An assault, a trial and a road to nowhere

A day after a leading south Indian actress opened up on social media about her life as victim and survivor of a sexual assault in 2017, a groundswell of support is forming in the film industry of her home state, Kerala.

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By R Krishnakumar

Published: Wed 12 Jan 2022, 11:09 PM

A day after a leading south Indian actress opened up on social media about her life as victim and survivor of a sexual assault in 2017, a groundswell of support is forming in the film industry of her home state, Kerala.

“In solidarity” is the refrain as actors – some of them iconic stars who remained steadfastly noncommittal on the case for five years – share her post along with slogans backing her, duly hashtagged.

There, of course, is criticism of shallow posturing and hypocrisy, considering this is the first sign of a collective statement of intent from Malayalam cinema in a case that shaped conversations around gender discrimination and workplace abuse in film industries in other states.

“To see justice prevail, to get wrongdoers punished and to ensure no one else goes through such an ordeal again, I shall continue this journey,” the actress posted on Instagram.

That the survivor has spoken up, and that she feels her words could complement efforts to fast-track justice in cases of sexual harassment and assault, contrast disturbingly with the status of a report submitted by a state government-appointed panel, constituted to study discrimination, sexual harassment and related issues in the film industry.

The Justice K Hema Committee, formed in mid-2017 after the assault on the actress, had submitted its report to the government on December 31, 2019. Two years on, there is no official word on the CPM-led government’s position on the panel’s recommendations. With recent media reports quoting Justice Hema as saying that the panel’s findings need not be in public domain, a status quo on redressing systems seems a distinct possibility. It could mean more validation for the presently accepted working model which undermines transparency at the workplace and encourages a culture of coercion and compromise.

The actress’ note and this mobilisation of support in the industry come with context. Popular actor Dileep, accused of conspiracy in having the actress abducted and assaulted in a moving car, near Kochi, is facing fresh charges of conspiracy, intended to harm an officer investigating the assault case.

The Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes, which has superstar Mohanlal as president, had initially temporised its position on the case, stating it would not differentiate between “two members of the family”. The assault has since triggered a rebellion within the association’s ranks, leading to the formation of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a concerted attempt to set right gender-parity issues in the industry.

Members of the WCC, while acknowledging this new wave of support from within the industry, have called for action beyond social media endorsement. There is distrust; the cynicism comes from having to wait for years – for the industry to formulate mechanisms including Internal Complaint Committees on film sets, in adherence with India’s Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The pandemic is reported to have slowed down the government’s action on the panel’s report.

Dileep, arraigned as eighth accused in the case, is out on bail after spending close to three months in jail in 2017 and has been doing films. His last, an OTT release, was out in December. Last week, the actor was featured, along with his family, in a cover story of Kerala’s highest-selling women’s magazine. The survivor has not been part of a Malayalam film since 2017.

The in-camera trial on the case has already seen witnesses turning hostile, two special public prosecutors resigning, reportedly disappointed with trial proceedings, and the survivor making a plea to change the trial court judge. The fresh charges against Dileep were framed based on recent revelations by filmmaker Balachandrakumar – who claims to have been a “friend” of the actor – that Dileep had close ties with the prime accused in the case, Sunil Kumar. Balachandrakumar also alleged that Dileep had watched video footage of the assault, in his presence.

The three-member Justice Hema Committee is reported to have no objection to women, whose statements it recorded regarding issues they faced in the industry, making their grievances public, as individuals, outside of the panel’s purview.

The series of exposes and allegations of sexual harassment as part of the #MeToo movement had also set off voices backing the rights of the accused and against sensationalist media trials.

While the concerns on unsubstantiated allegations are real, that a State-appointed panel favours a “confidential” report of its findings – it says the victims’ identities need to be protected – makes this a situation all too familiar for the victims. They will still be required to be on their own in this struggle; either forced into silence or speaking out and ready to face questions, and social media trials, on the veracity of their allegations.

It’s a greater struggle for women who have opened up about harassment by co-workers as they could face further discrimination, effectively impacting their livelihood. This, when the findings could be made public without revealing the victims to ensure, at least, that there is a case for corrective mechanisms and there are conversations around the issues that could also lead to better working conditions in other industries.

“A law is the only solution,” Justice Hema, a former High Court judge, had told the media after submitting the panel’s report. With its contents still unavailable, with the government not stating plans on its recommendations, the idea of a comprehensive film policy that ensures a safe and equitable workplace remains fanciful and deferred action leaves those who deposed before the committee unaccounted for, their struggles invisible.

The writer is a senior journalist based in India.

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