“Is life imitating art or is the art imitating life? And either way we have a problem,” said Rima Kallingal at a recent TEDx Talk organised in Thiruvananthapuram. This was just one of the few questions that the Malayalam actress raised in her compelling 14-minute speech. From the jarring gender disparity in pay to the biased depictions of women on screen, the actress stressed that it was time for women in the industry to ask the right questions. Here’s the full transcript of her talk.
I am a feminist and my feminism started with a fish fry. So once upon a time my family was seated around the dining table with my grand-mom, dad, my brother and myself. My mom is serving food and never in her entire life has it occurred to her that she can actually sit down along with us and we can all serve our own food. But that story is for another day. And today she does three fish fries and she makes sure that the oldest one at the table and the two men at the table get one each. The 12-year-old me sees this and weeps.
I am deeply hurt and I demand to know why I am not considered deserving of the fish fry. My family is shocked but my mom is flabbergasted. She could not fathom why I was overreacting because she probably never got fish fries in her entire life. But then that’s how my journey of questions began.
I am still here
In school I stand for student elections. So what happens is the whole school is divided into four different houses and each house gets two captains. The boy who gets the highest number of votes becomes the captain and the girl who gets the highest number of votes becomes the vice captain. They thought like husband and wife, the captain in the vice captain would be perfect. But a few of us do not think that it is perfect. We questioned. But the system has changed. From there on every house gets two captains: one girl captain and one boy captain. So by this time in my life I am like this is how life is going to be. You just ask and you get everything done around you. But then I move on to start working in the real world in the industry, which bans you if you ask questions. Actually ban people.
So what happened was I was working in a few movies and at the same time I was hosting a television show. The theatre honoured union comes along and tells me that I cannot do that. And I am like what, why not? And they ban me. No conversation. No discussion. They just ban me. I got to know about it only on the evening news. No kidding. Nevertheless I persisted. I questioned the ban then I flout the ban and I am still here.
Asking the right questions
But when I look back I see a line of women who did not ask these questions in all these situations: my mom who never got any fish fries, my teacher who never really got a similar platform because of her gender, my yesteryear colleagues for whom the unfairness had become just a way of life. And I am not here to blame any of them. When I walked into this film industry I was greeted with words like shelf-life, adjust, compromise, smile more. But most often to dumb down.
They would ask you to dumb down. And I am like, that comes easily to women. All the girls here, do you remember when we were in our teenage years, we used dumb down so that the boys would find us all coy and perfect marriage material type. I think we girls are just very good at putting up an act because we are always told to be someone else, someone the society wants us to be. That’s why we have about 150 actresses coming into the industry every other year to act opposite ten male actors in the industry. They could only find about ten men who could act against the 150 girls.
Don’t worry boys, it is just our experience working in our favour. But then the question remains. How long do you dumb down? How long do you stay silent? And what does it take to break your silence? In February 2017, my friend and colleague was physically assaulted, sexually abused on a moving car. In spite of knowing all the consequences of going ahead and pressing charges for herself, she demanded for the justice that she deserved. I think she broke every single convention and stereotype that was associated with a woman in her situation. And that is what it took break my silence. And that opened a Pandora’s box of questions and we are seeking answers.
So now let me give you a small glimpse into this Pandora’s box. In the wake of this incident the president of all the Malayalam Movie Artists Association remarked that harassment and sexual harassment in particular was a thing of the past. Social media abuse on women is alarming right now but if any of you want to feel any better, please listen to the comments section of an actress’s Facebook profile. They kind of have our whole life figured out because they tell us what to wear, what to do, how to act, how to behave as a woman, a daughter in law, a wife.
The life lessons that you want, come to a comments section and you will also get to know all the different sexual positions that they would like to rape us in. It is 2017 and female actors get paid one third of their male counterparts. We are told that we have absolutely no value when it comes to satellite rights, that is when they sell a movie to a television house, and also play any part in box office collections. So I am thinking they might as well buy a few extra furniture for the set design or maybe they actually do think of us as furniture already.
So the male or female ratio on any random set is 1:30 and we all know that the Kerala state has the healthiest sex ratio in the country today. The Vishakha guidelines, which has been laid out by the Supreme Court of India, is not followed in such a big movie industry in spite of paying about 40% entertainment tax to the government. We have had production controllers barging into the rooms of actresses and physically assaulting them and being left scot-free with a customary suspension of two months.
A male actor in between say 20 and 70 years, whether married or unmarried, with or without kids and grand-kids are given a platform to explore their craft, to excel in roles that are exclusively written for them; to grow, to evolve and to see their career take off when they are in their prime. And that is the way it should be. And I am so happy for them as an artist. But not so much for an actress who takes every decision in her personal life and it affects her career: getting married, getting divorced, getting a baby, if at all her career gets till there. Everything that she does affects her career.
We all have at least one woman in our life who has completely influenced our being of existence. Why is it that it is not reflected in the most popular art form of the century? Why is it that the story so far as it is this, as leaders, as villains, as dancers, as mothers and daughters, not entertaining enough? Why is it not interesting or heroic enough? Know that we are at this topic of female representation in cinema, and the highest grossing Malayalam movie in history had four women in it: a nagging wife, a sick siren who came on screen just to swoon at the hero, a mother-in-law who was spewing expletives and another wife who was pushing out a baby after a baby.
Art versus life
Why should all of this bother you? I think we need to look at this industry as a microcosm of the larger world that we are living in. And the question still remains. Is life imitating art or is the art imitating life? And either way we have a problem. There is something called the washing batter in the Malayalam film industry. So while you are working in a movie, your soiled clothes are picked up from your room, washed, ironed and dropped back to your room. You are given the best of food on sets: two delicacies, beef included. The production takes care of every small thing in your day-to-day life. When you are working in their movie, to this day they ensure that true art is made in every possible way.
This profession gives you so much of love and support from everybody around you. It is priceless when I go to functions and receive the kind of I love I receive. I kind of know the privileged platform that I have. I think it is not possible to stand in the middle of that kind of privilege and not stand up and do what you can do for a world that is inspiring us to do out art. It is not possible to turn a blind eye to unabashed sexism, ageism and casteism that exists in our society and is reflected in our cinema content, and in the very fiber of our industry.
You cannot not be disturbed by the fact that an artist community is not trying to change that narrative. You cannot not be disturbed by fact that an audience community in an open-minded and progressive state in the country today is not vehemently asking for that change in the narrative. For the first time in this country, 20 women from different walks of cinema come together and ask these uncomfortable questions on behalf of everybody who want to ask these questions, and formed the women in cinema collective. We are at a very important crossroads in our lives.
We at least live at a time where we can actually ask for the fish fries if we think we deserve it. We need to seize this moment and sow the seeds of change. And take a true blue film lover, I want to borrow Sivaji Ganesan’s dialogue from Thevar Magan to put things in perspective. We sow the seeds today and they will reap the fruits tomorrow and then it will be their daughters, and their daughters. We might not be around to see it, but we will be the one who sowed the seeds for them. This is a call of duty for us and our questions are our seeds of change. Let us all come together and promise to ask all the questions that our past generations could not ask so that our future generations will not have to ask them.