When an upcoming actor made allegations of rape against producer-actor Vijay Babu last month, he chose to brazen it out by appearing on Facebook Live and naming the woman. The producer and his actions were the latest signs of the larger problem within the Malayalam film industry, which has been in the spotlight for the past few years.
Although there were rumours of sexual exploitation and unequal treatment of women in the industry, it was in 2017, when a popular female actor was allegedly abducted and sexually assaulted, that the name of a major star, Dileep, was taken for the first time in such a context. That case has taken major twists and turns since then, with Dileep now facing accusations of influencing witnesses, erasing digital evidence, and even issuing death threats to the investigating officers.
What is common in both these cases as well as in issues concerning women in the industry is the attitude of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA). While it reluctantly expelled Dileep only after his arrest in July 2017, after initially standing “both with the survivor and the accused”, it was quick to reinstate him once he got out on bail. This led to the resignation of the survivor and three other female actors from AMMA, which forced Dileep to resign.
After the allegations against Vijay Babu were raised and he went absconding last month, AMMA maintained silence initially. An executive committee meeting was convened on May 1. A participant at the meeting told The Hindu that the organisation’s office-bearers never demanded Vijay Babu’s resignation; rather, they waited till 8.15 p.m. to get a letter from him in which he expressed his willingness to “temporarily stay away” from the committee until his innocence is proven. AMMA later issued a press release saying that it has “accepted his request”. Within two days, three members of the AMMA’s Internal Complaints Committee resigned in protest against this.
The Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), formed in the aftermath of the assault case in 2017, has since then been questioning the silence and inaction, as well as raising its voice for equal space for women in the industry. The State government constituted the Justice Hema Commission to study issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality in the industry partly due to their efforts. However, the report submitted by the Commission two and a half years ago still remains under wraps as the government is not keen on making it public. This has led to speculation that big stars from the industry could be named in it. The WCC has demanded its publication after redacting the sensitive parts, but all that the public has seen is a 40-point list of suggestions based on the report that the Culture Department tabled in a meeting with film organisations last week, to discuss its implementation.
Amid all this churn in the industry, there has also been considerable push back against misogyny on screen, which was a staple of mainstream Malayalam cinema until a decade ago. It is not just a coincidence that this period also ushered in a new wave of cinema in Malayalam, which is being hailed everywhere for its novel themes and progressive content. Yet, there still remain vestiges of the old attitudes both on and off screen; men are unwilling to accept that the times are changing.
Implementation of the Hema Commission report in letter and spirit could be the one much-needed nail in the coffin of many unwelcome practices in the industry. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the old guard, including the accused actor, still holds a considerable grip on the production and exhibition side of the industry.