On good days, Indian actress Parvathy Thiruvothu is acutely aware that she lost out on acting jobs when she spoke up against gender discrimination and patriarchy in the Malayalam film industry.
On bad days, the award-winning actress fears for her life and is petrified that her loved ones will ultimately pay the price.
Parvathy, one of Malayalam industry’s top and versatile talents, famously took a defiant stand in 2017 when a popular actress in Kerala was allegedly abducted and raped in a moving vehicle.
The sexual assault of her peer and prominent actress was recorded on camera by a gang of men, reportedly to use those incriminating tapes as a weapon to buy the survivor’s silence.
Five years later, the case that sparked outrage is awaiting verdict with established Malayalam actor Dileep fighting charges of ‘revenge crime’, criminal intimidation and conspiracy among others.
He allegedly masterminded the attack against that popular actress to settle personal scores. The assault case brought to the open the gender inequities and prompted Parvathy and a fierce tribe of actresses to form the Women In Cinema Collective (WCC).
“I feel what’s happened to our friend is a big example of what can happen to a person if they stand up and continue to fight for justice,” said Parvathy in an exclusive interview with Gulf News over the phone.
By taking on the all-powerful and pervasive boys’ club, Parvathy had famously alienated her male co-stars who enjoy immense clout in casting and other crucial filming decisions. But that didn’t stop her from trying.
Back in 2017, several actresses including her — emboldened by the #MeToo movement gathering momentum in the West and Harvey Weinstein being called out — had decided to name and shame the predators and repeat offenders from the Malayalam film industry.
“But one by one each of those people who came forward had backed out… They were already getting pre-emptive calls where they were threatened and told what will happen to them if they say something … Some were even offered money to remain silent,” said Parvathy.
She also remembers how a female artist who had gathered the courage to single out her predator had moved out of Kerala with her parents because she felt unsafe after all those threat calls and veiled death warnings.
“That was so shocking for me. And that’s the day I realised that if I come forward with any names, I might not be the only one paying the price. Anything could happen to my family and friends … And I know that I speak out their names, it will be the end of me and the end of my loved ones,” said Parvathy.
The sordid assault case was like a grim cautionary tale underlining how any woman will be heavily penalised if they become whistle-blowers in the mostly male dominated Malayalam film industry.
While Parvathy didn’t want to get into the details of who orchestrated the attack against her beloved peer during this call with Gulf News, she claims there’s no ignoring the circumstances of the alleged episode.
“Someone from our industry conspired and made it happen. I am still shocked knowing that some people came together and executed such an act. If that doesn’t show us what a dangerous place this is to live in, I don’t know what will,” she pointed out.
Parvathy also adds that her prolific career, which has seen blockbusters like ‘Take-Off’ and ‘Bangalore Days’, took a massive hit. But she won’t ever apologise for speaking her truth and taking one for the women’s team.
“If you just take the last couple of films that I have done, it was well-received at the box office and critically. Take that graph of mine and compare it with a male actor’s graph, I should have a lot of projects in Malayalam right now. I just got offered two projects in the span of three years. I should have seen a lot more film offers ... Majority of them want to keep away from the whistle blower,” said Parvathy.
She isn’t alone. Every member of the Women In Cinema Collective have fallen out of favour for having the audacity to form a group that may pin some accountability on the predators.
“Many have asked me why do I constantly put myself in danger and out of work? … But I wouldn’t listen to what they had to say about being quiet. Silence is amazing and healing when it comes to self-love. But when it comes to politics — which is our everyday life — personal is political for me,” she said.
Fighting against injustice
Parvathy, who was also seen with late actor Irrfan Khan in ‘Qarib Qarib Single’, claims she has a huge alarm clock in her head that beeps loudly when she sees injustices and will continue to use her celebrity for the greater good. Her 'Women In Cinema Collective', whose members include Revathy, Padma Priya, Remya Nambeesan, and Reema Kallingal, has encouraged her to stick to that path.
“I have realised my privilege and I have this stage and mic … But I don’t think I would have been this outspoken if not for the collective. I think I would have gone for another job,” said Parvathy with a laugh.
Her journey with the WCC hasn’t been an easy one. They want to be heard but are being greeted with mostly token activism from her male peers.
“We are all extremely exhausted but driven … All of us have the work cut out for us. But some members cannot even speak out loud that they are a part of us because they will be cut out from the projects that they have … But we are all determined not to go back to the pre-2017 set world,” she said.
The pushback is so strong that she has even advised many other WCC members not to reveal their allegiance to the collective.
“The moment they get to know that they are a part of WCC, they are out of that job … We do not want anyone else to take the brunt of it,” said Parvathy. She believes the rejection she faced from her male-dominated workplace was ‘highly cushioned’ since she was already an established talent in 2017 when she decided to call out the misogyny in Malayalam film industry.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t reached that point in my career. Probably, I would have been washed out from the face of this industry,” she said.
But despite taking some solid strides with WCC, Parvathy is still disillusioned by the resistance that they continue to face from powerful production houses.
In the Malayalam film industry, top actors like Mohanlal, Prithviraj, Fahadh Faasil, Dulquer Salmaan and Dileep own production houses that back a majority of the films being rolled out every year. Traditionally, the Malayalam film industry has been led by male superstars like Mohanlal and Mammootty and are fuelled by their money-spinners.
“Nobody has come out and made a statement even now after the huge wave of #MeToo that they will be POSH law compliant … There are still so many people who need to come out and speak of their own #MeToo experiences. But first our workplace needs to be a better place for us,” said Parvathy. The WCC has been heavily batting for a POSH law (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) organisational policy to be implemented in all production houses in the last few years, but the resistance is still stiff among male-backed production companies.
“When that statement came out by the survivor, everybody was sharing it. While it’s amazing to see that kind of solidarity, why do we still have so many production companies in Kerala who are not POSH law compliant? Isn’t that a contradiction? If you are truly in solidarity, then shouldn’t you be changing your workplace?” Parvathy asked.
A year after the formation of WCC and the alleged assault on the actress, the WCC filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court, urging the court to spur the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) to institute an Internal Complaint Committee, in line with the Vishaka Guidelines and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, in all production houses. But a counter writ petition was filed claiming that there was no need for such a committee in any production house.
“They have the audacity to say that where we have a glaring assault case that’s being tried for the last five years. How can they say that there are no problems in the film industry?” she said.
The WCC also faced a major setback when they realised that their recommendations made to the Justice Hema Commission, a body instituted to study the inner workings of the Malayalam film industry and bring about gender parity after the alleged assault case, is still facing roadblocks such as confidentiality issues. Should the names of the survivors and the predators be made public or not has been touted as a cause for inordinate delay.
“It begs the question about who’s being actually protected? How many of us need to be discriminated against, assaulted, and harassed before this gets anywhere. It has already been five years,” Parvathy said. “So the question remains: what’s the value attached to our safety and our time? … I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Forget the light I don’t see the tunnel itself.”
“In these five years, we at WCC have experienced sleepless nights, stress, and the trauma of reliving what happened to us so that a report can be made … Now I hear there’s a new committee that has been instituted to study the Justice Hema Commission Committee Report.