Fighting words, and why not? Ramya Nambessan is known to stand her ground, even if it means giving up on movie opportunities. She’s had long gaps between projects, but has never let that affect her. Little surprise, then, that she was among the first four actresses to resign from AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes), following the reinstatement of actor Dileep, an accused in the abduction of an actress in Kerala last year.
“I’ve always fought for truth and justice, and I believe an organisation must be responsible and socially conscious. I was not around for the AMMA general body meeting on June 24. When we knew what transpired, some of us felt we had to register our protest. Many ask us why we should fight for the survivor, but any organisation is above individuals. Its basic responsibility is to protect members; the survivor is also a member.”
Ramya says what they are doing is questioning the Association in a democratic manner. “The decision they took is unhealthy. We were hurting when we came to know of it. The WCC (Women in Cinema Collective, a Kerala-based body of women working in the film industry) as an organisation supports us. Parvathy, Padmapriya and Revathy have written to them and are waiting for a meeting to be called. We understand the Association is better known for its charity measures for actors, but imagine letting down a survivor of a nationally-reported crime. This is about human safety; it can happen to anyone, man or woman, tomorrow. What is the Association proving now? That it also safeguards criminals?”
As to the theory that many actors are afraid to speak up for fear of lost chances, Ramya says that she’s been there and done that. “I’ve been rejected many times. Sometimes for asking for a script, at others for demanding a rightful salary. But there’s another reason behind the rejections. And I have too much self-respect to beg for roles. I am an artiste; an artiste thinks and speaks from the heart. If they won’t allow you space, you have to fight to create your own.”
At the Mazhavil Azhakil AMMA (a variety-entertainment show that the general entertainment channel Mazhavil Manorama produces), a sketch true to the Malayalee’s love for satire was performed. Rendered by six actresses, it was a loud and clear message about AMMA’s attitude towards the WCC. Remya says she was not aware of it though she was part of the event. “And to think we felt we were all united and fighting a common enemy. The sketch showed that they were not willing to stand by us.”
A pretty hard realisation to come to, Ramya admits, and segues into talking about how difficult, or not, the path is for someone who speaks up in dissent in the Malayalam film industry. “While there have been no verbal threats and phone calls, we know we are being avoided. They make it clear we are not welcome. Luckily, at that stage, the Tamil industry welcomed me. I was able to speak my mind. I asked for and got scripts and the salary I deserved. But I won’t blame all my friends in Malayalam; they probably have their reasons.”
The best part of the crisis, says Ramya, is that many women technicians from the industry have come forward to work with the WCC. “All we want is a healthy gender equality in the industry, a healthy work environment.” Support has come in from various quarters. Tamil director CS Amudhan, whose film TP2 is due for release, has called her to show solidarity. So have actor Joy Mathew and theatre personality Balachandran. “Some people are showing guts. But guess what’s most upsetting? That reel and real are so different. We grew up seeing these actors and believing in them; I am not attacking any individual, but as a group, actors must be responsible for society and show that they care. We have to speak up.”
Ramya, however, makes room for the silence. “It all boils down to conditioning. We have been taught to accept the view of the majority. We paid for the AMMA membership, we attended meetings, socialised with actors and came back to our world. But that’s not all, right? I truly thought I could fight from within the system. But I could not.”
“When you question, there will be ripple effects at work”: Padmapriya
Dancer, actor and public policy expert Padmapriya, along with colleagues Revathy and Parvathy, has written to AMMA asking for a meeting regarding the current crisis. “We belong to AMMA as much as we are part of the WCC, and when some wanted to resign in solidarity, it was a democratic decision.”
In retrospect, Priya says she regrets the limited involvement in AMMA that she and her colleagues have shown. “I wish all of us had been more proactive instead of meeting people, eating biryani and leaving.” And no, she believes the fear of one’s career must not stop people from supporting the truth. “It is a given that when you question, there will be ripple effects at work. It is a creative space, and it is uncomfortable to work together. But this is required in order to progressively evolve into an association of people who are employed and taken care of. Everyone should speak up, even newcomers.”
Padmapriya is all for a collaborative effort at dialogue. “I prefer that instead of discouraging rift. That won’t lead us anywhere. It is important to understand sexism and gender equality. This is a chance to go ahead and see that this is taken care of. I truly believe if we have a constructive relationship, things will only improve. And so, I choose dialogue.”
You can read more about recent developments in the case where over a 100 artistes from the industry have signed a petition displaying solidarity with the sexual assault survivor.