Indian actress Bhavana Menon, who was allegedly abducted and sexually assaulted in 2017 in a moving vehicle, took a brave call this January when she opened up about her journey “from being a victim to becoming a survivor” through an Instagram post.
It was the first time since the tragedy that Menon stepped forward to identify herself as a sexual assault survivor. But she tells Gulf News that she has been repeatedly blamed for the attack and made to feel as if the trauma inflicted on her was her fault.
“Victim shaming is a reality unfortunately, and I experienced it. I still don’t know how to handle the social media toxicity; it’s insensitive and appalling,” Menon told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.
In February 2017, Menon was headed for Kochi from Thrissur in her vehicle when she was allegedly intercepted by a group of men who reportedly sexually assaulted her and filmed the attack to blackmail her later. A few days later, a popular Malayalam actor and producer was accused of orchestrating the crime and arrested. The actor is being charged with criminal conspiracy and is now out on bail after spending more than three months in jail in 2017.
The actor has denied the charges in this case, which is still ongoing, with several witness having reportedly turned hostile.
Even as the investigation unfolded, Menon said she was subjected to lot of negativity.
“Like I said in my [earlier] interviews, I have been name-called, accused and shamed time and again and I was trying to wrap my head around why people are doing this and what did I do wrong to deal with this trauma,” said Menon.
But she didn’t let the vitriolic hate get to her and decided to keep her voice alive while hoping that no other woman goes through a similar ordeal.
“The Instagram post was meant to show my gratitude towards the people who constantly supported me, motivated me, and stood by me … I try to ignore it [victim shaming] and keep thinking that some random people who don’t anything about me are getting some sort of amusement out of it,” said Menon.
Following the attack, her industry colleagues Parvathy, Revathy, Rima Kallingal, Remya Nambeesan and director Anjali Menon, among others, formed the ‘Women In Cinema Collective’ to provide equal opportunities and safe spaces for them at work. It was a telling sign of their solidarity towards her.
“But after a long period, you reach a point when you realise what actually matters is your loved one’s opinions, your family, friends and colleagues and I started focusing on them. It’s a still a regular fight within me but I am slowly getting there,” said Menon.
After the attack, Menon, who has acted in more than 80 South Indian films — with a majority of them in Malayalam, distanced herself from the Kerala film industry. She claims that any association with that industry triggers terrible memories in her. But she is now learning to conquer that fear and alienation.
“It’s still difficult for me; the thought of meeting anyone from the industry took me back to the memory of my incident. But I’m sure I can’t stay away from my work which means everything to me. I was working in other languages and doing my brand commitments. I said no to so many good Malayalam movies [over] the past years, but now I feel I’m ready to resume my work in Malayalam industry,” said Menon.
Her decision to enter the Malayali film force is a significant development. Soon after the attack, her friends and colleagues like Prithviraj, Baburaj, and directors Shaji Kailas and Jinu Abraham had offered her work and collectively implored her to return to Malayalam films. But it took her more than five years to reach this point where the thought of acting in Malayalam films was palatable. She’s currently based in Bengaluru after marrying her sweetheart and Kannada producer Naveen.
“It’s not been an easy journey. But you learn a lot, experience a lot of emotions. But it is what it is. The fight is more for my rights, my dignity and my mental peace,” said Menon.
The case continues to grab headlines and Menon claims her fight for dignity is her way of taking one for the women’s team. Menon’s decision to speak up as a survivor and not a victim is emblematic of breaking the culture of silence and shame around crimes of sexual nature.
The actress is keenly aware that she’s now the symbol of hope to millions of women who have been subjected to such horrific crimes.
“I feel so grateful when people tell me that I inspire them or motivate them. I want to tell them not to give up, fight for your rights fearlessly, and take good care of your physical and mental health,” said Menon.
— Gulf News does not reveal the identity of survivors of sexual assault unless they have come forward.
A timeline of the case
-In February 2017, Bhavana Menon was allegedly kidnapped and sexually abused while travelling to Kochi for work.
-She alleged at the time there were at least four men who had intercepted her vehicle and filmed the attack who then dropped her off at South Indian director Lal’s home.
-The actress filed a complaint on the same day and a First Information Report or FIR was registered. She claimed she knew one of the men in the car.
-A leading Malayalam movie star emerged as the eighth accused in the case and was arrested in July 2017 following an investigation. According to reports, he was charged with conspiracy to abduct and molest the actress inside her car.
-He was released after 85 days in jail on bail.
-The trial, which began in November 2019, was halted after the prosecution moved the Kerala High Court seeking to change the trial court judge, alleging bias. The actress, too, had made such a demand. However, the Kerala High Court rejected the plea.
-The state government then moved the Supreme Court, which, in December 2020, rejected the request saying such allegations were “unwarranted”.
-In December 2021, filmmaker Balachandrakumar made several allegations against the actor who was accused. Police has now filed a new FIR against him over audio clips submitted by Balachandrakumar.
-The actor has sought anticipatory bail, while the actress took to her Instagram account to highlight her journey from being a victim to a survivor.