Fight for dignity of women at workplace: Actor Padmapriya on court order on ICs


Sowmya Rajendran 

Padmapriya says that the WCC has managed to survive despite working in adverse circumstances, and discusses why this court order is significant in the fight against patriarchy. 

The Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) has pulled off a major victory in their fight against patriarchy in the Malayalam film industry. On March 17, the Kerala High Court passed an order asking Malayalam film production houses and organisations like AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists) and FEFKA (Film Employees Federation of Kerala) to set up Internal Committees (IC) as mandated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act or PoSH Act.

The order comes four years after the WCC went to court, facing hostility from the Malayalam film industry for daring to ask questions about sexual harassment, pay parity, and a number of other issues that affect women who work in cinema.

Actor Padmapriya Janakiraman, who is the authorised signatory of the WCC, spoke to TNM about the significance of the order, the repercussions it will have on the industry, and the WCC’s long journey in a battle that isn’t over yet.

What do you feel will be the impact of this order?

This is a great verdict, and in many ways, a path breaking judgment. Some of the key wins for us at WCC and all the women in cinema and those who aspire to be cinema are:

  1. a) It’s the first time a court is recognising what a workplace is in an unorganised sector like cinema. It is something critical for our overall understanding of the industry but also key for the implementation of the PoSH Act, 2013. The court has explicitly spelled out the producer and the production unit as an establishment, therefore making them primarily responsible for ensuring the dignity of women at the workplace as defined in the Act. Mandating the establishment of a grievance redressal cell in the form of an Internal Committee is a landmark decision. This, we hope, will be of use and understanding to film industries and courts both nationally and internationally. And therefore, the exercising of human rights in the context of cinema.
  2. b) Organisations who were respondents in our writ i.e., FEFKA, Producers’ Association, AMMA, MACTA, Kerala state government, and the Film Chamber are now duty-bound to implement the provisions spelt out in the PoSH Act. This is important because all the stakeholders in their responses had passed the buck saying the film industry is unorganised and they could not be held responsible. Ensuring the dignity of women at the workplace is responsibility that is not a formality, not a gift anyone is giving away to their female colleagues. And while this is intuitive, we are glad the courts took a clear stand as per the law of the land.
  3. c) The order requires AMMA implement the IC as per the PoSH Act. This is so critical – the court is basically directing AMMA to form an IC that follows the letter and spirit of the law. What the court is saying is that this is not some complaint committee of AMMA but an IC, one that has the power of a lower court, to which the AMMA leadership is accountable and not vice versa. Arbitrary appointments of members in IC positions (like it has now) and/or having selective solidarity to women in some cases and not the others will not do. Perhaps as a starting point, AMMA should call back Bhavana, Rima, Parvathy, Remya and Geetu and make the current continuing secretary, Edavela Babu, apologise for the disparaging remarks made on women and the survivor Bhavana.

It’s important that AMMA’s leadership take this stand as my actor colleagues have an enormous influence on the social and cultural fabric of the industry and the society. It’s important that they take the lead here.

  1. d) Lastly and most importantly, this constitutional court has upheld the need to protect women’s dignity and recognised the right to life and personal liberty of the women in the film industry. Some of the respondents to this PIL mentioned in their replies that WCC had filed this writ for publicity. We are so thankful to this constitutional court for quashing that and seeing that what we are asking for is our basic human right.
Some Malayalam producers have already started constituting ICs at the workplace. Do you feel the industry is slowly changing?

Yes and no. Yes, because finally we are doing it, there is awareness of the fact that ICs should exist. But it still seems like an act of formality — not like paying income tax that they must do. Their attitude towards instituting an IC is more like, karna hai to karenge (we will do it if required). Why has implementing the formation of the IC taken us so many years — a writ petition from a watchdog like WCC and now the High Court order? Because it’s convenient not to do so.

The shift has to be to say that we need dignity for women at the workplace —  beginning with understanding what dignity of women is, how and where the IC plays a role, how as a producer one can ensure that the whole film unit understands what dignity is. How can producers prevent sexual harassment at the workplace and ensure there is zero tolerance policy to the same, and what to do if it unfortunately takes place, despite all efforts.

What will be the WCC’s next steps to ensure that this order is followed?

Well, it’s been a tedious and long journey, and a great first step, or leap, if I may say so. We should really celebrate and discuss the nature and spirit of this order and share it widely. Our next step would be to see how the order is implemented and understood by the Malayalam film industry and the trade bodies. Our vision is to ensure equal spaces and equal opportunities for women in cinema, and whatever that means and takes, we will do it – onwards and avalkoppam (with her), as we always reiterate.

It took around four years for this order to come. How difficult has the fight been?

It has been a tedious four years, woah! In legal cases, the formalities are many and it’s such a long-winding tedious process. Like just organising online calls, finding collaborators, convincing them, making notes, keeping a systematic record of everything in a hard drive or cloud. I know it sounds inane, but it’s a lot. There is a lot of painful administrative stuff. But what I also thought was the most painful part was that our writ had no opponent, it was a constructive one. We assumed it would have been intuitively super easy and fast to close because this law already exists. But believing that was that was such a folly because there was so much opposition.

Seeing the kind of lethargic replies (and some of our respondents didn’t even care to respond), and vainful accusations made at the WCC, we all started to feel where the heck this is going. At some point, it was emotionally challenging and made us think if we were even right in asking for what we think is legitimately ours? But just when that happened, the kind of collaborators and support we got from across the country (CINTAA – Cine and TV Artistes Association, Producers Guild of India, Screenwriters Association, Voice of Women, Film Industry for Rights and Equality, Women’s Commission), NGOs like Anweshi and many others, lawyers and media and members of the media, Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI)…it was, and has been, overwhelming. The respondents’ half-hearted replies were also useful because they showed what we have achieved through the order today is more than what we set out to do in the first place.

Bhavana recently identified herself as the survivor in the sexual assault case and has also announced her return to Malayalam cinema. She has said that the WCC’s support was crucial in her journey so far. How do you see these past few years, these seismic shifts in the industry? How has it changed you?

Firstly, kudos to Bhavana for pulling through this journey. No matter what the solidarity, it’s her journey alone and all the credit goes to her for that. Her bravery also pushed for many other women to come together and speak for themselves in one voice. I think we all owe Bhavana a lot and solidarity is the least we can give her.

Honestly, even on a good day like this, I have to admit that I don’t see any seismic shifts in the industry, whatever is happening in bits and pieces is a very slow repercussion of social, public, cultural and legal scrutiny of the industry. It is not for no reason that the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 projects that another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity. But all dramatic changes take place slowly, and as a result of many efforts put together. The fact that we have a watchdog and fierce collective like the WCC should be a strong assurance that change will come.

For me personally, well, when I spoke out in the past publicly regarding workplace dignity issues and took the issue to courts or trade bodies, there was never any support. I got justice but doing it all alone, even if you have the strongest of family support, can be crushing. So I am glad Bhavana’s bravery finally brought women in the fraternity together. Having worked across the public, private and non-profit sectors, where I always find female kinship, it really used to irk me not to be able to have female friends [in the film industry]. The biggest change that life has brought in the last five years, is that I have found true female friendship in a field that I love working in – we celebrate, fight, banter, crib but when need to, we stand for each other and speak for the other like we are speaking for our own cause. In the process, I may have inadvertently lost touch with male colleagues, but this is temporary and they will return to the fold when they recognise our gains.

Do you feel other industries will follow suit, seeing the impact the WCC has been able to make?

The WCC is a very unique collective doing its bit. Through this journey, we, as a collective, have realised that work and efforts of all kinds are being made, and we should not discount the same. In the US, SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and Sundance have contributed significantly [to making workplaces safer for women in films]. Closer home, the Hindi, Telugu and Kannada film industries have started recognising gender rights and women’s rights-based groups have been formed there as well. CINTAA supported our writ by becoming an impleader, and so did VOW (Voice of Women) and FIRE (Film Industry for Rights and Equality).

Speaking to all of them, seeing how articulate and aware they are of their rights, is empowering.  Also let’s not forget that the #MeToo movement has made its impact on issues of dignity and gender rights more vociferously.

But at the same time, there are very few across the country and the world, except a few circles, who know about WCC’s existence. There is not enough that we have done even with organisations like VOW, SIFWA (South Indian Film Women’s Association) and FIRE. This is a critical miss for all of us because we at the WCC have survived and continue to do so in the most adverse of circumstances in an unorganised sector – adverse because we have had and continue to have zero solidarity from many of our colleagues.

Our gains and our approach have been comprehensive and consistent — we have engaged with research, advocacy, legal, and policy engagement. We have created media narratives to bring about discussions that were merely relegated to the status of a controversy before. For instance,  the shift from victim shaming to celebrating the survivor is no joke. So, there is a lot to learn from WCC’s experiences.

But for more change to happen rapidly and visibly across other industries, it’s high time for the WCC to aggressively push collaborations with national and international trade bodies in cinema, with NGOs, and the media, so we all learn collaboratively and engage in best practice sharing. Even for this judgment that clearly defines the workplace in cinema to have its true impact, we need to advocate more not just in Kerala but across the country and the world. Any which way you see it, it’s a wonderful day today and we should celebrate the hope it brings.

Courtesy The News Minute

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