry. Director Anjali Menon, who is an active WCC participant, shared her experience of working with the collective, her position on the Hema Commission report and her demands.
What is your position on the Hema Commission report not being disclosed?
This type of study is unprecedented in India. A lot of effort has gone into this study, and we would all love to see the results. In the film industry, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (POSH) has yet to be implemented. Despite the mandate of the courts, we as professional women in the workplace do not have this right because the industry does not practice it. In this context, when a study has been done and the results are not yet disclosed, and POSH is not yet implemented, we are at a disadvantage. Through our own individual and collective experiences, we know there are issues that need to be addressed. These are systemic issues. We want the findings of the commission to be officially presented. They are withheld for many reasons, but the findings of the report should be presented. A list of recommendations has been published, but we do not know on what basis these recommendations were made. You tell us solutions, without revealing what the problem is. We as women working in this industry are well aware of the issues, but they need to be officially documented. The purpose of the study was to formally document industry issues. It is therefore unfair to say that the official document is there, but we will not share it.
What about the recommendations made by the commission?
When issues were raised in the state assembly, a list of recommendations was provided by the ministers. We are unable to understand the context of the recommendations, for which we need the conclusions. When a recommendation for electronic toilets on movie sets is made, they must explain why it is necessary. They should reveal that these many films are made every year and these many women work in these films. Women now work in all departments of the film industry, and the issues affecting them should be exposed, as well as the reason forcing women to leave the industry. These results must be published.
Why do you think the government is withholding the commission’s report?
I don’t know why they are withholding the report, but it certainly doesn’t help women in the industry. Once problems are documented, only then can we talk about solutions. We are talking about an industry that is in complete denial. When these questions were initially raised, many fired back with ridiculous statements, now that the Malayalam industry is one big happy family.
What was the WCC’s last communication with the government?
Our last meeting was with Veena George, Minister of Health and Family Welfare. The Department of Women and Child Development also falls under its purview and is the nodal agency for the implementation of POSH. We engaged in very detailed discussions with this department and presented our proposal on how we could implement POSH. However, we are still awaiting action. After this meeting, we wrote to the Prime Minister and Minister of Cultural Affairs. We have also partnered with Sakhi, an organization that works primarily on gender. We’ve written a report called ‘Women shaping stories’. In this report, there is a specific report called “Shift focus” which focuses on best practices to address issues faced by women in the industry. This report was also submitted to the government.
What are your immediate demands from the government side?
First, the conclusions of the commission must be revealed and in correlation with these, the recommendations must be made. It’s not just about sexual harassment, the work culture in the industry does not uphold gender equality. The number of women leaving the industry because of this trend is extremely high. Working conditions are not favorable to women.
What do you think of the social media support given by some Malayalam stars after the assault survivor was posted on Instagram?
In the past five years, what have these stars done to make sure the kind of incident never happens again to another woman working in the industry? It’s too little, but I’m glad the survivor is getting this support. Something is better than nothing. But stars can do so much more because they hold a lot of power in the industry. A lot of them are producers, and if they were to change things on their own set, that in itself would be a big change. I’ve communicated with a lot of these young stars, but they’re comfortable with the way things are.
What has been your experience working with WCC over the past five years?
The last five years have been very difficult, but on an individual and collective level, it has really been a phase of growth for us. We are all different people now, very strong-minded. I had a wonderful opportunity to learn, to know different types of women, to share their experiences and to recognize my privileges. It was a very enriching experience. I’m proud that now people think someone is watching over them. They are attentive on sets, even if they joke about it. I am very proud today to see that the survivor spoke about her journey over those 5 years – becoming a survivor of a victim. It’s nice to see the media picking up on this as well. Knowing that she has the confidence and the faith to continue the journey and to say that she will continue the fight is encouraging. It’s the same thing the survivor said. It’s part of the same fight. Look at all of us who are part of the WCC, what have we gained from this? In terms of career, we may have lost many opportunities but we have gained in terms of growth. We don’t want a new girl coming into this industry to face the prejudice and oppression that we’ve faced. We all speak with the same voice. The responsibility to improve this space lies only with us? What is everyone doing?
As an industry, when a new technology comes along, let’s say OTT for example, everyone has adjusted and adapted quickly. However, when it comes to something so basic, there is no will to adjust or adapt or change the industry. Why is that? The people who shared his post, if they had done anything to change the storyline, there would have been some very visible changes in the industry.
On women working in other film departments
As a director, I am free to make my choices. I’ve had my share of discrimination, which is why I’m terribly motivated to work on all of this. But more than the actresses, the women of the team are concerned. The actresses are much more privileged than the unknowns who are part of the team. No one wants his interview, what he’s going through and his experiences. Most of them have a 6 to 9 schedule, work hard and leave, unsure of their safety and salary. These people deserve more attention.