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Standing up to on-screen abuse

Retro cinema. Retro film projector.

Retro cinema. Retro film projector.  

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Parvathy’s outspokenness was a refreshing contrast to the political correctness of her colleagues

At a recent Indian actors’ round-table which featured performers from all over the country, Malayalam film actor Parvathy Thiruvothu stood out for voicing her mind and calling out the misogyny in Indian films. The show featured three actors from south Indian films and five from Hindi cinema, of whom at least four were successful mainstream stars. This says much about the lists we create and how the “bests” are identified. Among the performances featured on the show as ‘one of the finest’ was that of the male lead of the deeply problematic Arjun Reddy (Telugu, 2017).

Parvathy’s comments invited considerable public attention because it is indeed rare for a successful actor to take on misogyny or similar social issues that are wrongly coloured within the cinema ecosystem. That she did so in the presence of her colleagues, who were otherwise engaged in polite conversation about method acting, genre and managing social media, is commendable.

Speaking for publicity

Typically, most Indian actors speak before film releases or parrot tailor made publicity statements. Most media interactions are also engineered with facile questions.

These conversations can sometimes be peppered with lines on women’s empowerment, caste issues, and various forms of exploitation, if they have some bearing on the film in question. Consider the stoic silence of most mainstream leading actors when the country is being ravaged by protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Often, actors tend to pick issues depending on the films they endorse. In most cases, these decisions are influenced by commercial gains and not ideology. A question then arises: is ‘the Indian actor’ largely apolitical? There are a few exceptions, like Swara Bhaskar, Richa Chaddha, Mohd Zeeshan Ayub and many from Malayalam cinema, but the question is to be answered in the affirmative.

At times, purported social concerns of Indian actors are reflected through dalliances with electoral politics but that’s often done primarily for personal gains. On occasion, some have joined politics to save a fledgling career. This is not to suggest that actors ought to be activists or espouse social issues, but their choice of films says a lot about their truest convictions.

Things are however different in the West. In 2017, Meryl Streep used her Golden Globes Award speech to castigate Donald Trump. In 2018, Cate Blanchett delivered a wonderful speech on gender equality at the Cannes Film Festival. In contrast, our award functions are like soap operas where members of the film fraternity smile benevolently from the front rows while their associates accept awards and thank each other.

A marked departure

In a departure, the show referenced above had Parvathy airing her concerns about Telugu film Arjun Reddy, in the presence of the male lead of the film, Vijay Devarakonda. Rejecting the gentle, conversational format that is the norm in these shows, she expressed her discomfort with the portrayal of abuse, camouflaging as love, in films. She also mentioned that cinema shouldn’t be used to mainstream or normalise deviance and violence.

This conversation could be an important beginning to breach the genteel ambience of these shows, where women’s issues are reduced to mere glib talk and celeb-gazing. Lest we forget, Parvathy was also subjected to vicious trolling when she took on Malayalam superstar Mammootty for his depiction of a rogue cop and dialogues denigrating women in the film Kasaba (2016). Along with other comrades, she later contributed to the establishment of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), which comprises some of the finest talent in contemporary Malayalam cinema. We need many more similar interventions by actors.

Kunal Ray teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 8:17:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/standing-up-to-on-screen-abuse/article30446151.ece

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