Time to act against sexual abuse in Malayalam cinema

While the plight of women in cinema is getting plenty of spotlight, the struggles of female artists who face discrmination and ridicule because of their gender is hardly discussed

author_img Likhitha Prasanna Published :  06th May 2022 08:31 PM   |   Published :   |  06th May 2022 08:31 PM
Express Illustration

Express Illustration


Discussion about women’s safety in art and cinema has been trending in Kerala for many years now. Many laws and platforms promise to protect women’s interests on paper and in concept, but the reality is still grim.

The New Indian Express talks to actors, filmmakers and whistleblowers about addressing sexual discrimination and abuse in the industry and the ordeal they entail.

The ‘cinema dream’ has always been a whimsical fantasy. The story of aspiring actors and filmmakers who fight against all odds to get to stardom has been retold many times. But if one looks at what goes on behind the veil, it becomes evident that this dream is different for men and women. For men, the journey encompasses financial and emotional struggles, while for women, the two are only among a plethora of problems they have to deal with. The worst is the kinds of sexual abuse and harassment they have to suffer. Keerthi (name changed), an assistant director, recalled the horrors she had to go through when she started off. “I was assisting an accomplished director as part of my internship soon after a film course.

One night, after the shoot in Thiruvananthapuram, two male assistants and I went to the director’s room to pick our bags. He was drinking and he asked me repeatedly to join him, to which I replied with a ‘no’. He didn’t even ask the two men who were with me, but wouldn’t take no for an answer from me. Finally, I said yes, and then he took me to the bathroom and poured me half-a-glass of liquor. Petrified, I downed it and left immediately,” said Keerthi.

“You know, when women name their perpetrators who are in power, most people will quickly ask ‘why did she drink with him?’ or ‘why did she go with him?’. But I know exactly why. Even as you expect and fear the worst would happen, you have to be nice to directors and producers if you want to work in cinema. You have to befriend the decision makers. That mostly ends up in the exploitation of women in the name of opportunities. You don’t feel safe enough to work freely or get creative. Women have to constantly have their guards up while working as hard as the men in their team. This is unfair,” she added.

Brewing contempt
Malayalam cinema hit a new low in 2017 when an actor accused Dileep of abducting and sexually assaulting her, and recording the video of the crime. Ever since, Kerala has been sensitive towards the struggles women face in the movie industry. Many more survivors have come forward to name their perpetrators anonymously or on social media, with a young actor recently alleging sexual assault by producer Vijay Babu. 

In November 2017, the Women in Cinema Collective came into being in Kerala to address the harassment faced by cast and crew in Malayalam cinema. Popular actors like Rima Kallingal, Parvathy Thiruvoth and Ramya Nambeesan spearheaded the move. Though the organisation has faced criticism for its selective deafness towards a few women’s issues, WCC continues to be an active critic of gender-based power politics in Kerala, and one of the strongest women artists collective in the country.

All the discussion around women in cinema and their freedom to work led to a revolutionary move by the Kerala High Court in March. The court directed all production houses and film bodies to form an internal complaints committee as per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Once again, it was the WCC that filed the public interest litigation demanding a grievance/redressal mechanism in the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), which resulted in the judgment. AMMA formed an ICC almost immediately after the directive was issued. But dulling all these ‘on-paper’ victories, many members of AMMA’s ICC including its chairperson Swetha Menon, Mala Parvathy and Kukku Parameswaran resigned in the last few days, reportedly owing to AMMA’s inability to take action against rape-accused actor Vijay Babu. It proved that inherent patriarchy and conditioning in the industry is resistant to change, or very slow to accept it.

Why is art world hostile to women?

Women in the visual art field  also face several kinds of discrimination, say various women artists. From lack of recognition, opportunities and resources to harassment, they navigate a difficult world in their creative pursuit.“Our artworks are often sidelined as women’s art — something unfit for the mainstream. There are also incidents of sexual harassment, though I haven’t faced anything personally. The experience of every woman differs. Though things have changed in recent years, even now, we cannot name any perpetrator or reveal the victim’s name, as that will be the end of her career,” says a senior artist. 

According to her, incidents of harassment are fewer compared to earlier times. However, the number of women artists compared to men continues to remain very low, she says. During the beginning of the pandemic, more than hundreds of artists came together to create an organisation — A Collective of Women Visual Artists in Kerala — to address various types of discrimination faced by women in visual arts, “Now the collective has around 160 members,” says Jalaja P S, an artist and one of the initial members of the collective. 

“It has been around 60 years since the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi was founded. However, to date, not a single woman artist has become its  chairperson or secretary. They have been given the positions temporarily, but their tenure lasted mere months. That is why, last year we submitted a memorandum to the Minister for Cultural Affairs Saji Cheriyan asking him to recognise women artists for Akademi roles. But then again, no woman was elected this year. The Akademi is yet to elect an executive committee. But the chairperson and secretary positions are still adorned by men. This is not because there are not enough women artists in the state, but women are hardly selected for positions of power in the art world,” says Jalaja.

Recently, the collective conducted a protest at the Durbar Hall against the recent appointments to the Akademi, including retaining Eby N Joseph as vice-chairman. “There are allegations against Eby saying he tried to influence an assault case filed by a woman against a male artist. Regardless, he was re-elected. During the protest, we demanded the government talk about women’s rights and recognise our demands,” she says.

‘No fellowship for women’
The Akademi has given away around 56 fellowships to artists for their contribution to visual arts. 
“However, not a single woman has received the award. Only one woman artist — Anila Jacob — received the annual Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram, the only win in the last 20 years. The Akademi even stopped giving the T K Padmini award in 2014,” Jalaja adds.

Women’s health ignored
The health insurance provided by the Akademi to artists also neglects many health issues specific to women. “Uterine cancer and other reproductive diseases in women are not covered by the insurance. In the memorandum, we asked the government to add these female-specific illnesses as well in the insurance coverage. The minister and the Akademi chairperson Murali Cheeroth said they will do so next year,” says an artist from the collective. Many artists including Jalaja voiced similar concerns. 

Lost causes
In 2018, several women anonymously came out with harassment allegations against some prominent artists. “But we still don’t know the status of these cases. Discussions about the topic have also disappeared from the mainstream media. Unless women don’t rise to positions of power, the system will remain the same. The situation is similar for other minorities,” Jalaja says.

 Internationally renowned artist Sajitha R Sankar, who has won many prestigious awards the world over, voices her concern about the lack of recognition for women artists. Our state fails to recognise woman artists. Though I am a known artist internationally, in Kerala I am not. “When people name famous artists from Kerala, no one remembers any female artists after T K Padmini. What about Rathidevi Panicker or Radha Gomaty. We exist. But as men continue to occupy powerful positions and control the narrative, we remain forgotten,” Sajitha says.


An up and coming actor and theatre artist said many women are reluctant to report for fear of losing opportunities. “When you are a beginner, you want to go to the set, do your part and come back. You are scared to make a fuss because you know you are not indispensable. Most filmmakers want to work with ‘non-fussy’ women,” she said.

Filmmaker Kunjila Mascillamani agreed. “Unless and until gender-sensitive men and women come to the fore or take up positions, things will not change. People who fund and steer cinema — producers and directors — need to spearhead this campaign to make sets women-friendly. Aspiring cast or crew members — assistant directors or editors — can’t take the lead role as they will be branded ‘trouble makers’ if they do so,” she said.

Kunjila said even as a director, she had come across conversations wherein producers say they ‘don’t want to work with her because she is problematic’. “There are even others who say we don’t want any women on board because we don’t want any problems. There needs to be a system to ensure merit in cinema that protects victims who come forward. It is a grey area but that is the only way to create a collective sense of responsibility,” she said.


Justice Hema Commission report, which has pulled plenty of criticism from WCC, discusses the need for equal pay for both genders and ridding cinema locations of alcohol and drugs, it fails to address the basic facilities that women employees lack in the cinema industry.“You won’t hear  this from many people. But most sets don’t even have bathrooms. There will be one or two caravans. When the lead actors are on the set, the crew won’t have access to it. Otherwise, these recreational vehicles are mostly used by producers and their crew to drink and relax. If you want to use the bathroom, you have to wade through the mess,” said a woman assistant director on condition of anonymity.

“Once, I was on my periods and the production team told me that I can’t enter the caravan! Imagine that. I lost it, and started crying on the set. Much later, when the director found out about it, he scolded the production crew. But it is not like we can keep raising such problems during a busy shoot,” she said, adding junior women artists suffer the most.

When movie sets spend crores of rupees on a project, what stops them from installing a few bio-toilets for women crew members? “That is where representation matters,” said Sanjana (name changed), who works as an assistant cinematographer. “On a set with 40 men and two women, no one thinks about the minorities’ needs,” she says.

Demands of women artists

* Appoint women artists in Akademi
* Akademi’s insurance coverage should include pregnancy, childbirth, contraception and 
other diseases to reproductive organs
* Provide easier housing loans to women artists. This will help them build homes and art studios
* Restart T K Padmini Award and provide scholarships to budding female artists
* Need artistic villages for women and other artists, where women are part of the administration
Artist residency for women, where they can stay back in times of emergencies and continue their works
Fellowships for artists in whole streams of visual art (painting, sculpting, new media, performance arts etc)
* Separate fellowships for artists above 40 years. This will especially help women artist who re-enter the field after a break owing to familial responsibilities
* Provide digital space for artists to exhibit their work like a Cyber Art Village
* Help livestream all programmes of the Akademi, including exhibitions
* Set up an Art Knowledge Dissemination and Exchange Centre. Through this Akademi can also become a huge art resource centre online