The year was 1985. The place: a hotel in Ooty, cloaked with mist and a sense of belonging that comes with being in the hills. One particularly cold evening, on the way back to her room, actress Revathi bumped into another actress who was staying at the same hotel, but shooting for a different project. Over tea and chit-chat, the fellow actress confided in Revathi that she was worried about an “uncomfortable scene” that she was required to do. With borrowed courage, the actress approached the director and uttered a firm ‘no’. For the two young women stars, the rest of the evening was filled with giggles and applauds at their seemingly tiny victory.

Twenty years ago, this was how the battles were, individual and independent, waged without creating much noise and, in dire times, by holding each other’s hands in silence, without letting the world in.

“Back then, a ‘no’ meant ‘no’. Whether it be expressing discomfort about a scene or the lyrics of a song,” says Revathi, who has acted in all four south Indian film industries, as also several Hindi films. She recalls many instances where her requests were treated with respect. Kai Kodukkum Kai (1984), in which she starred opposite Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, had a rape sequence as its crux. “I was just three films old, but I had a conversation with the director, saying I did not want to expose, and he was understanding, respectful and it was shot with care, keeping my comfort as the priority.”



Revathi, who entered the film world in the ’80s, says that, back then, a ‘no’ meant ‘no’



Another veteran actress, Rohini says the idea of banding together with colleagues never crossed her mind all these years. The popular ’90s actress says that back then “it was mostly about how we put ourselves across. We believed in being outright frank whenever we had an issue, and they respected us for taking a stand. I think I can speak for my generation of actresses... [when I say that] the things that are happening, or are coming to light now, never happened to us.”

But maybe they did happen to some of the others, and maybe they remained hushed behind closed doors. Either way, all of that changed on a fateful night in February 2017, when a leading actress was molested in a moving car for two hours before being dropped off at her house in Kochi.

It rattled an entire industry, which mourned, as did society in general. When a popular actor emerged as the key accused, the mourning turned into public outrage. Long-overdue, these conversations stemmed from the actress’s decision to break the silence and report the assault. Out of the fragmented conversations amongst colleagues arose a WhatsApp group, a support system of sorts called Women in Cinema Collective (WCC).


Actress Padmapriya, one of the founding members of WCC, isn’t new to harassment or for standing up against it. After being slapped on the sets of the film Mirugam , allegedly for not getting an expression right, she got a one-year ban imposed on the director, Samy. The ban was later reduced to six months after intense lobbying by the producers’ association of Tamil Nadu.

“There is a lack of understanding as to what needs to be done, whom to approach [in such cases of intimidation/assault]. Through WCC, we want to dissect the idea of consent, sensitivity at workplace, guidelines to follow on a set and, sooner than later, set up an internal complaints committee,” says Padmapriya.


Padmapriya, founding member of WCC, had earlier got a director banned for slapping her on the sets




The group’s meetings soon grew beyond virtual chatrooms and extended into cafes and drawing rooms. It was over many kattan chaaya (black tea) meetings, listening to stories, some shocking, some familiar, that the realisation took shape that this wasn’t only about their colleague who was assaulted. This was about much else too. In between their busy shoots and schedules, they made time and space for their newfound cause. “It required us to do more than just sensitise the media and society. It required drafting letters, defining what the organisation would stand for, meeting the chief minister, making pamphlets, deciding IFFK [International Film Festival of Kerala] programmes, designing workshops,” explains Padmapriya.

The timing proved uncanny too. Globally, for women in cinema, it has been a cultural coming-out moment. Be it the #metoo hashtags in the wake of the sexual abuse claims against Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein, or Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes in which she thundered, “Their time is up”, instantly catapulting her to presidential candidature status, or the decision of Hollywood’s most powerful women to wear black to the awards night. A-list actresses Greta Gerwig and Chalamet, who regret having worked with filmmaker Woody Allen as he has been accused of sexually abusing his minor daughter, have decided to donate their earnings to sexual harassment and assault charities. Closer home, in Chennai, a support group for women artistes is taking shape along the lines of the WCC in neighbouring Kerala.


Meanwhile, the WCC is exploring ways to intensify its fight to create an environment in the film industry that is conducive to dialogue, where men and women can, without fear, share their opinions, criticisms and complaints. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that actress Parvathy was viciously trolled, traumatised and threatened, all for expressing her opinion against a misogynistic dialogue mouthed by a superstar. A young director, three films old, likened the actress to a circus monkey that suddenly takes offence to its ringmaster. Ironically, this director had made a short film on child sexual abuse starring actor Nivin Pauly.

Refusing to be cowed down, Parvathy took to her Instagram handle and posted: “To all circus muthalalis OMKV ( Odu M**** Kandam Vazhi — run down the paddy field, you p***)”. A hate campaign was immediately unleashed against a song from her upcoming movie My Story , registering 100,000 ‘dislikes’ within a day of its uploading.

But those who have banded together as the WCC no longer seem concerned whether their resistance is at the expense of their livelihood or safety, because their focus is the bigger picture. For these women, the greatest fear would be the inability to build for their ilk, a world different from theirs.

“History has shown us that whenever people have stood up for a change there has always been hostility,” says Revathi, the president of WCC. “There is a lot of maturity required, even from our end, and from the industry, because this is a very new concept, there is no structure to abide, no prior examples. We are also learning at the expense of making mistakes.”

Recently, a hate campaign was targeted at the newly-released film Mayanadhi , directed by Ashiq Abu, the husband of Rima Kallingal, another key member of WCC. The film, however, is running to packed shows a month after its release. “Everybody has a space and that space cannot be occupied by another. Your talent will stand for you. Nobody can write off people,” Revathi reasons.

The negative headlines associated with WCC come at a great cost though: rather than channelling energies to nurture solutions, they throw the limelight on non-issues. “For every 10 steps that we take, these controversies take us 20 steps behind. There is a price to be paid for standing up, but a lot of it would change if women start taking the reins as the producers of films,” says Vidhu Vincent, a State award winner and WCC panel member. “We are trying to build a safer working environment, by creating more opportunities for women, inspiring and encouraging more women to pursue different aspects of cinema.”


In the early ’80s, fresh out of the premier Film and Television Institute of India, when Bina Paul first came to the state-of-the-art Chitranjali Studio in Thiruvananthapuram, there were no bathrooms for women. Women and men never started on the same footing, reminisces the national award-winner.

“And when a woman demands a changing room, or a place to chuck her sanitary napkin, she isn’t trying to be rude. These questions are not raised out of hostility but is an attempt to improve, change and make the profession comfortable for women to come in.”

Earlier this month, Kochi witnessed the birth of a second association of women in Malayalam cinema, after the WCC. The 6,000-strong Film Employees Federation of Kerala launched its women’s wing, headed by Bhagyalakshmi, a renowned dubbing artiste who was in the news for branding the WCC as selective and elitist. Paul, on her part, believes that the WCC has served as a catalyst for a greater change.

“Power does not depend on whether you are an actor, a spot boy, a make-up girl or a continuity writer. Supposing you assume a position of power on the sets, it shouldn’t be used to subjugate or exploit someone you deem is less powerful,” she says.

Akshaya Pillai is a journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram