In Kannada filmmaker Mansore’s December 28 release Nathicharami (A promise to stand by), Sruthi Hariharan plays Gowri, a young woman who is trying to come to terms with her husband’s sudden death. If there is immense grief on one side, there’s also the looming question of what next. A friend suggests another marriage but Gowri is clear that she wants neither companionship nor love. But what about a woman’s physical desires, Gowri asks aloud in the trailer of the film. Also starring Sanchari Vijay and Sharanya, the film was premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival in October. This is Hariharan’s fourth film in 2018 after Humble Politician Nograj, Bhootayyana Mommaga Ayyu and Ambi Ning Vayasaaytho.
The year also saw Hariharan accuse actor Arjun Sarja of sexually harassing her on the sets of the 2017 Nibunan. Sarja has denied the allegations, and has sued Hariharan for defamation and embezzlement.
Hariharan made her debut in 2012 with the Malayalam film Cinema Company. Since then, the 32-year-old actress has starred in a string of arthouse and commercial productions in Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam. Her Tamil acting credits include Selvamani Selvaraj’s Nila (2016) and Arun Vaidyanathan’s Nibunan (2017). Excerpts from an interview.
At a press conference in Bengaluru, you said that a script like ‘Nathicharami’ was ‘really rare’ in Kannada cinema.
I won’t say there hasn’t been a change in the kind of scripts and roles for female actors over the years in Kannada cinema, but that change has been slow. So slow that for every 20 films that come out, there is one film with a sensible female role in it.
Even if they have sensible roles for women, most scripts are still written through a male gaze. And yes, somewhere all of us actresses have catered to this male gaze. We’ve all tried to add beauty to the frame more than emotion or expression or just being somebody important in the script.
There are very few female writers. Or, there are very few male writers who write from or understand the female perspective. Many times, directors come to me saying, here is a woman-centric film and that I should listen to it. When I do, I realise that it really isn’t woman-centric after all.
Also, most women-centric films tend to have characters who are unusually bold and strong, who beat up a few men. Or, they tend to victimise themselves, cry and draw sympathy from audiences. The very idea of a script being woman-centric irks me. Why can’t we be gender equal? Why can’t we explore both a man and a woman’s mind equally?
With this background in mind, when a film like Nathicharami comes your way, it is refreshing. I felt that if I miss something like this, I’d be making a huge mistake.
What kind of preparation did you do to get into Gowri’s character?
I had to find my personal string with Gowri, and with the film in general, which I did instantaneously. The film deals with the institution of marriage and what it means today. If one of the spouses dies, then what does marriage mean or become?
This was something that struck a chord with me, because I’ve seen my mother live as a single parent, bring up two children on her own, and live her life on her own terms. She is a very strong woman. She has so many stories within her that she has probably never shared with anyone or perhaps, never had the opportunity to. And even today, she lives in the thoughts of my father. Which is exactly how Gowri lives.
It was through this film that I asked my mother a lot of questions that I wouldn’t have otherwise – about companionship, desire, love and remarriage. Some of her answers startled me and completely blew my mind. It was this entire interaction with my mother that became the homework that I did to come on set with Gowri Mahesh in my heart. Of course, the film’s story is completely different from what my mother went through.
How has the film dealt with ideas of separation and companionship?
We were very sure that we were not going to make Gowri Mahesh a depressed character. She might have psychological issues and maybe she hasn’t let the man she loves go. But that doesn’t mean that she is constantly crying every single day of her life. She lives with his memories, but at some point she has to let go. and that’s what the film is about.
The film also explores a woman’s sexual desires.
Sexual pleasure is something that we women don’t even think about, let alone talk about. For a film to actually explore that, I think is courageous.
At the festival screening, people were taken by one particular scene that is not there in the theatrical version – a scene where Gowri masturbates. That scene wasn’t written at the script stage, but came as a suggestion to Mansore and he instinctively added it. That was an interesting scene to perform because masturbation is such a personal act. Do we even talk about it to our best friends?
You have been juggling projects in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. How do you plan your career?
I’m very instinctive. The moment I find something very interesting and challenging, I jump at it. Thanks to my upbringing in Bangalore, the fact that my mother tongue is Tamil, I’m married to a Malayali and I grew up in Christ College where maximum people spoke Malayalam and that I have friends who speak Telugu, language has never been a barrier for me. I love work that inspires me and communicates important things that need to be said.
It appears that your roles in films such as ‘Humble Politician Nograj’ or even ‘Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu’ were longer than what we eventually saw on the screen.
Yes, some of these roles were indeed longer in the scripts. I don’t think I’ve been wholly satisfied with any film of mine. The same thing happened with Solo as well.
Sometimes, you agree to projects because you want to work with a set of people. Humble Politician Nograj meant going back home to Godhi Banna’s team and working with Saad [Khan] and Danish [Sait], who have been my friends from a long time. Also, what I’m in cinema for is the process of making a film. Does the final output matter as much as the process? No: As long as the process works for me and I enjoyed it, I think it was worth it.
What drove you to talk about the sexual harassment you said you faced on the sets of ‘Nibunan’?
I invested a lot of time thinking about it. I remember this one conversation that I had with a journalist friend who asked why I was hesitating. I told her I was scared – of the legal ramifications, of what my family would have to go through, the impact on my career, and even whether people would believe me or not. To which she said, you sound like a hypocrite. On the one hand, you’re saying the MeToo movement is great and on the other hand, you say you cannot be a part of it in spite having a story to share. That was the beginning of a conflict within me.
I thought about it for a long time. I’ve been vocal about the casting couch and have faced flak for it. But this was different. This was about sexual harassment at the workplace. It wasn’t an overnight Facebook or Twitter vent. I spoke to my family and friends within the film industry. If you ask me if they all cheered me to come out and talk about it, none of them did because they cared for me and knew that this was probably going to be a road downwards.
Somewhere, I also felt that if I’d never spoken about it, I’d be guilty forever. And I’d regret it.
There was a lot of shock and confusion when the incident happened. I’ve done many intimate scenes before, but had never felt uncomfortable. I was feeling like I didn’t want to work or come back to the sets. I did what I could at that time, though. I spoke to the director, but nobody wanted to do anything about it.
Later, there was a smaller scene where I had to lay in bed with him [Arjun] and again, it got very uncomfortable. I remember reacting immediately and pushing his hand away. I thought that sent the message. But the unwelcome invitations continued, and I kept trying to amicably say no. He was a guy I had watched on screen as a kid. One does not expect this from a man of this calibre. A no was never a no. It was okay to continue pursuing. And that’s harassment.
The only way to clear my conscience was to speak up.
What do you make of how the media reacted to your accusations?
Their reactions are an extension of the mindset in our society – and as women, we’ve let people get accustomed to this mindset. If we have to break it, we have to be prepared for the questions from the other side.
Is there an institution to tackle sexual harassment in the Kannada film industry? Before it reached the court, your case was briefly taken up by a reconciliation committee under the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, which is originally meant for settling monetary disputes.
Actor Chetan and Kavita Lankesh set up the Film Industry for Rights and Equality and through it, an internal complaints committee, in 2017. This ICC is already dealing with a few cases. But FIRE does not have the cooperation of all the bodies in the film industry. In fact, the seniors have asked to dilute this ICC or shut it down. They don’t believe it is important. There is no problem in the industry apparently, and even if there is, they will take care of it, they say.
Some of us have even asked them to then set up an ICC or at least have a body that addresses sexual harassment in the right way. But then if the people in an ICC are those who think this issue isn’t important or believe that holding meetings to arrive at a compromise between the survivor and the accused is enough, then what kind of an ICC is it going to be?
None of us wholly trust the current film bodies in the industry to run an ICC efficiently. We could run Fire’s ICC independently, but obviously it will be better if we have the support of the industry.
That day, I went to the Film Chamber primarily to have this dialogue. What you saw at the press meet was regressive and a media trial, but what happened behind closed doors was a constructive conversation. Did something great come out of it? No. But we made ourselves heard.
It was at that press conference that you heard that a case had been filed against you by Arjun Sarja.
Yes. I had my lawyers in place and all, but was very sure that if he doesn’t take the legal route, I won’t. I didn’t anticipate that he would put not just a defamation case, but also other cases including cheating and embezzlement.
You’ve said that acting offers have reduced ever since you spoke about sexual harassment.
Usually from what I have observed, I get least three to four offers a month. But I haven’t been receiving anything in Kannada of late. To the extent that I recently found out on Instagram that I have been replaced in a film I was supposed to be a part of.
I don’t know what explains the lack of offers. I can’t say for sure it is the MeToo movement. But I have observed on social media that there is a negative perception about me. I guess investing in an actor who is surrounded by this negativity is also risky. Even with respect to Nathicharami, I’m very happy the team is standing by me, and releasing the film at such a point.
But yes, I get comments every day asking me to get out of the industry, asking me why I’m not accusing others I have worked with. They’ve also asked my colleagues why they are choosing to work with a girl like me. All of this has happened because I chose to speak up.