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The voice of `Aasara'

Thammareddy Bharadwaja, better known as the `voice' of the industry, has gone one step forward with the founding of `Aasara' to deal with the exploitation of women in the film industry. He talks of the reasons behind setting it up and the direction it is to take.

WITHOUT MINCING WORDS: Thammareddy Bharadwaja

BEHIND THE arc lights, it is not glitz that rules, but the glitch-ridden affairs that cast a gloom in the Telugu film industry. Tammareddy Baradwaja will be the first person to admit it. A Pratyusha incident is occurring too often for anyone's comfort. The engineer-turned-producer has been pretty vocal in his endeavours to highlight the malady in the industry for quite sometime. The fact that despite being a `flop producer' (by his own admission), people sit up and listen to him vouches for his sincerity and commitment to the cause of the industry. His outspokenness and `say-it-like-it-is' attitude may not win him friends but will influence many a new entrant adopt a professional attitude towards work.

When he floated `Aasara' with Jayasudha as its chairperson and other noted film personalities as members, there were lot of expectations. It is too early to gauge the results, but Baradwaja hopes the association will be more functional and will be able to come up with a concrete plan of action soon. Excerpts from an interview:

You have been a `voice' of the Telugu film industry. What motivates and spurs you to play that role?

It is not a conscious decision. When things go wrong, somebody has to speak up. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to speak in this industry. We are afraid to speak. We fear politicians, senior actors, senior directors and even the media.

It is strange that while you are held in awe by fans, your lives are under this kind of pressure.

If the humiliation we face, the time, money and energy we spend here, is spent in any other profession, it would fetch us more dividends. But the popularity, the glamour and recognition we get here is the biggest attraction and that compensates everything else.

Unfortunately, the problems of the industry are from within, and it is a vicious circle where a new entrant faces humiliation and has to work against many odds. He then, after gaining a foothold, will take out his frustrations against his juniors. Earlier, whoever came to join films were either uneducated or those who ran away from home. They would be treated badly by the industry. Their pent up anger reflects in their behaviour and attitude towards other actors, specially their juniors. But times have changed. More educated youngsters are joining films, a kind of corporate culture is seeping in, which is good. But one cannot expect an overnight change. Hopefully it'll be better in future.

Actresses succumbing to pressures is a big concern now. Where should the help begin from?

The problem starts when you are not accessible to the lay crowd and shut in a glasshouse. The artistes are so busy working, they do not socialise which leads to only a small group getting into their inner circle. And one has to choose an ally or a friend from that small group. Chances are that you do not find the right person in that limited group and you end up with a wrong person. After a wrong decision, unfortunately they think suicide is the only way out.

Did that situation prompt you to start Aasara?

Yes. There was this Sonali Joshi's case and Pratyusha's incident... then we thought we have to do something about it. A friend who works with the CBI showed me the book on Supreme Court judgement where it says every organisation should have an association to look into harassment cases against women. Immediately I called up a few people from the industry and expressed my wish to start an association. Jayasudha agreed to be the chairperson.

What is Aasara's plan of action?

I feel ashamed to tell you that after mooting the idea, and media giving a wide publicity, we were all caught up with our own work, we did not do anything concrete. But it has created an awareness.

What has been the response from the film industry?

The problem here is people are afraid of coming to us with their complaints. They fear further harassment. They are worried about the matter getting into newspapers. They are ready to talk to Baradwaja as an individual but not through an organisation. The best example is, I used to deal with so many cases before, but once I announced Aasara, not a single case has come to me. We will have to convince them that their problems will be kept in confidence and we'll deal with it in the best possible way.

Is it the artistes alone who are subjected to harassment in the industry?

No woman is spared in the film industry. Let me begin from the bottom. The utensil cleaner, during the shooting, earns about Rs. 400 per day, which is not a small amount, and a regular income is assured to her. So to get that job she's forced to `please' the production assistant who's the in-charge. Then come the make-up artistes. Unfortunately, women are not being allowed to enter this field. They cannot even be called make-up artistes, they are called hairdressers. When it comes to dancers, there is an `arranger' who gives work to those girls who accept his `terms'. The junior artistes face similar problems. Their agents exploit them thoroughly, by not just demanding commission from their daily earnings, but also seeking `other favours.' Finally the artistes, at the mercy of the directors and producers, are the ones who suffer most. The saddest part is a girl as young as 16-year-old experiences the dirty side of the industry. Her `exposure' to the wolves begins with the make-up artiste, costume designer, cameraman, director and producer, in that order. By the time she makes it to the final barrier she would have seen the worst and become immune, but a bitter person.

Do you seriously think Aasara can help change this situation?

I don't think Aasara can actually do anything. By having some big names in the association, we hope the scene changes by at least 50 per cent. Our mere presence will stop the guys in the industry from acting nasty towards women. Let the fear prevail. It is difficult to expose everyone. But Aasara will help those who want to come forward seeking our help and who have the guts to say no to the advances of selfish individuals.

What makes the issues concerning the film industry take a larger than life shape?

We are talked about more because of the aura attached to the film industry. These problems are not unique to film industry. Harassment of women prevails everywhere. Is your media free from it? There should be an `Aasara' in every organisation. People should be aware of their rights and the law first. A word of help matters a lot. We cannot help the people who do not want to fight. We help those who want to fight injustice. We want to make a difference.

What will be your future course of action?

We want to be truly functional from this month. We are planning to meet all the unions of the industry and conduct some awareness classes, educate them on their rights and probably on ethics as well. Whether we succeed or not, this exercise, I hope, will make people think twice before exploiting women.


Photo: P.V. Sivakumar.

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