South Indian Film Women’s Association, a small group formed by women in cinema this May, during a press conference in Chennai on Saturday expressed their distrust in the film industry because of the inaction against those who are alleged to have committed sexual harassment. This has led them, the Association members said, to form internal grievance redressal cells in the industry.
“This will provide a platform for women to report the sexual harassment without the fear of losing jobs, victim shaming and opportunities,” said Lakshmy Ramakrishnan of South Indian Film Women’s Association.
Over the past few weeks, many prominent personalities in the Tamil film industry have been accused of sexual harassment. This list includes poet and lyricist Vairamuthu, director Susi Ganesan, actors Radha Ravi, John Vijay and TM Karthik.
The Association members said that #MeToo campaign, that created a “shock wave” throughout the world, gained momentum in India too, especially in social media, and women have been speaking truth to power. “This has echoed in the Tamil cinema world too with singer Chinmayi Sripaada and poet and film director Leena Manimekalai revealing their experiences of sexual harassment,” Ramakrishnan added
The silence of film industry has to be questioned, she said. “We have lost confidence that they will act against the offenders. Hence, we are approaching the media,” she added.
The association alleged that lyricist Vairamuthu and director Susi Ganesan have been misusing their power to suppress the voice of those who had been sexually harassed. In order to prevent more women from speaking out, they have been spreading “calumnies and slanders” against Sripaada and Manimekalai. “They are also threatening one or two rare voices of support from the film world. The South Indian Film Women’s Association strongly condemns such actions and expresses solidarity to the survivors,” Ramakrishnan said.
Addressing the media, Sripaada, who had accused Vairamuthu of sexual harassment, said she has consulted her lawyers on taking legal action against him. “The incident has happened 15 years ago and I am gathering evidence to take legal action,” she said. There was no political motive behind her allegations against the lyricist, she added.
Manimekalai said that the idea behind calling for this press meeting was to express solidarity to the survivors and appeal to the media to create a safe and sensitive environment for the survivors to speak out.
Arguments broke out between a section of media personnel and the survivors when they were asked to narrate their experiences in detail. Sripaada folded her hands and begged the reporters to be sensitive. She even asked them to stop asking insensitive questions. “Women have come forward to share their experience. There has been harassment. We are not defaming all men,” she told the journalists who were posing insensitive questions.
Manimekalai was asked to narrate the details of the incident, questions were asked about what happened in the car and what kind of harassment she was subjected to. “It was insensitive to have asked us to narrate in detail the trauma which we had gone through,” Manimekalai said, explaining why she refused to answer such questions. “It was not a court. The environment was quite intimidating during the press conference.”
Last Sunday, in a Facebook post, Manimekalai made allegations against Tamil film director Susi Ganesan. In 2005, he had offered to drop her home in his car and then “forced her to accompany him to his apartment,” she wrote. He only let her go when she took out a knife she carried for her protection and threatened him, she added.
The association members said that actors TM Karthik and John Vijay have asked for forgiveness for the charges levelled against them. Ramakrishnan added: “Sensible voices, like that of actor Siddharth, directors Jaganathan and Vetrimaran, giving unconditional support to the #MeToo campaign gives us hope to break the alarming male impunity.”
More women speak out
On Friday, Mumbai-based photographer Pretika Menon took to Facebook to share her stories of “systematic bullying and harassment women are subject to in the workplace”. Sharing her experience, she accused actor-director Thiagarajan of sexual harassment.
“In 2010, as a 21-year old photographer fresh out of college, I was looking for work in Chennai when I was recommended a project that he couldn’t be there for,” Menon wrote. Following a recommendation from her friend, she went to shoot for a coffee-table book. “It was behind the scene documentation of a movie project – Ponnar Shankar, starring actor Prashanth. This movie was directed by his father Thiagarajan,” she wrote.
Recounting her experience working on the film set with him on the outskirts of Coimbatore, she added: “Over the next couple of days, Thiagarajan would keep finding me on set and urging me to be near him, he started to tell me about his Thai masseuse girl and how wonderful they were. He insinuated that he was sleeping with them.”
She alleged that she was “forced” to sit next to him at meals. He even tried to “convince” her to become an actress. “He told me that he will make me the next Aishwarya Rai.”
She also alleged that the director tried to enter her hotel room three times in one night. “At 12 am, I heard a knock on my door and I freaked out,” she wrote in the Facebook post.
She called her friend and told him of the knock, and what had been happening. Her friend asked her to keep talking and not to open the door. She wrote that she spoke in a loud voice to her friend, hoping to let whoever was behind the door know that she was talking with someone. “I heard a knock on my door twice after that, once at 2 am and at 4 am,” she wrote.
She recounted that she did not sleep till 6 am and when she went to breakfast at 8 am on the set, the director again forced her to eat with his crew. “In front of them he asked me why I had not opened the door for him, that he had come three times with medicine and brandy for my cold,” she wrote. Later, she alleged, that she was “kicked off the set” for not “sleeping with the director” and that she was not paid for her photographs too.
After this incident, she did not pursue a career in the film industry. “I never tried finding work in the film industry again because I realised and heard a lot of people that the industry is filled with misogyny and men who expected women to sleep with them,” she added.
On Saturday, Scroll.in tried to contact director Thiagarajan, but he did not respond to calls and text messages.