Life & Culture

‘Not only about sexual harassment, industry’s work culture doesn’t maintain gender equality’: Anjali Menon

The case of the actress’ assault shook the Malayalam film industry and public consciousness in Kerala in 2017, and its repercussions can be felt to this day. The horrific incident ended the belief that the industry was a happy workplace populated by larger-than-life celebrities. The young actresses, who had rarely spoken about the toxic work culture prevailing in the industry until then, formed a separate group called the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) to voice their issues, claiming that the Malayalam Actors Association was undemocratic.

The state government had to consider the internal functioning of the film industry, which had been run by the stars until then. What left many of the complainants behind was the measured silence of influential actors, including many high-profile actresses, on the issues raised by the WCC.

The formation of the WCC was a landmark event in the history of Malayalam cinema. They have openly questioned the toxic paternalistic tendencies within the industry and the Malayalam Actors Association. As big-name actors and celebrities kept silent in public, many questioned the need for a separate women’s organization in the private sector, and derided the WCC as “Feminichis”. However, the organization is silently working towards a more democratic and gender sensitive film industry. They also supported the survivor and demanded that the government implement the recommendations made by the Hema Commission, which was set up to study gender discrimination within the industry. Director Anjali Menon, an active participant in the WCC, shared her experience working with the group, their position on the Hema Commission report and their demands.

What is your position on the non-disclosure of the report of the Haima Commission?

This type of study is unprecedented in India. A lot of effort has gone into this study, and we’d all want to see the results. In the film industry, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act has not yet been implemented. Despite the courts’ mandate, we as professionals in the workplace are not getting the benefits of it right because the industry doesn’t practice it. In this context, when a study is conducted and the results are not yet revealed, and POSH has not yet been performed, we are at a disadvantage. From our individual and group experiences, we know there are issues that need to be addressed. These are methodological issues. We want the commission’s findings to be formally presented. They have been postponed for many reasons, but the findings of the report must be presented. A list of recommendations has been issued, but we are not clear on what basis these recommendations were made. You tell us the solutions without revealing what the problem is. We, as women working in this industry, are well aware of the issues, but there is a need to formally document them. The whole purpose of the study was to formally document issues in the industry. So it is unfair to say that the official document exists, but we will not share it.

What about the recommendations made by the committee?

When questions were raised in the State Assembly, a list of recommendations was made by the ministers. We are unable to understand the context of the recommendations, the results of which we need. When a recommendation is made to use an electronic toilet on film sets, they need to explain why it is necessary. They should reveal that these many films are being made on an annual basis and that many women act in these films. Women are now working in all parts of the film industry, and the issues that concern them, as well as the reason why women are compelled to leave the industry, must be revealed. These results need to be published.

Why do you think the government is preventing the commission’s report?

I have no idea why they would ban the report, but it certainly doesn’t help women in the industry. Once the issues are documented, only then can we talk about solutions. We are talking about an industry in complete denial. When these issues were initially raised, many retaliated with ridiculous statements, maintaining the Malayalam industry is one big happy family.

What is the last WCC contact 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’ve been in very detailed discussions with that department, and have made our suggestion on how to implement POSH. However, we are still waiting for action. After that meeting, we wrote to the Prime Minister and Minister of Cultural Affairs. We’ve also partnered with Sakhi, an organization that works primarily in the gender field. We have prepared a report entitled “Women Make Narratives”. In this report there is a specific report called “Shift focus” that focuses on best practices to address the problems faced by women in the industry. This report was also submitted to the government.

What are your immediate demands from the government?

First, the findings of the commission must be disclosed and in agreement with the recommendations to be made. It’s not just about sexual harassment, the industry’s work culture doesn’t maintain gender equality. The number of women leaving the industry due to this trend is very high. Working conditions are unfavorable for women.

What do you think of the social media support given by some Malayalam stars after an assault survivor posted on Instagram?

In the past five years, what have these people done to ensure that this type of incident is not repeated to another woman working in the industry? It’s very little, but I’m glad the survivor is getting support. Something is better than nothing. But the stars can do so much more because they wield so much power in the industry. Many of them are productive, and if they were to change things on their own, that in and of itself would be a significant change. I’ve reached out to many of these young stars, but they are comfortable with the way things are going.

How has your experience been working with the World Council of Churches over the past five years?

The past five years have been very difficult, but on an individual and team level, this has really been a stage of growth for us. We are all different people now, with a very strong mindset. I had a wonderful opportunity to learn, learn about different types of women, share their experiences, and be recognized for my privileges. It was a very enriching experience. I’m proud that people now think someone is watching them. They are keen on groups, even if they joke about it. I am so proud today to see the survivor talk about her journey in these five years – becoming a victim survivor. It’s good to see that the media has taken up this as well. Knowing she has the confidence and faith to continue the journey is heartening. It is part of the same battle. Look at all of us who are part of the World Council of Churches, what have we gained from this? In terms of career, we may have missed many opportunities but gained them in terms of growth. We don’t want any new girl coming into this industry to confront the prejudice and oppression we’ve faced. Each of us speaks in the same voice. The responsibility to improve this space rests solely with us? What is everyone doing?

As an industry when a new technology comes along, for example OTT, everyone adapts and adapts to it. However, when it comes to something very basic, there is no will to tweak, adapt or change the industry. why is that? The people who shared her post, if they did anything to change the script, there would have been very visible changes in the industry.

On women working in other cinema departments

As a director, I am free to make my own choices. I’ve experienced discrimination, which is why I’m so excited about changing the status quo. However, she has come to realize that the women on the crew are affected more than the actresses and need positive action. Actresses are much more privileged than the little-known women working on the crew. Nobody wants to meet them, what they’ve been through, their experiences. Most of them have a table of 6-9, toil hard and come back, unsure of their safety and pay. These people deserve more attention.

(The previous version of this article stated that Superstars had not come to the aid of the survivor in the past five years. The article has been updated and we apologize for the error.)

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