When in Kerala, cherchez la femme

About the Misogynistic Malayalee Man, the Missing Malayalee Woman and other such…

Last February, a Malayalam actor said she was abducted and sexually assaulted in her car for more than two hours, during which time the men also reportedly photographed the incident. The survivor accused actor Dileep of masterminding the crime, and the high-profile case has since punched Kerala and the Malayalam film industry right in the gut.

Even as the case makes its laborious way through our tortuous judicial system, amply obstructed by the rich and the powerful, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists or AMMA, which had initially ejected Dileep, decided to reinstate him some weeks ago. Now, following huge protests and the resignation of four women actors, Dileep has been thrown out again.

Dileep’s reinstatement by AMMA when he is out only on bail was very similar to Minister of State Jayant Sinha garlanding the eight accused in a lynching case when they too were released on bail. In both cases, the people concerned muttered something about the law. Clearly, these clever men are reading ‘Released On Bail’ as ‘Absolved Of Crime’. Either they are dyslexic or corrupt — or both. Sinha issued a mealy-mouthed apology-that-wasn’t, while superstar Mohanlal, AMMA president, didn’t cover himself in glory with his indifferent and supercilious tone.

Besides these shenanigans, entertaining as they are, two things have stood out during the course of this sordid episode. First is the misogyny of Kerala society that is increasingly coming to light, surprising the rest of India that has so far fondly imagined that this island of high literacy and high-scoring development indices is also woke to women’s rights. Apparently, no. My Malayalee friends go so far as to say that just returning home on vacation is a fraught affair, as they combat catcalls, groping and ogling. Even in a rabidly male chauvinist India, the frustrated Mallu Man has become somewhat of a stock character.

So, what gives? Kerala produces some of the country’s most iconoclastic and progressive literature and cinema. Large sections of Malayalee society are matrilineal — households governed by matriarchs and property inherited through the female line. Kerala shares with Pondicherry the distinction of being India’s only States with a female-tilted sex ratio: 1084 females per 1000 males. Female literacy is a high 92%, while mother and infant mortality rates are gratifyingly low.

The first signs of anomaly are seen when we examine women in Kerala’s workforce — they constitute only 24.8%. This is an eye-opener — what are all the educated women doing? Is patriarchy keeping them out of jobs? Even in politics, there are two female ministers only.

Slowly, the perfect tapestry unravels: Sex scandals and trafficking stories every other day. Anecdotes of male-only social gatherings. Tourist complaints. More anecdotes of the Alcohol Addicted Malayalee Man. The Modest Missing Woman, not seen in pubs, restaurants or public spaces after sunset. And now, skeletons from the film industry tumbling out — casting couch, male control, pay imbalance, power games.

And it’s because of this that the second point I mentioned stands out sharply. The Women in Cinema Collective.

Started last November to combat issues faced by women in the Malayalam cinema industry, WCC is a brave and absolutely fabulous initiative that cocks a definitive snook at M3 — the Misogynistic Malayalee Man.

Apart from following up on the Dileep case diligently, it’s WCC that is negotiating with the government for formal wage and welfare schemes for women in the industry, and pushing for issues like maternity pay and subsidies to production crews with at least 30% women. It has plans for technical filmmaking courses, awards, seminars and more. It will speak up against scripts that perpetuate stalking, misogyny or sexism. WCC is working on setting up an Internal Complaints Committee to prevent the exploitation of female actors.

The birth of WCC in some way reaffirms my faith in Kerala. Film industries are notoriously misogynistic places, and women have been forced to sub  mit to men or lose careers. There’s always been only one way to combat this: some sort of body that could represent women and speak in one concerted and powerful voice so that the industry listens. And Kerala has been first off the block. It’s high time the film industries of Mumbai, Chennai and other cities — each one notoriously prejudicial to women — followed suit.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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