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Fight for gender justice in Malayalam cinema

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Hema Commssion
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Justice Hema submitting the panel's report to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the presence of minister A. K. Balan, actress Sharada and retired IAS officer K. B Walsala Kumari

"Right from the different grades of meals served and types of accommodation provided to artists at shooting locations, to the lack of availability of chairs for artists to sit during shooting breaks and availability of clean toilets on site, to the severe gender disparity in remunerations or even blatant refusal to pay artists, the Malayalam cinema industry is one place where no concept of professional rights or employment justice prevails. The whole industry reeks of severe discrimination on many lines, especially on gender lines," says Jeo Baby, director of the iconoclastic 2021 film The Great Indian Kitchen that struck at the deep-set roots of patriarchy within the Malayali mindset.

He pointed out that it is highly disconcerting that the Pinarayi Vijayan government that has always paid lip service to gender parity and women's empowerment has failed to table the Justice Hema Commission Report in the Assembly, based on whose recommendations Malayalam film industry could have transformed into a safe and gender-just workspace for future generations of female artists.

The lack of political will to redeem the state's creative industry as a gender-just and attractive, equitable opportunity provider for the better sex is direly reflected in instances of the appalling sex ratio among students enrolling for film-related studies at premier government institutions such as the K R Narayanan National Institute of Visual Sciences, Jeo Baby said. Can the Left government lay claim to its legacy of the social renaissance by nulling the just pleas to bring about the transparency of employment terms and transactions within the Malayalam movie industry that will reduce the exploitation of artists and technicians on multiple levels?

A major recommendation put forward by the Chalachitra Akademy and Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) was to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee on the set of each film so that complaints could be redressed and cleared on the spot on a per-film basis and things could move on. Malayalam screenwriter Deedi Damodaran said that at present, for redressal of complaints there is no system available within the film field; the aggrieved party has to go register a complaint at the police station.

All-men committee to examine Hema Commission findings

The Pinarayi government's excuse for not tabling the meticulously prepared Report in toto in the Assembly even after two years of its submission has been to protect the privacy of film aspirant victims who have faced sexual harassment within the industry. However, the formation of another three-member panel last week to further examine details brought out by the Justice Hema Commission Report, "extract" the recommendations from the Commission Report and formulate an implementation plan seems to be a ploy to buy time to sort out the incriminatory details that would have come out in the testimonies of artists who deposed before the Commission that may put many luminaries of Kerala society in the dock.

The details, even after redacting the names of the people involved, threaten to shake up the very foundations of Kerala society; even fake names that may be given to perpetrators in the report could lead to the identification of the real perpetrators in a sexual harassment or intimidation case. Is the "sthreepaksha" (women-friendly) "progressive" Left government now unabashedly positioning itself as the guardian of the status quo? Meanwhile, Parvathi Thiruvoth has come out to state that a sex industry thrives on the sidelines of the Malayalam movie industry that sexually exploits young movie aspirants; she also said that those who dared to speak out against powerful players in the field would be clearly putting their lives on the line.

It should specifically be noted that it is a three-member all-male panel that is presently constituted to rule over the Justice Hema Commission recommendations. It is unfortunate that the safety and dignity of women artists in the Malayalam show business still largely remains their own individual concern even when Malayalam cinema is currently creating ripples with OTT releases worldwide with its content and language.

Each of the artists spent around nine to ten to twelve hours deposing before the Commission, reliving the trauma, in the sincere hope of standardizing the working conditions and leading to the guarantee of providing essential as well as safe and secure facilities to female artists in the ever geographically-shifting workspaces and late working hours that is part and parcel in the functioning of the film industry.

The efforts of Justice Hema Commission would have been to seek the just sharing, together with female artists, of the credit, profits and privileges that presently accrue only to a coterie of powerful alpha male stars, acknowledging the fact that no film or story would be complete without the perspective and artistic intelligence of the female gender. The so-called revolt raised by WCC had indeed enabled a breakout by the Malayalam cine industry, which had earlier stagnated with set plots that reeked of the age-old patriarchal mindset of either objectifying women or portraying them as hapless cogs in the wheel.

Ever since the WCC effected an upheaval in the norms of film making and film appreciation, Malayalam film has been infused with a vibrancy, each film unpredictable and daring in its artistic, philosophic and aesthetic explorations, and each pushing the envelope with regard to socially emancipatory thinking. However, in spite of all these encouraging circumstances, it's appalling that the women actors are made out to be just a bunch of trouble makers. In the years since its formation in 2017, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (A.M.M.A.) has always responded to the "opinionated" female actors of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), by refusing work to them.

From 'victim' to 'survivor'

The criminal downside of glamorous, moneyed Kochi came to light when actor Dileep, who had become a powerful mafia entity all to himself riding on the success of his back-to-back sexist "family entertainment" productions got a case registered against him by the survived actress after she was subjected to premeditated sexual assault carried out by Dileep's crony Pulsar Suni and the gang in a moving car while returning late night from a film shoot. The survived actress was punished for rubbing Dileep on the wrong side. Few in the cine industry however were ready to side with the survivor actress and invite the wrath of Dileep. The survivor actress tweeted a couple of days before of herb travails as she evolved from being a victim to a survivor. The Malayalam film industry, which bows to the diktats of a few power centres within the industry, was reluctant to take the side of the harassed actress.

In a state where movies like Drishyam, the plot of which hinges on the intimidation of a victim of sexual harassment, the survived actress stands as a burning symbol for standing her ground, refusing to be diminished by the sexual crime perpetrated on her, despite the videotapes, patriarchal shaming and threats she faced. But WCC's vision goes much beyond the Dileep case to ensure a women-friendly workspace within the Malayalam film industry. It also takes into account the travails of women film aspirants, who had to face all the exploitations within the industry based on false promises and hopes but never could make even one minor appearance in any of the scenes.

Leena Mariam Koshy is an independent writer based in Kozhikode, Kerala.

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TAGS:hema committee report Malayalam Cinema WCC 
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