Social Issues

#MeToo India: Here’s why it matters

Hear them out.

On 20th October, right in the middle of the #MeToo movement picking up momentum in the Tamil film industry, several women from the industry, spearheaded by singer Chinmayi Sripada, held a press conference to take stock of the situation at hand and answer further queries, going beyond the 280 characters they managed to fit on Twitter.

This press conference wasn’t your regular one, where there would be photos and video bites taken about their projects, what they’re wearing, and glam shots reserved for Instagram. No, it was a serious one where the women – Chinmayi, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, Leena Manimekalai, Sriranjani, and others – were subjected to various forms of disrespect right from the journalists’ questions to the instances of victim shaming that they tried to stop. Eventually, taking to the floor, Chinmayi, folding her hands with exhaustion writ large on her face, appealed the media to be a little more sensitive to them. After all, they were women who had endured harassment and were only looking to speak of their experience and seek justice.

“We have stories to tell. Why aren’t you even listening to us?” Chinmayi can be heard, raising her voice amidst the cacophony. Silence is briefly observed until more men (and some women) continue questioning their intentions.

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The #MeToo movement is the brainchild of Tarana Burke, an African-American civil rights activist who coined the term in 2006. While it took a while for the movement to gain traction, in 2017, right on the heels of the infamous Harvey Weinstein expose, where Hollywood’s top producer was accused of sexual misconduct by several top actresses, actress Alyssa Milano revived the movement by imploring everyone to share the hashtag of ‘Me Too’ if they had ever endured any sort of misconduct ever. The number of women who were subjected to such treatment was alarming, with even some men opening up about their experiences.

Cut to 2018, where former Indian actress Tanushree Dutta goes on record to say how actor Nana Patekar made her life hell during the shooting of ‘Horn Ok Pleassse’ in 2008. She left the set when he continued making advances towards her and this led to a flurry of activities including an experience that made Tanushree quite the industry.

“He [Patekar] called the MNS party to bash up my car. He was behind everything and was supported by choreographer Ganesh Acharya.” In a video from 2008 that went viral on the internet, goons were seen thrashing Dutta’s car.

Her opening up about this, with many others verifying her story, led to India’s very own #MeToo movement. Comedian Utsav Chakraborty was accused by multiple women of sending pictures of his genitalia and sexually harassing underaged girls. This lead to a barrage of other women speaking up about the abuse they have felt, opening up about incidents that trace back to years, where silences were broken because enough was enough.

Right from women who identified themselves to staying anonymous fearing shame, big names started being called out in the media. Call it a massive clean-up, names such as minister MJ Akbar, lyricist Vairamuthu, composer Anu Mallik, singer Karthik, writer Suhel Seth, director Sajid Khan, actor Arjun Sarja, and so many more. The list grows, longer and longer by the day, the women feeling empowered minute by minute.

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“Why didn’t she speak out earlier?”

Singer Chinmayi has been at the forefront in helping women from the industry (and outside) to speak up on the misconduct they faced. Right from the time when she outed lyricist Vairamuthu, several other women came out relating similar stories involving him. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Chinmayi has been facing a barrage of abuse and threats from those accusing her of seeking publicity and deliberately trying to “defame” a man of his stature.

In an exclusive video interview with us, Chinmayi highlights the points that made not just her but other women, too, to come out with their stories years later. Pointing out that shame and fear of losing out on work as a huge factor, Chinmayi elaborates that there’s immense pain and trauma caused when a woman is harassed and abused.

Bearing in mind the way victim-shaming comes into play, where it appears more convenient to blame the woman as opposed to holding the man accountable, the fear is real, the silence is louder than words. When questions such as “Why didn’t you say it before?” or “You must be lying as it happened years ago and there’s no proof” become overused, resulting in women being forced to keep quiet again. And while she stands to lose a whole lot, the man who has been accused of those charges, is seldom affected. Case in point – actor Dileep, Nana Patekar, Aloknath, Cristiano Ronaldo et al.

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Here’s why it shouldn’t be taken as a joke:

Someone as popular as Radha Ravi, a veteran actor, likened the whole movement to a witchhunt, where men should be protected more. “There is no safety for men in the society. We have to look for the women who accused us,” he was quoted saying, reducing the whole movement to thinly veiled humour. What’s worse, jokes too started to float around about the movement. Sample these:

“Today my son asked me, “Papa what is this #MeToo?”

I said: “It is a retirement insurance plan for ladies. They indulge in everything but when career is over, invoke this insurance plan and TV channels provide the cover.”

Sexual violence, misconduct, or any such incidents that make the woman uncomfortable IS a crime and should be condemned and called out. It can only be taken seriously if one doesn’t brush it off as a joke. It’s insulting to those who have endured it, it’s insulting to those who are constantly in the fear of it. There’s a reason why this moment has picked up momentum and continues to rage against the sea.

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In solidarity

It’s imperative to be empathetic when it comes to a woman sharing her story. Whether it sounds lame, fake, or even unconvincing to you, it shouldn’t matter because ultimately, we need to give her the confidence that she will not be let down. Before passing judgement on her or branding her as an “attention seeker”, one must instead question the man who might have caused her harm.

While the media continues to struggle to bring out the stories of these survivors, it’s the little voices that count.

RJ and anchor Mirchi Vijay shared a video of him and Mirchi Sha explaining why we must stand with the survivor and not question them first, and becoming a support system for her. Speaking to JFW, Vijay says:

“When there is a social issue happening, we (Vijay and Sha) instantly go on social media platforms and voice out our opinion. In our video, we don’t talk about those who have been named under #MeToo. We don’t name names such as Chinmayi or Vairamuthu. We wanted to create an awareness of sorts so that next time a woman is able to share her ordeal without being trolled or abused. This movement should be moved to a better platform, like an app where all cases can be compiled together and then corresponding actions can be taken – that’s our idea.”

Other personalities such as actor Siddharth has been vociferously championing the cause for women, going beyond diplomacy and being rather upfront about it. In other words, he’s been an ally and so have other personalities such as Vetrimaaran and AR Rahman.

Ultimately, if one were to peek into this movement, the silence from all the bigger heroes is hard to ignore. And while women live and bleed out stories of pain, turmoil, guilt, and fear, every day, the support lent towards the alleged perpetrators instead of the survivors paint a dreary picture of this powerful, ongoing movement.

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