Author: Padmapriya Janakiraman
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: March 2, 2017
The recent attack on a woman actor in Kerala has shaken the state. Both government and employers, including the film industry, are accountable on women’s safety
The late evening breeze brushing my face, personalised music playing in the background and banter while driving with my closest companions, driver etta and my paper, is my typical post-work routine. But the recent assault on my colleague has rudely shaken my desire for this well-ordered setting. It has also deeply affected my notions of safety as a film professional with respect to travelling, especially at night. As I gather together my broken faith and rationalise, it is infuriating to know that the chances of the incident occurring at all could have been minimised, if only certain steps were taken.
If only the state and Union government cared to deliver on their primary duty — the basic safety of citizens. While it is gladdening to hear of Kerala’s governor, P. Sathasivam’s solution-driven approach, that is hardly the comprehensive movement against such crime that the state needs. As Sonal Shah, senior manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy puts it, we need to investigate our gender-blind infrastructure as mobility plans rarely collect gender disaggregated data, inequities such as daily harassment, forced mobility, forced immobility, etc.
Cities around the world have managed crime to emerge stronger: New York, for example, went in less than two decades from being a cash-strapped, crime-racked city to becoming the 10th safest major city in the world today. While various kinds of non-governmental and neighbourhood groups put their hearts and minds towards solving the problem, it was the persistent, collective and aggressive effort of government agencies that brought rapid change. Community courts, NY police, NY city transit authority and the port authority worked together to find sustainable solutions for women’s safety, restoring order in NY’s public spaces.
If only the film industry also took proactive measures to ensure that women — about a quarter of its workforce — are safe and clearly illustrate what they should do if they are attacked. In an industry of free entry and exit, where all you need is a recommendation for a union card, where is the guarantee of safety for anybody? Especially for women, for whom even basic facilities like washrooms and a space for changing is an aberration. I just completed working towards an upcoming Hindi film Chef; in a career of close to 50 films, this happens to be the only movie which boasted of a gender-equal set. If the director was a man, the producer was a woman; if the editor a guy, the production designer a woman. Working on such a set meant much to me, professionally and personally.
The sheer number of women on set demands there be a safe and gender-equal working environment. This time, my assistant didn’t have to run around with a broom to get the washroom ready. On a gender-equal set, when certain facilities cannot be provided, you have someone to fall back on. Female assistant directors would use my vanity van restroom during street shootings and I would always have someone around with wardrobe malfunctions. In a crazy, high-pressure environment like a film set, eventually a peculiar kind of empathy develops for your co-workers. This is normally missing for women professionals on other sets; how will the men know what the other sex goes through unless they engage with them? Employers in the film industry have to get gender-friendly; else, not many would risk being in front of or behind the camera.
However, even on a gender-equal set, there is no clear idea about what kind of support the fraternity can provide if an untoward incident takes place. I recollect how, in my early years, a popular director ignored a young woman’s complaint of a driver feeling her up — not only was she asked to overlook it, the same driver continued to ferry her around for the next 15 days. As a 20-year-old, it caused me tremendous discomfort, but I was too naïve to figure out what could be done.
A decade later, with a fashionable NYU degree and Vishakha guidelines backing me, I still don’t know what the recourse is. It isn’t just me who’s ignorant on this; AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists) members have been circulating emotional emails on how to support our recently-attacked colleague. But we should get real — being physically violated in any manner is a heinous criminal offence. As an industry which contributes significantly to the economy, shouldn’t Vishakha guidelines be as applicable to this industry as it is to others?
I was asked to write this piece as I have always travelled alone, sans parents, bodyguards and all the trumpets surrounding us stars. I respect and continue to trust all the drivers who have clocked miles with me. But let me confess — that never happened organically. It happened at the cost of being extra-cautious about what I wear, what time I travel, how I talk — doing all that a female is expected to do to survive in this country in a sane and safe manner.
As a matter of fact, as I write this piece, a female colleague and I are juggling diverse permutations to find the safest way to travel from Wayanad to Calicut to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight. Seven decades after Independence, it’s shameful that the polity of India defines a woman’s “boldness” by her decision to travel alone. It is high time the government — and our employers — come together on a war footing to find comprehensive solutions that are implemented vigourously, and not just announce a slew of measures for which non-outcome-based budget lines are created amidst a media outcry. It is also high time that the women of this country held their employers and government accountable, through their vigilance — and their votes.