In a rare show of solidarity, several members of the Tamil film industry came out in support of Trisha after fellow Leo actor Mansoor Ali Khan made certain distasteful remarks about her. From the film’s director Lokesh Kanagaraj to many actors and technicians, Kollywood was quick to condemn Khan after Trisha slammed the actor in a strongly worded tweet.
But, this is hardly the first instance of women actors being discussed with such callousness. In fact, at another event for Leo, Khan made innuendo-laden statements about not getting the opportunity to romance Trisha or Madonna Sebastian, another woman actor in the cast. Clearly, nobody reprimanded him for his remarks, and it’s not surprising that Khan now seems befuddled by the reactions – especially considering such comments have been considered par for the course for decades now, with only occasional protests.
The trigger here seems to be the usage of the word "rape", but sexualised language about women actors has been commonly used by the industry's men. As a Public Relations Officer (PRO) from the Tamil industry pointed out on the condition of anonymity, actor Parthiban had said something similar about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan during the Ponniyin Selvan promos and so had superstar Rajinikanth about Tamannaah during a Jailer event. “Nobody objected then. Such comments are made so often, and there’s no limit to it,” he said. Khan has refused to apologise for his remarks and is insisting that he was misunderstood even as the National Commission for Women (NCW) has taken suo moto cognizance of his words and the Chennai police have booked him.
The Tamil film industry’s other female superstar, Nayanthara, has also faced such misogynistic remarks. On a stage show, actor-politician Radha Ravi insinuated that she wasn’t fit to play the role of Sita in a film adaptation of the Ramayana. Again, the onus was on Nayanthara to call out Radha Ravi, and it was only after she did so that the industry backed her. At another recent event, comedian Robo Shankar “joked” that he wasn’t allowed to touch actor Hansika in a film they worked on together despite repeated requests for such a scene.
Senior PRO Suresh Chandra, who has worked in the Tamil film industry for over 35 years now, is unhappy about the disrepute that such incidents bring to the cinema field. “My daughter, Rekha, also works as a PRO in our industry. I have several girls from city colleges who come to me for internships. I want it to be a safe space for women. But this isn’t unique to the cinema field. Men everywhere think it’s a sign of masculinity to pass such comments,” he said.
When it comes to cinema, a visual medium, women actors and their bodies are frequently treated as public property. What they do on screen is conflated with real life, and many assume that touching them or talking about them sexually should be fine since they’ve consented to certain acts on screen. Further, what should rightfully be viewed as workplace sexual harassment is characterised as the women being of “loose morals”. Men from the industry, too, have cemented this view in the public discourse over the years.
In 2005, for instance, director Thangar Bachan equated women actors with “prostitutes”, when verbally attacking actor Khushbu. Speaking about such incidents, Supriya, proprietor of Chennai-based publicity firm The Glassbox, said that such disparaging comments from industry figures can cast a shadow on stars and events. “Thangar Bachan's past remarks about Khushbu highlight the unfortunate prevalence of such behaviour in the Tamil film industry. Swift and decisive response to these misogynistic comments is crucial to counteract the negative impact it can have on individuals, particularly women and associated events,” she said.
Chandra noted that in recent years, the culture of promoting films through YouTube channels has led to hunting for clickbait headlines and thumbnails. “I often wonder why some personalities completely unconnected with a film are invited for its promo events. They say or do something controversial or vulgar, and the videos get thousands of eyeballs. This has especially become common for smaller films,” he said.
In one such event for an upcoming release, Sarakku, actor and TV personality ‘Cool’ Suresh attempted to garland anchor Aishwarya Ragupathi despite her clear discomfort with his actions. Ironically, it was Mansoor Ali Khan who asked Suresh to apologise to the anchor in that instance.
Such an attitude of entitlement towards women also extends to male entertainment journalists who cover these events. Recently, Jigarthanda Double X director Karthik Subbaraj was asked why he cast a heroine (Nimisha Sajayan) who isn’t “pretty” in his film. To his credit, Subbaraj immediately objected to the line of questioning. Asked for his opinion about the incident, Chandra clarified that he wasn’t connected to the film in any way. “But I personally endorse press meets where the focus is on the cast and crew communicating what they wish to say about their work rather than taking questions that are unrelated to the films. Our job is to ensure proper coverage of the film and not to invite negative publicity,” he said. “I don’t belong to the breed of publicists who thrive on publicity in any form. Goodwill is the seed a PRO sows and that is what we deserve to harvest. I’m sure many of my fellow PROs would accept my views on this.”
The lack of training and sensitization among entertainment reporters and YouTubers is evident in how frequently such incidents happen. There are many examples of male interviewers making sexual comments about the women actors they are interviewing, believing that such remarks will be considered welcome and flattering. This is why there is an urgent need for sensitization, said Supriya. “Education to empower is the way to go. We must establish guidelines within the media fraternity to create an environment that prioritises gender sensitivity, professionalism, and respect in all interactions,” she added.
When the #MeToo movement broke out in Indian film industries in October 2018, there were few from the Tamil film industry who publicly supported the women who spoke out. In an industry that runs on networking, “edhukku vambu” (why invite trouble) was the general attitude. But, sources in the industry said that there is now a sense of caution when it comes to how women should be spoken to — at least, in some quarters. “People speak up when a Trisha or Nayanthara undergo such experiences because they also know that their opinion or silence will be noted on social media. When it is someone else, they don’t see why they should speak because it won’t matter as much,” said a PRO. “But there is definitely a shift in how such incidents are viewed.”
Supriya believes that the prevailing culture of silence in the film industry can be attributed to deeply entrenched gender biases that prevail in our society already. “Breaking this silence will require a concerted and conscious industry-wide effort to challenge and dismantle such sexist and misogynistic views,” she said. Though many celebrities may choose to steer clear of controversy, Surpriya noted that addressing issues related to misogyny isn’t inherently controversial. “In fact, it is necessary to take a stance against gender-based discrimination because silence often plays to the advantage of oppressors and predators. Therefore, it is important for PR professionals to guide clients on navigating such matters, ensuring a proactive and empowering approach that aligns with principles of gender equality,” she said.
If there is a silver lining in the Mansoor Ali Khan episode, it is that the condemnation for his views has been near universal. Though the film’s hero and one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest stars, Vijay, hasn’t spoken up yet, several stars – including Chiranjeevi from the Telugu film industry – have backed Trisha. A part of this can be attributed to the #MeToo movement, but there is also another factor – the increasing presence of women in the entertainment and media field. “Whether it is OTT platforms or the media, women are everywhere. I see young women actors come to the sets today without their mothers in tow – that used to be the practice back then. They are capable of handling whatever issues crop up,” said Chandra.
There is still no sign of the Tamil film industry establishing an IC (Internal Committee) as mandated by law to lodge formal complaints. But, in the meantime, it matters that the stars in the industry speak up when such incidents come to light. In that sense, Trisha’s tweet and the support it has garnered is a small step towards establishing a more equal workspace.