Never in a million years did Harvey Weinstein believe that the sins of his past would come back to haunt him so. The #MeToo campaign and the related #TimesUp have caused a shake-up of an unprecedented scale in Hollywood. The fallout has begun – the Weinsteins and the Spaceys of the movie industries have been exposed. But don’t we have these characters right here in India as well?
The most recent episode of an aspiring actress resorting to protest by divesting herself of clothes in front of the citadel of Telugu filmdom speaks of a tale of exploitation, deceit and social prejudice. In a predominantly male-centric and patriarchal industry that reduces women to nothing more than sexual objects, the struggles of women who want to make their mark in the industry are real – very real. Barring a handful few who have, by filial relations or otherwise, been able to manoeuvre themselves into advantageous positions, the average woman aspirant is ill-equipped to deal with the overwhelmingly sexualised male gaze of the cinema industry. Lacking any regulatory mechanism or support systems, these women who often venture into films without guidance of any sort, fall prey to the vile machinations of exploitative producers/directors or “coordinators” (read middlemen). These middlemen are often responsible for “committing” actors (trading sexual favours) for roles. A lucky few go ahead and make it to the movies. The majority, however, fall by the wayside, having to resort to doing odd jobs to make ends meet.
It is rare, however, that someone protests this deplorable state of affairs in one of India’s largest industries – and certainly what is India’s largest cultural export. The recent protest by Sri Reddy, and more significantly, the reactions that followed, highlight the deep-rooted patriarchy that often masquerades itself as ‘women’s progress’. The most striking fact about the reactions is the definitive lack of solidarity with the protesting artiste. The film fraternity has been quick to distance themselves from the artist, with some even going to claim mental instability on her part. The outrage has been mostly focused on the form of the protest, not the content.
But here is a puzzle – in a ‘profession’ that idolises the body, why is there such discomfiture with a form of protest that capitalises on the very same asset – the body? Why is the artist in question labelled ‘immoral’ and ‘insane’ when she is merely using the very tool that she was to have used to make a living? The surprising lack of solidarity from the women of the film fraternity points to two things: either they agree with sexual exploitation and conform to the norms, or, they are not in a position to express dissent themselves and therefore stay mum – neither of which is a healthy marker of an empowered female workforce. What will it take for a #MeToo also to happen in the Telugu film industry? One thing is for sure – united we stand, divided we scoff.