How Malayalam film sets shoot down gender justice

How Malayalam film sets shoot down gender justice

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“You can find two categories of artists on a film set. One, who gets all their needs met on mere ask, and the other, who gets nothing. The former will never voice their opinion, let alone raise a complaint. For the same reason, they will always get work, because talent and skill have nothing to do with it,” says actor Maala Parvathy, who was in the latter category for the longest...

“You can find two categories of artists on a film set. One, who gets all their needs met on mere ask, and the other, who gets nothing. The former will never voice their opinion, let alone raise a complaint. For the same reason, they will always get work, because talent and skill have nothing to do with it,” says actor Maala Parvathy, who was in the latter category for the longest time.

“I realised that the more I protested on the sets, the fewer of my demands were met. It could be a dirty toilet or a shabby accommodation,” she says, sitting outside a dubbing studio at 10 pm, awaiting her turn, after a long day’s shoot in Calicut. “The remuneration is only a promise and the inclusion of your name in the film’s final credits is a hope.”

In an industry that has no defining standards for wages, working hours or even a workplace, which flouts the very basic requirement of a contractual agreement between the employer and an employee–gender justice is met with utter neglect.

In Kerala’s film industry, which by its very nature asserts that sexual harassment is an occupational hazard, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (also referred to as the PoSH Act), is a distant dream.

PoSH: Law versus reality

The Act applies to any private or government organisation that employs more than 10 people. Setting up of an internal committee (IC), the mandatory body for redressing sexual harassment grievances at workplaces, is the primary responsibility of the employer.

The IC, one-half of which should be women, comprises a presiding officer, ideally a senior-level woman employee, two other employees and one external member who is not an employee of the firm, but is a committed social worker familiar with labour laws, the service industry, civil or criminal law. Once the ‘aggrieved woman’ files a complaint against the ‘respondent’, within three months of the incident, the IC will begin its inquiry—a specifically detailed, time-bound set of procedures that include sending notices, collecting evidence, recording witness statements, and so on. It will then submit its recommendation to the employer, who will take the next action within 60 days of receiving the report.

Sexual harassment, under PoSH Act, is defined as physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, or any other unwelcome physical, verbal, non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

“The law is very clear up to this point,” says Varkiachan Petta, an expert on labour laws. “In the film industry, the root cause for the ambiguity surrounding this Act is the absence of written contracts — appointment letters, standing orders, terms and conditions of employment etc.”

“The very foundation of instituting an IC is based on the premise of a written contract between the employer and the employee,” says Varkiachan.

The employer, as defined by the Act, is the ‘contractor’ with respect to the workers employed through the ‘contract’. In fact, Clause (iii) under sub section (g) of Section 2 says the employer includes “person discharging contractual obligations with respect to his employees”.

So, by legal definition, the ‘employer’ should be the producer of a movie.

“Moreover, the film industry employs people on a project-basis. There is no continuity of employment. In any other industry, all these provisions are fixed and very specific. The definition of workplace, working hours and the wages leave no room for doubt,” Varkiachan adds.

The film industry, however, has no such standardisations.

“First, there is rarely a written contract,” he says. Anyone who is paid more than Rs 1 lakh for a single project comes to the location on faith alone.

The production controller fixes a particular amount, say between Rs 5,000 and Rs 15,000 a day, or Rs 50,000 for all the days of work on that particular project. The working hours and the number of days can change again, depending on the various crises that affect a production location. But the amount decided upon will not increase.

“Second, you may be paid half the amount on completing your work on the sets but the other half will be kept pending until you complete the dubbing requirements,” says actor Sajitha Madathil.

Again, the artists are left hanging. “If you value your payment more than your dignity, you will keep calling and calling.” This, she says, happens with many production houses.

In effect, a woman artist is expected to do her work, not raise any kind of demand on the set, and quietly and indefinitely wait for her payment.

In a situation as precarious as this, women rarely find the courage to even utter the word ‘harassment’, let alone allege it.

The Malayalam film industry has paid little attention to labour laws.

“This is an industry with no understanding of its labour force. What does my employment entail? What are my wages, my job description, my privileges on the sets? When there is no contract in the first place, how does any woman feel empowered by a legal policy,” says Bina Paul, film editor and member of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC),

Third, there is no defined workplace. Artists and technicians move from location to location, freelancing on a project-basis for more than one production house simultaneously. Working hours are extremely erratic with late-night shoots, dubbing requirements and travels.

“The challenge faced by the woman in this case is that she has no defined agreement regarding her employment,” says Aditi Kaushal Bhardwaj, PhD in Law on Socio-Legal Impact of Sexual harassment of Women at Workplace, 2013.

The Malayalam film industry has paid little attention to labour laws.

“Under the PoSH Act, a special influence is made by the apex court regarding infrastructure facilities at the workplace. We’ve met various female junior artists who’ve complained of unisex washrooms or changing rooms on the sets. Likewise, lack of emergency lighting during night shifts and isolated areas without access control–all factors that become catalysts for sexual harassment,” Bhardwaj adds.

In the absence of an IC, the aggrieved woman can report to the local committees, the police, the respective women commissions and the courts. “Naturally, she will be reluctant because of a persistent backlash from the media, the law and order machinery and society at large.” Breach of confidentiality will be extensive. Add to that an undue delay in getting justice, the entire ordeal will be harrowing and traumatic. If the woman is illiterate, says Bhardwaj, or hails from a lower socio-economic background, the legal procedures may never even take off.

“Whereas if an IC is instituted, in order to voice a complaint, she won’t need to know the law by-heart, only start asking the right questions at the right forum.”

What producers say

Most producers cite the short duration of engagement with staff as the reason for not being able to put in place a system to ensure their social security, the absence of which doubly hits the women.

“It is very easy to blame the producer for all the mishaps on a set but it’s impossible to man the working of more than 100 or 200 people on a shooting location. The bulk of the employees are junior artists and secondary-skilled workers who may not even have more than 10 days of employment during the entire production,” says producer-director Rajaputhra Ranjith.

The producer may be the employer but it’s the production controllers, coordinators and managers who call the shots on the sets. Every producer who can afford such a team is dependent on them for the day-to-day administration of a film production.

“The reality today is that most people on a film set do not even know who the producer is,” says Ranjith. “And many movies today are produced by new-found banners without any expertise or leading actors and technicians.”

The Kerala Film Producers’ Association does not have more than 25 traditional production houses as members, the new ones usually quit after producing a limited number of films.

The malaise, he says, is spread by dubious operators who start production with an advertisement on their fancy Facebook page and an invitation to auditions on social media. “Location sets of such novices can be the breeding ground for all kinds of problems. But as a producers’ association, we cannot discriminate between members as all have the right to membership.” The quality of their workplaces and of other production aspects, however, would be poles apart.

“The culprits are few but the consequence is damning for all.”

“The two mandatory certifications required for every movie are one, from the Censor Board and the other, from the Animal Welfare Board of India. The latter involves such a complicated procedure that I’ve decided not to have any animals in my movies,” says Pawan Kumar, writer, director and producer.

Legal policies for gender inclusiveness are fine, he says, but the process should be realistic.

Many of them agree that setting up of an IC would be the ideal thing to do, but far more beneficial would be making awareness of the PoSH Act mandatory through training sessions for the workforce by rotation, under the aegis of the local authorising council for producers. The council can have its own legal team to conduct the “respect training” sessions, because it would be expensive and impractical for each producer to do it on his own. “Once the sessions are completed, online or otherwise, the council can give an NOC and the production unit can start filming,” adds Kumar. Certain kind of decorum at least, he claims, can be assured on the sets then.

“But unlike huge international OTT banners armed with a battery of lawyers and HR professionals, small independent and low-budget producers are struggling to survive,” Kumar says.

Time’s up

“We are not asking for the impossible,” says Bina Paul. “Organisations like AMMA, FEFKA, MACTA cannot shirk their responsibilities by simply saying that they are not the employers as defined by the PoSH Act.”

As welfare organisations, they have to ensure that their women members are safe, not only on film locations but also during shows and stage productions abroad, irrespective of who the paymaster is.

Sexual harassment can be very non-specific and by nature, similar and repetitive on most film sets. “It could be a tea-boy brushing up against you every time he serves you,” says Paul.

“It could be a text message with an unwarranted term of endearment. Or it could be a full-on groping by a co-star in the middle of a shoot, which was caught on camera, but back in 2009, women’s issues did not warrant the attention it is getting today,” says Maala Parvathy.

Actress Divya Gopinath, who had raised allegations of sexual harassment against a senior actor in 2019 for which he officially apologised, says, “The only positive result was that people who had believed he was innocent realised they were wrong,” says Gopinath.

Women who allege sexual harassment, she says, end up getting fewer opportunities.

Divya has been able to put the past behind her, firmly believing that the PoSH Act is a step towards empowerment, while many women who kept quiet about past injustices now regret their silence.

“During the shooting of my third Kannada movie in which I played the female lead, I was the lone woman artist on a set of more than 100 men. Agreed, it was too expensive to rent a caravan just for me, but every time I needed a loo break, I got an assistant to accompany me up to a tree in the middle of the woods,” recalls Kannada actress Shruthi Hariharan, who had raised an allegation against a senior co-actor Arjun Sarja in 2018.

There’s not a single day that she doesn’t regret not having spoken up against that ‘inhuman’ treatment meted out to her. “Like this, so many incidents occurred and I wish I had stood up for myself in the initial days of my career.”

What kind of a power structure, asks Bina Paul, allows men to bargain on the basis of ‘mercy’ and ‘chance’ instead of artistic skills?

“The fear of losing work keeps women powerless all the time. It’s like a silent threat–don’t speak, you won’t get work.”

Speaking at a recent webinar on ‘Gender Inclusivity and Professionalism in Malayalam Cinema’ conducted by the Government of Kerala, Amrutha KPN of Kerala Institute of Local Administration said that the film industry is a very gendered workplace.

“It is based on a hierarchy of class, experience, seniority. Here, the active player is the respondent who only has to think about how to prove the victim wrong,” she says. The patriarchal element in these laws is such that it talks of the superficial aspects of sexual harassment, but not about the dignity of the woman.

The primary responsibility of the IC, she says, should be to avoid procedural gaps and facilitate the aggrieved woman’s path to proceed legally.

“Instituting an IC is definitely doable,” says Madathil. “Most productions do not have more than seven or eight shooting locations and the number of women artists on each set will be minimal. Every such artist will know her employer, her working hours and the specific location she’s working in. There’s absolutely no confusion in her mind when writing a complaint to the IC.”

Others like the spot boys, drivers, technicians affiliated to trade unions have an employment status that’s non-negotiable.

“It is the actors who are on their own, and instituting an IC as a mandatory redressal mechanism ensures their dignity and their right for a safer, better workplace,” Madathil adds.

“I will never claim that a film set is a horrifying day-to-day experience. In the 120-odd films that I’ve done, I’ve raised protests on five locations,” says Maala. “We do what we do because we love our work, and nothing is more gratifying for a woman artist than being able to work, and work with dignity.”

“There are two ways of tackling gender issues–one is through the reactive effect, which is more problem-based,” says Kochurani Joseph, associate professor, PhD in Economics (Women Empowerment), and one of the moderators on the webinar.

That would involve staging dharnas, hartals, litigation, criminal proceedings and penalisation. “The other is the pro-active effect which focuses primarily on prevention and is completely opportunity-oriented.”

The state has had no dearth of the former.

The Justice Hema Committee, appointed by the Kerala government in 2017, to study the issues faced by women in the Malayalam film industry was one of the reactive effects of a prominent Malayalam actress’s alleged abduction and sexual assault by a group of men at the behest of actor Dileep the same year. In 2018, the WCC filed a PIL with CINTAA and the Kerala Women’s Commission as impleaders at the high court for the implementation of the PoSH Act in the Malayalam film industry.

When the Hema Commission report – based on the testimonies of over 200 respondents costing over Rs 1 crore – was finally submitted to the state government in 2018, it decided to not make it public citing a small technicality. Earlier in 2022, the WCC again approached the Women’s Commission to reveal the findings of the report.

The pro-active effect, however, is what the four-day webinar was all about. Sajitha says she is very happy with the outcome of the discourse. “The fact that we sat together and talked about working within a legal framework is a huge step towards progress.”

Production houses, movie associations and artists’ bodies must engage their members in respect-in-the-workplace-training sessions, convincing them to look at women as a co-worker and not as a piece of meat.

“When one walks into the offices of cinema associations, one needs to see a visible enforcement of gender neutrality,” says Joseph. “Through wall hangings, notices on the board and posters that depict men and women as cohabiters on a level-playing field, the human subconsciously becomes refined and graceful, resulting in what we call an educated progress.”

As Aditi Kaushal says, the idea of how to institute an IC can be figured out in the film industry. That’s not difficult.

The question is–do we have the will?

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