A year after his arrest for the alleged abduction of a colleague, Malayalam film actor Dileep was reinstated to the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists. This move was met with consternation, especially by women in the industry, some of whom belong to the Women in Cinema Collective. Four actors resigned from AMMA, including the complainant.
The controversy reveals a great deal about gender in contemporary Kerala society, renowned Malayalam novelist KR Meera told Scroll.in. “By nature, Kerala men do not and cannot approve of survivors,” Meera said in an interview.
Firstly, do you agree with the actors who left AMMA? What do you think of the recently formed WCC’s stated objectives?
Yes, very much. It was an extremely brilliant and powerful move, without which the issue would have missed the kind of attention it has captured presently. It was the first of its kind in the history of Malayalam cinema.
I consider the formation of WCC as the revolution of the millennium towards an egalitarian society in Kerala. The stated objectives of WCC are, in fact, really the objectives of women working around the world. The emotional quotient these women demonstrate in dealing with the egoistic and insensitive group of men is astonishing. The tragedy is that almost the majority of their male colleagues lacks good sense and judgement, so that even engaging them in a conversation will be a gargantuan task for them. To describe their plight, there is only one simile: a group of women inviting lower primary students to debate on a PhD thesis on human rights and constitutional rights.
What has the decision to reinstate Dileep revealed about the Malayalam film industry and patriarchy in Kerala?
The middle-class men of Kerala are against any kind of rebellion from women. By nature, Kerala men do not and cannot approve of survivors. They accept victims, provided they cover themselves in a white or black sari and sit in a dark corner weeping 24x7. It is unacceptable for a survivor to appear in public and be cheerful.
It is very difficult for them to comprehend the idea of rape too. For the majority, there can be two kinds of sex – one with complaint and one without complaint. Rape for them is just sex with complaint. And they do not accept it as a violation of rights, for they believe that women have no rights over their bodies.
Just look at the way the members of AMMA reacted to the incident of abduction and assault ever since the name of Dileep surfaced. They went on defending Dileep to even to the extent of doubting that the incident had taken place. More than the male members, it was the female members who came forward to argue for Dileep.
All these are truthful reflections of the patriarchal mindset that Malayalees are proud to possess. The most important aspect of patriarchy in Kerala is that the larger public always trusts the rich and the powerful. If Dileep were a poor artist who was financially weak and socially powerless, there wouldn’t have been even a single member to support him.
The political and social wisdom the few women of WCC have demonstrated thus becomes all the more important. They are standing up for the weak and the helpless. They do it not for [only] themselves. They risk everything for the future generations. I consider the actress who displayed the strength to complain and fight for justice, throwing to the wind the false honour the Kerala society is obsessed about, as the real hero of our times.
A few actors in other Indian film industries have spoken about sexual harassment in their fields. What about production roles? As a writer, do you hear similar stories from screenwriters, producers, directors, assistants and others in various occupations – and are you able to comment on how widespread the problem is?
No, I am unable to comment on them primarily because there are not many women working in such positions. The women technicians in Malayalam cinema were late entrants compared to many other languages. With the minimal interactions I have had with the film stars and technicians in cinema, it is evident that they nourish and cherish outdated ideas on women and human relationships.
The belief that women are inferior has been reinforced in them all these years. They refuse to reconsider a change in the situation. But that exactly is the surest symptom of patriarchy – the refusal to question and reject the comfort zones and the illusion of superiority.
You’ve said in numerous interviews that when you met esteemed male writers as a young journalist, you had formative encounters with their wives, who were sometimes thwarted from their own literary careers. You also met women who maintained notebooks that were never published. Is it fair to say that Malayalam literature has a silent corpus of writing by women that never came to light?
Why isolate Malayalam literature? I strongly believe that literature in all our regional languages is built on the burial grounds of the unpublished writers who are women.
It was my personal interaction with three such women which shaped my outlook and insight. For example, there was this nonagenarian I met while in the 9th standard. The first question she asked everyone who entered her room was “Till which class did you study?” And then she would say, “I wanted to study upto my MA. But my great uncle didn’t allow it.”
Then after a decade, after becoming a journalist, there was another woman, in her seventies or eighties, whom I met in Kottayam. I had gone there to interview her husband and she was treating me like a VIP and forcing me to stay back even after the interview. She was greatly enthusiastic about my job and was darting a number of questions on journalism and literature. At one point, I asked her whether she wrote, and the graceful grandma became as angry as a wounded tigress. She furiously asked. “What did you ask? That I did write? What do you know, child? I was blessed by the great poet Vallathol Narayana Menon himself, when I recited a poem in a function in his presence. It was there that this man saw me for the first time and decided to marry me. And afterwards what happened? He went up the ladder step by step and I was just dumped in the kitchen as a nobody.”
This was a moment of great revelation for me.
Then within two or three years, I happened to meet the daughter of the first grandma at the village where I was born and brought up. She was in her seventies then. That day, she gave me a notebook and said, “Child, will you please correct this for me?” Although I knew her ever since I was born, all I knew about her was that she was an obedient wife, a caring mother, a gifted cook and noble person. But when I opened the book and glanced at the pages randomly, in the ink which had turned a faded purple after half a century was written some of the most beautiful lines in Malayalam. It was incredible that she remained unpublished all these years, in spite of her family connections. Her husband was a member of the first and second parliaments of India and was the founder of the first political weekly in Malayalam. Her uncle was a noted poet of his times. When I asked her why she hadn’t shown the poems to her husband, she said without remorse, “I had shown him once. Without reading it, he asked whether it is good. I said I don’t know. Then he just tore away the poem and told me not to show him unless it is good. Thereafter, I never showed him any.”
It is this incident which made me restart my creative writing. I was too scared that in old age, I too would be tormented by the stories I hadn’t written. But then, when you look at the lives of other writers as well, it can be seen that they all had their share of silence, forced and formidable.
For example, writer Chandramathi, one of the revivalists of feminist fiction of our times, had stopped writing for a long time after creating many powerful stories in the 1970s. And there was our iconic K Saraswathiamma, the first-generation feminist writer of Malayalam, who had penned some of the revolutionary feminist stories in the 1930s. She was attacked and ridiculed by the powerful patriarchs of her times as a man-hater and was forced to recede into silence for about 30 years before she passed away in 1975 as a non-entity.
And as for those who have been published somehow, is sexual harassment one of the challenges to women writers?
There is verbal harassment in many forms, of course. It is really disappointing that many of the young men are politically and socially insensitive to such an extent that education has helped them only to counter the progressive values.