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Informal Lives, Formal Laws: Sexual Harassment in Film Industry

A criminal justice system marked by lengthy trials does not give women who face sexual harassment or assault much hope, especially if powerful industry figures are the perpetrators.
Sexual Harassment in Film Industry

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Latha wakes up early, at around 3 AM every day, prepares meals for her family and takes the first bus from Thalayolaparambu to Kochi, a one-and-a-half-hour journey. She is expected to reach a meeting point at 8 AM, from where she, with other junior artists, moves to film locations where they are required. Sometimes, she waits for her turn till late in the evening, and on those days she only reaches home by 10 PM. When asked to identify a few important issues she faces at work, she refers to the lack of work itself. “We are always asked this question, ‘are you willing to adjust?’”, a query most junior artists seeking opportunities in the industry hear, irrespective of how old or experienced they are. Junior artists usually play those characters in films who have no spoken dialogues, and hence they are considered unskilled even if they have prior acting experience, say in theatre.

Given their status as “extras”, junior artists have ended up at the bottom of the film industry’s hierarchy, with very little bargaining power and earning only daily wages. The implicit import of the question—are you willing to adjust?’—is whether, as a woman, a junior artist is willing to provide sexual favours in exchange for opportunities. As one climbs the hierarchy, the nature of the questions the women are asked also change.

A female junior artist relates a typical encounter: “Sometimes, I feel I have trained myself to be indifferent,” she says, narrating how such conversations usually progress. “’Chechi [sister], did you have food, chechi have you slept?’ Ayyo some cashiers! So they don’t pay the remuneration upfront. You get partial payment, and it takes over three months to get the [full] payment. So one has to constantly remind them [to pay].” When they are reminded to make payments, the response is flippant and offensive, she says. “‘Hi, good morning, what did you eat, what do you wear at home?’ Of course I wear clothes! Once, he asked me whether I wear a saree or a churidar. I said, ‘not saree’. I was annoyed, but what can we do? He went on: ‘Chechi, you look very pretty in a saree.’ Next thing he asked was: ‘Can you send me a picture of yours?’” The junior artist sent a smiley instead, and avoided him thereafter. “But they are very vindictive,” she says, “In the next film also, one might have to deal with the same person. So it is better to send a photo, while cursing him in one’s mind. After all, what do I lose? But sometimes it doesn’t stop there, the next thing they ask would be a picture of the boobs or ass.”

The experiences of another female artist, who works as a supporting actor, are similar. A supporting actor gets scripted character roles in cinema and is paid more than the junior artists. Yet, the everyday harassment and negotiation the industry extracts from women in her position, too, is quite as bad as those of a junior actor.

An assistant director recounts to these writers how she was blamed for pausing a film’s shooting for a day as she had confronted a colleague who had touched her inappropriately. A costume designer shares how they are often slut-shamed in WhatsApp groups for their career achievements. According to a makeup artist, women often warn each other about serial predators who prowl the film sets. Despite their achievements and skills in the technical and creative aspects of their work, women artists and technicians in the industry, at all levels of the hierarchy, regularly face sexual harassment of varying degrees.

The rampant sexual violence in the film industry received momentary public attention when a famous Malayalam actor was sexually assaulted by her colleagues in 2017. She was abducted and molested in a moving vehicle and the assault was video-recorded by the assaulters. The popular actor-producer, Dileep, was arrested in the case, and this led to online abuse targeting members of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), which had come out in support of the survivor and initiated a discussion on misogyny in the industry and cinema unions. Dileep’s trial is nearing completion and the survivor is awaiting a verdict. It is in this context that it is important to note the conditions of work for women in the film industry, which enables an environment of sexual violence and misogyny.

Collectivised but informal: Malayalam film industry

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Malayalam film industry is the existence of the powerful employee unions—such as FEFKA or Film Employees Federation of Kerala, a federation of unions affiliated to the All India Film Employees Confederation, MACTA or Malayalam Cine Technicians Association, and The Association of Malayalam Movie Artists or AMMA—in a sector with informal work relations. These bodies are recognised by the state and serve an important component in terms of welfare measures. According to the Kerala Cultural Activists Welfare Fund Act, 2010, to register as a beneficiary with the welfare board, “a cultural activist shall produce a recommendation certificate from the respective Academy or trade body or any such other body or association approved by the Government”. This means that a cinema worker needs to be certified by the established unions or associations to avail benefits from the state. In short, access to the industry and the state schemes depends on the membership in these unions.

The unions control the practices and norms of the industry, although women are largely under-represented in this space. The “behind the screen” roles are mainly controlled by men, which creates barriers for women at the entry level itself. Unions deliberately delay the process of memberships of female workers besides some obvious bans, for instance the collective ban on female membership in certain professions such as makeup artists. The executive committee of FEFKA has twenty male members and one female member this year and none in the last year.

In the history of the Malayalam film industry, the only category of work where women are large in numbers is acting. The union of actors charges over Rs.1 lakh as membership fees, the junior artists report. Therefore, most junior artists cannot even consider becoming members of the actor’s union, since their daily wage in cinema is as low as Rs.400 a day. And despite the obviously skewed class and gender bias in favour of men in the unions, they still are the only recourse for women if they have any complaint regarding sexual harassment at the workplace.

Incompatibility with POSH Act

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) or POSH Act came into existence in 2013 to ensure safe workplaces for women, free from sexual harassment. The act mandates the constitution of a committee of more than ten employees in each workplace, who are to act on any reported instances of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, as per this law, is defined as unwelcome acts or behaviours such as (i) physical contact and advances; (ii) demand or request for sexual favours; (iii) sexually coloured remarks; (iv) showing any pornography; or (v) any other unwelcome physical, verbal, non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. In the absence of a sexual harassment committee at the workplace, the act also directs aggrieved women to approach local complaint committees constituted under this act.

Across the country, the structure of the film industry is so informal that what constitutes a workplace itself is ambiguous. As experts in the industry told these writers, work can take place in a private room when a group of people are reading out a script, when a costume designer is shopping and when a junior artist is waiting in a playground. Even though setting up an anti-harassment committee is a possibility in some organised workspaces (for example, a production house), the action taken against an individual in one workplace would not mean much, given the flexibility and the informality of work relationships. Perpetrators can escape due process and get employment anywhere else. The survivor could be forced to work with the perpetrator in different projects or forced to give up on the opportunity.

By its very nature, the physical location of a cinema production is not fixed. The location of a film shoot can be anywhere in the world. In the absence of internal complaint committees (known as ICCs), the act provides an option of complaining in district-based local complaint committees or LCCs. The mobility of cinema work prevents women from accessing this option as well. While the work is mobile, the jurisprudence of the internal committees is limited to the respective district. Even in an ideal situation, if one chooses to complain at a local committee, the act does not specify whether one should complain at a place where the incident took place or where the complainant is residing.

Further, the act says that the employer has a duty to provide safety from persons whom women come into contact with at the workplace. As mentioned earlier, in the cinema field the workplace can be any place. In an industry where the stars earn multiples of crores, the consequence of non-compliance—such as a Rs.50,000 fine mandated by law if an employer fails to set up an internal committee—is trivial compared to the production cost of a film. These circumstances and conditions of work make the industry incompatible by design with the POSH Act.

Where is the Justice Hema Commission report?

In July 2017, a commission headed by Justice K Hema was set up, after demands from the WCC to enquire into the conditions that enable sexual harassment in the film industry. The WCC had sought recommendations on systems to govern the industry, given its peculiarities. The commission submitted its report in December 2019 after a long and detailed inquiry. However, the report has not seen the light of the day yet. An RTI filed by these authors for a copy of the report was rejected citing the reason that it contains personal narratives. The request to provide a copy after retracting personal details was also rejected.

A criminal justice system that relies heavily on the burden of proof and which is characterised by lengthy trials does not give much hope for justice to women who face sexual harassment or assault, especially if powerful industry figures are the accused/perpetrators. However, it is the responsibility of a democratic state to release the Hema commission report and place its recommendations in the public domain to begin a discussion on doing justice to women, who at least need a process that extends the hope of justice.

The authors are researchers at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi. This article is part of a larger study on sexual harassment in workplaces meant for the India Exclusion Report. The views are personal.

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