In May last year, an attack on an actress prompted members of the Malayalam film industry to form the Women In Cinema Collective – a non-profit meant to address issues faced by female industry members. With the #MeToo movement gaining momentum in Bollywood more than a year later, Anupama Chopra asked actress Parvathy what cues the Hindi film industry could take from the South and how speaking out has affected her job prospects:
Anupama: In the Malayalam film industry, the collective reckoning happened more than a year ago when an actor was assaulted, when there was an appeal which led to the creation of the WCC, the Women in Cinema Collective. Tell me what you’ve learnt in the one year or more – actually, not enough people know that it happened before even the Weinstein story broke. So in a sense, the Malayalam film industry was ahead of the curve, banding together, taking action. What have you learnt in the time since then that we can actually use here?
Parvathy: It’s a little disorienting at this point. The Women in Cinema Collective was formed in May and then officially in November we got registered as an association. At that time, no matter who asked me about the WCC and said, ‘Oh my god, Mollywood is some really dark place,’ I said, ‘Actually no, we are talking about it. At least we’re talking openly about it and whatever the reason is, we are not being murdered or hushed like that. Women can actually come in and call it out.’ In other industries, there is such a deafening silence that I kept thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s what you should be worried about.’ Now it’s taken a whole U-turn because even though there is a collective, even though it is garnering support, we have associations and unions that are denying sexual harassment at the workplace completely.
Anupama: It doesn’t happen?
Parvathy: It doesn’t happen. They’re saying it just doesn’t happen. So it’s like living in the stone age. We have to teach them that it’s actually happening and that there are women in denial supporting that statement as well. I don’t know for what reason, I don’t know if it’s because of societal pressure, slut-shaming or victim-shaming. On a daily basis, on news channels, on debates, where there are people like myself included, we are slut-shamed by directors, producers coming and saying, ‘Oh we know she’s a loose woman.’
Anupama: Are you serious?
Parvathy: Yes. And this is allowed. You know why women are coming out in Bollywood? What I noticed, and what I’m jealous of, is that they’re being promised work, they’re being taken care of. Here you have producers and production houses saying, ‘Come out and speak, you will not lose your job.’ And we don’t have that. See, none of us in the WCC are getting any offers. The minute WCC is attached to our name, we’re the odd ones out. ‘Don’t talk to her.’ So it’s taken a direct hit. That’s sad because Kerala is supposed to be progressive. It’s just in the books, on paper, it’s not practised and the worst part is that there is such hero worship down South. The online attacks, the death threats, the rape threats – it’s unbelievable that fans associations have turned into these mafia goons who attack you. We’re all scared for our lives, we’re scared for our parents’ lives. If we speak, we don’t know if they’ll burn down our houses. So we’re living in an age where we’re looking at Bollywood and the rising there and we’re like, ‘When? Can we come and join? Will we be promised work and safety?’ And that’s very disappointing. But we’re trying to do our best to speak to the Government and get protection that way, and to expose them. I think we’ve collectively decided that no matter what happens now, we’re going to name names, now we’re going to call them out. A lot of lawyers, including Vrinda Grover, and a lot of Supreme Court lawyers are actually helping us with legal counsel. And we are trying to educate women to come out. Sadly, a lot of women are dependent on only this livelihood. I can probably start a shop and do something else for a living and still fight this but they can’t afford to do so.
Anupama: Are you serious that the acting offers have dried up?
Parvathy: Absolutely, I have one offer. And in the past four years, I’ve done movies which have run for months and are super-duper hits and I have one offer. And my mom is saying, ‘You should have studied MBA. I told you.’ My friend Padmapriya is an MBA graduate in production from New York. So we’re all thinking: arre yaar, chalo kuch aur karte hain.
Anupama: That’s so terrible, it’s so wrong.
Parvathy: It’s wrong, I don’t know how this is going to sound – how I’m so happy to say this – but there’s a huge weight lifting off my chest. When I’m coming out and seeing this strength, I’m like, ‘My career is not what I’m going to choose.’ I can’t sleep at night, my conscience won’t let me sleep. 30 years of this existence has to be over. And this is for the next generation.
This is an edited excerpt from a longer conversation that Anupama Chopra had with Parvathy, Swara Bhasker and Meghna Gulzar.