In a chat about the recent decision of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) to readmit actor Dileep, who is on trial for allegedly masterminding the kidnapping and sexual assault of a woman actor, a young cinema artiste remarked that he found the support extended by the women members of AMMA to the accused incomprehensible. It is difficult for the fair-minded, even if they are not familiar with laws dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace, to condone the shocking lack of empathy with the survivor, especially since she too was a member of the body.

Several women actors associated with the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a group fighting for gender justice in Malayalam cinema, resigned in protest along with the survivor. But the hubris of the inhabitants of this Jurassic Park is unfathomable; in fact it might be a better name for AMMA. The body is populated by dinosaur-like beings who imagine Malayalam cinema to be immune to democracy and social justice. The argument that the law on sexual harassment does not apply to cinema as it is an ‘artistic enterprise’ is ridiculous. The law applies to it precisely because it is an ‘enterprise’ — an industry driven by capital and entrepreneurs, where people work and are remunerated for it.

There is no excuse for not setting up committees to deal with complaints of sexual harassment — a demand put forth by the WCC. Social organisations that value gender justice will demand that a member accused of sexual harassment step down from all official positions until the trial is complete and the judgment delivered. But AMMA chose to expel, not suspend Dileep from primary membership. Whether that was right or not is debatable, but the present decision to readmit him stinks of male chauvinism.

Many have also pointed out the support for misogyny among a large number of women actors in AMMA. The so-called cultural programme it organised apparently included a derogatory skit performed by women actors implicitly making fun of the WCC, trivialising it and normalising women’s subordinate status in the field. It was a woman actor who apparently brought up the matter of Dileep’s readmission. During the meeting and at the cultural programme, too many women were seen cheering on the bullies, pathetically enacting a demeaning script. How does one make sense of this?

What comes to mind is author and academic Deniz Kandiyoti’s concept of the patriarchal bargain — the decision some women make to conform in order to extract material or psychological benefit. However, there is also research that shows that the marginal utility of the bargaining process falls when you are better-endowed with economic resources and social connections. And the women members of AMMA who cling to the dinosaurs are surely not marginalised or poor; nor do they lack talent or a thinking mind.

Perhaps these women are not bargaining with patriarchy at all. The Malayalam film industry, a field mostly shaped by capital and driven by unrelenting competition for profit, is one of the most opaque fields, untouched by the democratic upsurges of the mid- and late-20th century Malayali society. Positions and human relationships in this field are highly hierarchical, even feudal. In fact, it is a textbook case of what happens when an arena is dominated exclusively by capital, with minimal structural intervention from either the state or civil society.

Clearly, in such a field, human relationships would remain undemocratic, making the traditional forms of power extraordinarily deep-rooted, which is internalised by the subordinate. Oppression becomes normal, and slavishness, a virtue.

No wonder violence against subordinates who rebel appears acceptable and normal to even women, including those such as the senior actor KPAC Lalitha who started her career in progressive movements.

Everyone opposed to capital’s free rein should be supporting the WCC. Its battle is to not just secure the rights of women, but to democratise a field where zombies of feudal power strut around terrorising others into submission through their violent male gangs (presented neutrally as ‘fan clubs’), their links with political parties and social organisations, and their access to vast wealth. I do hope the WCC keeps up the fight; for this Jurassic Park is not destined to survive, and the dinosaurs will soon be extinct.


J Devika


J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram