Kerala group Women In Cinema Collective is India's own #MeToo movement

The Women in Cinema Collective meeting Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan (centre).
The Women in Cinema Collective meeting Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan (centre).PHOTO: WOMEN IN CINEMA COLLECTIVE

NEW DELHI - In February last year, a well-known actress was abducted as she was returning home after dubbing for a film in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

The actress, a star in the local movie industry where films are made in the Malayalam language, was held captive for nearly two hours in a car by four men, including the driver of the car, who sexually assaulted her and took photographs.

In an industry where sexual harassment cases rarely make headlines, the actress went ahead and filed a case, with criminal investigations leading the police to another actor Dileep.

Dileep, who uses only one stage name like many in the industry, allegedly plotted against the actress believing she had a hand in his divorce from his wife. Eight people have been arrested for the crime.

In India, victims of sexual crimes are not named by law.

Yet the ordeal did not end there for the actress. She was victim shamed, as some wondered whether the incident was a publicity stunt. State legislator P.C. George questioned why she had returned to work days after the abduction.

The case divided the state and the film industry, but one group of determined women decided to do something about it.

Even before the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal hit Hollywood in October last year and powered the #MeToo campaign, the group, consisting of actresses, screenwriters, directors and others, set up Women In Cinema Collective (WCC) in May.

The aim of the collective, members said, is to take on big to small issues facing women in the Kerala film industry - from looking at ways to encourage more women representation, to matters like getting maternity leave and pay parity.

But the group's biggest mission is to put in place an institutional mechanism to deal with sexual harassment complaints.

The Kerala film industry - nicknamed Mollywood because its films are in Malayalam - is one of among a dozen film industries in India making movies in different Indian languages, of which Bollywood is the best known.

Mollywood is the fifth-largest film industry in India and its movies are known for their realism.

Yet like anywhere else, the industry remains a male-dominated one.

Screenwriter Deedi Damodaran, a member of the group, said of the abduction case: "The usual response is 'why do you want to go ahead to complain'. Our colleague is a very popular star but even for a woman like her, nobody was there. If something like that happens, you have to hush it up. Except in this case, she made a complaint.

"We should have a panel where we (women) can complain. We didn't have any after the abduction and that was what triggered the forming of WCC."

It all started as a WhatsApp group among friends and colleagues in the industry to discuss the harassment and abduction case.

The group slowly evolved into a formal one that successfully petitioned Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to set up a panel to look into issues facing women in the Malayalam film industry.

The women formally registered the collective in November and a month later released a video in which each member spoke of the need for the group.

In the video, director Geethu Mohandas noted that"women from the creative fields, from different walks of life, we empowered each other. This is our strength".

The group has already started lobbying the industry for reforms, including asking for something as basic as toilets for women working on set and on location.

Actress and model Padmapriya Janakiraman, a member of WCC, noted how women's basic needs were not provided for in the industry.

"For instance three female leads will share the same bathroom compared to one for the male actor. For others, there will be no provision. Once I did a film with an outdoor shoot and there was no toilet. So I didn't have water the whole day. You are expected to adjust to anything," she said.

"Our responsibility is to use this position we all have accumulated over many years to improve our own affairs, and for future generations."

But Janakiraman, who does films in other Indian languages and recently did one in Hindicalled Chef, noted that gender discrimination and sexual harassment were not specific to the Kerala film industry.

India still remains in most parts a patriarchal and conservative society. Women are still scared of speaking out about sexual crimes, and those who speak out often find themselves criticised instead.

Sexual crimes and gender sensitivity came into focus following the fatal gang-rape of a physiotherapy student on a moving bus in New Delhi in 2012. The victim died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital.

The crime triggered street protests forcing the government to change laws, including introducing the death penalty for serial rapists.

Yet activists noted that India still had a long way to go, with the women's collective getting its fair share of criticism on social media.

Netizens recently launched a campaign to bring down the rating of the WCC's Facebook page, which was rated 2.7 and left bad reviews after one of its members, popular actress Parvathy, called out leading star Mamoothy for misogynistic dialogues in his film Kasaba last month.

WCC members had also been asked why there was even a need for the group when there were unions already in the film industry.

Ms Beena Paul, a film editor and a WCC member, noted that women had been able to form the group because of the strength of the film industry in Kerala - a state ruled by leftwing parties and where trade unions wield power.

She said the group would continue to fight for gender rights.

"The organisation is in its formative stages. I think in fact the Malayalam industry should be proud. It is showing the way, our (movement) was pre-Weinstein."