Sindhuja Rajaram, 32, an artist, photographer and musician based in California, United States, has alleged lyricist Vairamuthu Ramasamy called her repeatedly on phone after she met him when she was 18. He tried to persuade her to meet him, even after she rebuffed his advances. Finally, she stopped taking his calls.
After the #MeToo campaign hit professional India early this month, Rajaram shared her story with the singer Chinmayi Sripaada, who posted it anonymously on social media. When Scroll.in contacted Rajaram this week to speak about her experience, she decided to share it on record.
Sripaada was the first to go public with allegations of harassment by Vairamuthu. She also shared on social media anonymous accounts of other women in the entertainment industry and inmates of a hostel run by Vairamuthu in Chennai, all accusing the lyricist of inappropriate behaviour and harassment. While Sripaada drew support online, but also criticism for endorsing anonymous accusations, the film fraternity largely stayed silent, apparently deterred by Vairamuthu’s political clout.
The lyricist denied the accusations on Wednesday, complaining that “spreading defamatory things about popular personalities is becoming a culture across the country”.
On Friday, Scroll.in tried contacting Vairamuthu for a response to Rajaram’s account, but he did not respond to calls or text messages. The article will be updated if and when he responds.
When did you join the Tamil film industry and what was the nature of your work?
I was 16 when I joined the industry in 2002. I worked as a sound engineer.
When did you meet Vairamuthu and what was your experience?
I was about 18, and working with Kosmic Studio, when my father was transferred to Bengaluru. My mother started looking for a decent working women’s hostel to settle me in. All hostels had a curfew time of 8.30 pm or 9 pm. Then, she found out about Vairamuthu’s hostel in Kodambakkam, Chennai, from newspapers. It had a similar curfew time but since Vairamuthu was in my industry, my mother felt he would understand that I had to work late. She called the hostel and was put through to Vairamuthu. They had a long phone conversation about me and my career. He was apparently keen to know more about me, wanted to see me, and invited me and my parents over. We met him a few days later at his Kodambakkam office, above his residence. He greeted us saying, “Ungal paechil miga naal natpu therindhadhu”. It translates to “your words express a long-term friendship”, referring to my mother’s phone conversation.
I had taken along my demo CD containing songs I had composed and programmed. He was so impressed he said he would love to take me to A.R.Rahman. Our meeting lasted 20 to 30 minutes. He took my number and said he would keep in touch.
Fortunately or unfortunately, he could not do anything about relaxing the hostel’s curfew for me as the other residents might have objected. I moved into a family friend’s home instead. A week later, after my parents had moved to Bengaluru, Vairamuthu called, asking me to get over to Rahman’s office that evening as he had some work with him. I was excited but also a little nervous. I took my aunt, my local guardian, with me. The meeting with Rahman was brief.
Vairamuthu called me again the following day and told me how impressed Rahman had been with me. A few weeks later, he started calling frequently to ask how I was doing. He would ask about my work and tell me, “Let’s meet sometime.” I would say “sure” and end the call.
Then his calls became desperate. I would only answer out of respect for the man. One time, he said, “When do we meet? I miss you. I have written poems about you, please come meet me at my Besant Nagar office.” I felt awkward; I said I had to get back to work and hung up. His next call was even more desperate. He said he was falling in love with me, that he was constantly thinking about me. That is when I said, “Sir you are like my father. I have great respect for you. Please do not say such things. I feel very awkward.”
He kept trying to convince me to meet him but I always made random excuse. Once, I even handed my phone to a male colleague and told him to tell the “caller” I was busy with a recording. After a few more calls that I did not take, I answered – not willingly but out of respect. He was upset that someone else had answered my phone and said I should never give my phone to anyone. He apologised for the things he had said but still called me to his Teynampet office saying he had a new project to discuss with me. I said, “Let’s see sir, I am busy with our sessions at the studio.”
Around the same time, I heard from an acquaintance at the Sun TV Network (I cannot name her since we are not in touch) that Vairamuthu had met her at work, taken her number and starting calling her. She complained to Sun TV’s then deputy managing director after which Vairamuthu stopped calling her. I stopped taking his calls after that.
Did you report the harassment? How did you cope?
Honestly, I had heard of many such creeps in the industry, so it was nothing new. I didn’t feel the need to report since nothing had happened to me. I never met him alone. I told my parents what had happened and it took them a while to believe me.
What stopped you from speaking out earlier? Why are you coming forward now?
Though I didn’t report it, I told most of my friends. In fact, another singer who was meeting Vairamuthu made sure to take her father along because I warned her. He was upset and called to ask why she had brought along her father.
I was not planning to come forward as the stories Chinmayi was sharing were more horrific. Even now, my intention is only to stand with the women who have suffered harassment by him. I emailed Chinmayi about my experience but I thought she might miss it among the tonnes of emails she has been receiving. But she shared it.
After a couple of days, I realised nobody was coming out publicly with regards to Vairamuthu (I understand why) and Chinmayi was the only “known victim”. I felt I needed to support her and the other victims as I believed them and their stories. I could connect to their stories because they were part of a pattern – same sort of phone calls, same offices at Besant Nagar and Teynampet. I stand with Chinmayi though I do not know her too well. And I have the full support of my husband.
I sent my story to Chinmayi rather than tell it myself on social media because I thought people were more likely to see her posts than mine.
Do you think women are scared to come out against their harassers even now? Why is the film fraternity silent on this matter?
When someone so big, so respected for his art and achievements, is brought to light for all the wrong reasons, most people refuse to believe it (even my relatives did not at the point).
If you are the only one standing up in the midst of this, you are called a liar. The “film fraternity” is a close-knit circle. Everyone knows everyone. It is difficult for people to take sides, especially when such a respected man is involved. People fear losing their jobs or opportunities to work with the big guys.
Do you think the #Metoo movement will be able to hold powerful people like Vairamuthu accountable?
I hope so. I have asked myself these questions many times. It might be easy to blow the whistle anonymously, but #Metoo is stronger when there is a collective voice. Thanks to courageous women like Chinmayi who are willing to take it further, there is hope. Please listen to the victims and do not judge them by their profession or personality.
Corrections and clarifications: An unedited version of this article was published erroneously. It has been updated to reflect the correct version.