Does ‘casting couch’ still exist in the Malayalam film industry? Are women in movies underpaid? Is the industry controlled by a powerful lobby steered by men? Does the industry practise silent and deliberate omissions especially towards those who refuse to please the powerful men?
A study conducted by a commission chaired by retired High Court Judge Justice K Hema has probably answered all these questions and more, but for reasons best known to the Kerala government, the report has not been made public for over a year now.
The commission has made a comprehensive study on gender discrimination and exploitation faced by women in the Malyalam film industry. It submitted a pool of recommendations including the formation of a tribunal by amending the existing laws.
On a question raised by Congress MLA Shanimol Usman on February 5, 2020, the state government replied it has spent ₹46.5 lakh on the commission till that date.
The report, in cold storage since 2019, is said to contain explosive findings regarding discrimination and exploitation that prevails against women in the Malyalam film industry. “We all are eager to see the report. I understand that there are references against a few people who control the entire industry. I don’t know if that is the reason for reluctance in making the report available to the public,” says Bijukumar Damodaran, an award-winning director whose films often make it to international film festivals.
The Kerala government had formed the commission in 2017 in response to a representation submitted by Women in Cinema Collective, an organisation formed by the women in the film industry, which is the first of its kind in Indian Cinema. A notorious incident in which a young actress was abducted and raped in February 2017, opened the Pandora’s Box and gave evidence to show the film industry exploits women. Actors like Ramya Nambeesan, Parvathy Thiruvoth, Rima Kallinkal, Revathi and Manju Warrier came out demanding justice for the actress, which led to the formation of Women in Cinema Collective.
The representations and back and forth discussions carried out by the Collective have raised specific demands like structuring the wage so as to ensure equal pay for men and women; putting in place institutional mechanisms to address sexual harassment at workplace and the manifestation of all other forms of discriminations prevailing.
The government listened to the Women in Cinema Collective and declared the formation of a commission, headed by justice K Hema with IAS officer Valsalakumari and senior actress Sharada as its members.
Though the committee was supposed to submit its report in six months, it took two years, conducting elaborate discussions with various stakeholders. The report was finally submitted to the government in December 2019.
The Collective expressed concern about the delay in releasing the report and so once again approached the government for making the report available to public and to implement the reforms suggested by the commission. “We understand that the report contains many sensitive testimonies submitted by women in the industry. We are told that the report is being kept confidential for the same reason,” said Deedi Damodaran, a member of the Collective, who is also a director and script writer.
Deedi said the report speaks about how women are exploited and how the industry is being controlled by a group of men. “We have expressed our concern several times, we are constantly trying to negotiate with the government to get access to the report and also to begin the implementation of the actions demanded by the Women in Cinema Collective,” said Deedi.
AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists) and FEFKA (Film Employees Federation of Kerala) are the two powerful organisations said to have complete control over the Malyalam film industry. The formation of Women in Cinema Collective was seen as a revolt against these two organisations which allegedly follow exploitative and discriminative practices in the industry. Many prominent actors, producers and script writes in AMMA and FEFKA openly switched sides in favour of actor Dileep, who is an accused in the 2017 abduction and rape case.
“We also are interested to know the findings of the commission,” says B Unnikrishnan, the general secretary of FEFKA. However, the publication and implementation of the report appear to be a ‘non-issue’ to both AMMA and FEFKA. None of the two organisations have yet asked the State government to even release the report. “We have not yet raised any such demand. We have cooperated with the commission. Even Mohanlal has appeared before the commission two times,” says Edavela Babu, the general secretary of AMMA.
“We have only released funds for the functioning of the commission, but publishing the report is a policy matter which has to be decided by the government,” said Kamal, director and the Chairman of Kerala Chalachithra Academy.
“The government is examining the report and steps are being taken for the implementation of the recommendations submitted by the commission,” said K Oommen, the secretary to the Minister for Cultural Affairs. Oommen said he cannot comment further on why the release of the report has been delayed. Minister for Cultural Affairs A K Balan is being treated for COVID-19 and so he was not available for comment.
In reply to the question raised by MLA Shanimol Usman, the government furnished broader recommendations put by the members of the commission without getting into the minor details.
The recommendations are:
1. An Act should be formulated as Kerala Cine Exhibitors and Employees Regulation Act, under which a tribunal will be established.
2. The commission suggested formation of Internal Complaint Committees as stipulated in the Criminal Amendment Act of 2013, followed by Vishakha guidelines.
3. To ensure safe environment for women in the film industry, the commission suggests establishment of e-toilets, separate dressing rooms at the shooting location, travel facility and equal pay irrespective of gender.
4. The commission also recommended formation of welfare fund schemes, written contract for each production, maternity benefits and minimum wages for junior artists.
5. It suggested the government should formulate a comprehensive policy document concerning film industry.
Despite this, there is a growing demand in social media and from activists and social organisations to make the complete report accessible to public since it was funded by people.