Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, who has directed nearly a dozen documentary films, said at a press conference on Tuesday that she suspects that all those in the Tamil film industry who have been silent about the allegations of sexual harassment against prominent men in the industry could have something to hide.
On Sunday, in a Facebook post, Manimekalai made allegations against Tamil film director Susi Ganesan. She said, in 2005, he had offered to drop her home in his car and then “forced her to accompany him to his apartment”. He only let her go when she took out a knife she carried for her protection and threatened him.
The #Metoo movement, which has swept India in past weeks, has led to a number of women accusing prominent men in the Tamil film industry of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. Besides Ganesan, these men include Tamil poet and lyricist Vairamuthu and actors Radha Ravi, John Vijay and TM Karthik among others.
Trauma in car
A well-known poet in Tamil Nadu, Manimekalai has worked briefly as an assistant director in the Tamil film industry and as producer and anchor in television channels in Chennai.
Last year, after the abduction and alleged rape of a Malayam actress in her own car in Kerala, Manimekalai had written a Facebook post in which she detailed her harrowing experience in 2005 with a film director. She did not identify the director at that time.
“The car abduction incident reminded me of my own experience, which prompted me to share it,” said Manimekalai. “It was a similar incident but luckily I got out of the car.”
On Sunday, she reposted her Facebook post from last year, and identified Ganesan as the alleged perpertrator.
Ganesan, 47, began his career as a writer. He has worked as an assistant director with Mani Ratnam in movies such as Bombay, Iruvar and Dil Se. He later went on to direct Tamil films such as Virumbugiren, Five Star, Thiruttupayale and Kanthasamy.
Manimekalai said she decided to speak about the incident and identify Ganesan despite being nervous about it. “It is a tough battle but we have to start somewhere even though the stakes are high,” she said.
In her Facebook post, she wrote that in 2005, when she was working as an anchor with a Tamil television channel in Chennai, she had finished interviewing Ganesan for that channel and was waiting outside the studio to catch an autorickshaw. The filmmaker’s car stopped close to her, she said, and he offered to drop her home. “Without any suspicion, I got in,” she wrote. While the conversation in the first few moments went well, she wrote, “the director suddenly pressed the central lock in the car, snatched and switched off my mobile phone and threw it away”.
She alleged that he threatened that she had to accompany him to his apartment. “I was petrified,” she wrote. “I politely requested him to open the car [doors] first. Later, I begged and screamed saying I will break the windows.” But he continued to drive. Remembering that she carried a small knife for her personal safety in her handbag, she took it out and threatened him to stop the car. “He allowed me to step out of the car,” she wrote. However, she did not report this incident to anyone. Neither did she inform the media house she was working with. “This experience belittled me,” she said. “I was scared my parents will not allow me to work in broadcast media.”
The filmmaker said in her post that she had been very stressed out for the past week, as the #MeToo movement gathered momentum in India, singeing politicians, journalists, advertising professionals and stand-up comedians among others. “I have not been sleeping at all,” she wrote. “Deeply stressed as all the past is breaking on me like thunder.”
But the movement gave her strength. “It is the #metoo movement that has given me the courage to speak out now,” she said at Tuesday’s press conference. The movement was the “weapon” that women have been lacking so far to fight against men who sexually harassed them, she said.
Manimekalai does not plan to take any legal action against Ganesan. “I do not believe that I will get justice by going to court,” she said. She said that the reason she decided to identify the director now was to “prick his conscience”. She believes that “maybe he will [now] be afraid to do this to any other women in the future”. She added: “I have nothing to lose than the scars.”
Ganesan hits back
Responding to Manimekalai’s allegations on Tuesday, Ganesan cast aspersions on her character. In a Facebook post, he wrote that the filmmaker was a “modern woman” who was “immoral”. “She abuses men for benefits in return,” he said, alleging that she had accused him for revenge. “I have evidence to prove that she is a flawed woman,” he said, and demanded an apology from the filmmaker. He threatened to move court if she refused to apologise.
Later, addressing a press meet on Tuesday evening, he alleged that Manimekalai was suffering from a “mental illness” and was lying. “My assistant was driving the car that day,” he said. “It has become a fashion to talk about feminism now…In Chennai, there is no need to threaten someone by showing a knife. It is enough to scream to escape.”
Stating that she had called him seeking a job opportunity in 2005, he said that three months after the alleged incident that Manimekalai referred to, she participated at an event for the launch his book. “If her allegations are true, I am prepared to seek forgiveness,” he said. “I am ready to be hanged if the allegations are proved.”
Manimekalai responded, saying that Ganesan has slandered her in the name of refuting her allegations, and that if he went to court the case would go against him.
Commenting on the conspicuous silence in the Tamil film industry regarding the allegations of sexual harassment that have been made so far against its members, she said, those who stay silent were helping the offenders and the offence, not the victims. “If they are going to continue like this, my suspicions grow strong,” said Manimekalai.