Back in December 2017, Malayalam actor Parvathy was subject to some spectacularly sustained and violent trolling on social media. It all began when she made some innocuous statements about the rampant misogyny in a film headlined by a major superstar without explicitly naming the movie or the actor (although we all knew she was talking about Kasaba, starring Mammooty). Mammooty fans as well as misogynists within and without the Malayalam film industry took the opportunity to unleash an outpouring of anger and hatred towards Parvathy.
It was hard not to feel like some of that vitriol was a product of the flux the Malayalam film industry has been in over the past year. Ever since the horrific abduction and assault of a popular Malayalam actor back in 2017, and the fact that the Kerala police arrested another superstar, Dileep, on conspiracy charges in conjunction with the case, the Malayalam film industry has been forced to reckon with itself and its sexism and misogyny in many ways. Clearly, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for all involved.
We wanted to chat with Parvathy about the trolling around her statements on misogyny, about the climate within the industry for the women working in it after the horrifying February 2017 attack, and the ways in which the global #MeToo moment is affecting the Malayalam film industry. Here’s what she had to say.
So, was it weird to be winning so many awards and accolades (you were the first Malayalam actor to win an IFFI award), and to simultaneously have the whole Kasaba debacle unfold alongside? How did you deal with all the vicious and perhaps ongoing trolling?
A lot of people were feeling bad for me, saying, “You should have been beaming with pride because you just won this award and iske beech mein yeh ho gaya, yaar. I was like, “How are these two even connected?” That is the actor who got honoured, and this is the person who’s being attacked because she’s of a certain gender. Two very different things.
My connection with the audience is through my work. There is no other obligation from them to me or me to them. It’s very simple. I do this job, I serve them with my work. They take services, they pay for it. And I’m grateful that they like the work that they see. If I do a terrible job, they will not support me, and they will not go watch my films. Some people have not liked the best of my work, some people have liked the worst of my work. It’s very bizarre, I mean I never have any control over it. But as long as I am committed and determined to give my best shot, I believe that it will reach a certain audience.
The other side of it is Parvathy the activist, the person who knows that things are shitty around her and feels that if she has a platform to talk about it, she might as put it across, and start having a conversation.
I would just emphasise, that to me, this [the sexist trolling] is probably is the best thing that could have happened. What I said exactly got proved. I said thank you very much, I didn’t even have to go ahead and explain it because they have explained it themselves. And it opens up the biggest can of worms which needs to be opened up, because we have got to cleanse, we have got to detox. And the conversation has started.
My friend was telling me that this particular issue has become a conversation in households and in workplaces [such as her own], where people are reflecting on misogyny and patriarchy at so many different levels. So, it’s the best thing to have happened, right? [laughs]
What are a few trolls going to do to me when the effect is going to be a much larger cleansing? People are going to get uncomfortable and hurt, and it’s going to be difficult, but what treatment to an illness is a joyful experience anyway?
What about people who weren’t exactly online trolls? You received a lot of negative comments from within the industry as well. Was it unsettling?
It was a little unsettling. When I met those reactions, I realised they didn’t actually watch the video. They didn’t actually hear what I said, so they were also perpetuating the same stupidity that the trolls were doing. They were listening to half the story and believing what they want to believe, and hearing what they want to hear, and not actually trying to reflect. Which is a very easy thing to do right?
After I read three or four such views, I blocked it out. They’re going on to prove where they stand. I didn’t have to do anything about it.
I do my work, I do my thing, and they do what they want to do. But I do want to say this industry is as much mine as it is theirs, so I’ll do my work, and I don’t think anyone can stop me from that.
I guess all film industries are in a bit of flux right now, with the global #MeToo movement really centering around the movie business. But in Kerala, these conversations started back in February 2017, with the assault and abduction of the Malayalam actress. How has this year been, as a working woman in the Malayalam film industry?
The most gloriously revealing sort of year. Everyone is coming out from behind their masks, even if they don’t want to. But time’s up. There’s an expiry date for these masks.
It’s so unfortunate that my colleague [the Malayalam actor who was abducted and assaulted in February 2017] had to go through what she had to go through, but the truth is, every single one of us—the women I have met, the women in WCC [the Women in Cinema Collective]—the more we talk, the more we realise that we’ve been repeatedly harassed, abused or exploited by the same people, and we never connected [with each other]. Because we were all made to feel that it’s a one-off thing, that it’s just you.
And then there are people, women, who say “oh I was decent, so nothing happened to me”, immediately meaning that we weren’t? Which is also another aspect of misogyny really.
But all these questions cropped up, and I’m just very proud that it happened in Kerala, because you can hear the deafening silence in other film industries. You know it’s happening right there too, but here we’re talking about it, we’ve started a conversation. And it’s not going to be pleasant, but we’ll be keeping it civil, that’s just how we are. But there’s going to be harder battles coming up ahead, because people who ought to be scared, are. They are, a lot of them.
Are they really? Can you sense this?
You can, definitely. You can see it immediately, in how they provide lesser opportunities for people who speak up. They’ll phase you out. The first thing they try to do is to phase you out. But they don’t know that we don’t allow the phasing out anymore. A lot of women have been phased out in the past. The power was too much, but now the power will be equalised.
But let me assert again, [those men and women] are scared for no reason. They think that us asking for our space, rights, dignity and integrity is directly proportional to them losing it. That’s a wrong notion, we can coexist happily. We’re trying to tell them and assure them they’re not going to lose anything. They don’t need to validate who they are by having less of us around.
What structural changes do you think could be made to make the film industry better for women?
Oh god, where do I begin.
One of the main problems here is that women don’t know they can come in and do this [work]. They’ve been told and they’ve been conditioned, and they [tell] themselves, think “yeh hamare bas ki baat nahi hain”. For us to break out and say that “oh I can actually do this, and what’s stopped me before?” That’s the sort of awakening that needs to come.
There’s a lot of other housekeeping to be done. The basic idea that people have gotten away doing legal [but questionable or damaging] things and treating people badly. And I’m not just talking about ccomen, but women, men and transgenders. All of them have been used one way or the other, or made to feel that they’ve been given a big opportunity. People need to realise that it’s a collaborative space and no one really owes anyone anything. It’s about building self-respect. The film industry and many other industries thrive on breaking a person’s self-respect first so that they become obligated and subordinate to another. Eventually, even with the little problems that people have been turning a blind eye to for the longest time, you start realising that just because it’s been done for ages, doesn’t mean it’s right.
Another tangible change that we are trying to effect, is equal representation of women and transgenders in our executive committees, in our respective unions.
We need to talk about sanitation and basic necessities on a film set for everybody, hairstylists, makeup people, costume directors. They also are not given the kind of basic provisions to take care of themselves during shoots outdoors. It’s just understood to be okay, that’s how it works, yaar. It doesn’t have to work like that, you can give basic respect for the basic existence that a person has. You don’t need to deprive people of their basic rights and make a film.
To even bring that to notice has been taking so long. So a really long battle here, but all in good time.
One good thing that has happened in 2017 is that we are just very beautifully arrogantly sure that we’re going to bring about a change. So, we’re calm about it. We’re cool, we’re chill. We’re tired of shouting. We realised there’s no point in shouting. We’re just going to do the work.
It feels like a lot of women actors in the south India film industry have really had enough, and are speaking out now because they just won’t take any more shit from anyone. Is that how it really is?
Not entirely, sadly. There are only a few of us now. Once the noise gets kickstarted, everybody seems to realise it’s going to affect them and their career negatively, because that can happen right. The first thing anybody does is take away our work (until they realise we can create our own work, then the jokes on them.) But, only a few of us believe we can make our own work. Many believe that they will only be given work.
How do you change this perception?
By being the example of creating your own work. You can’t talk them into it, you have to show them. That’s what we are focusing on.
A lot of people who speak up, will slowly realise they’ll have to play it smart in order to survive, and that’s all right. We’re not asking everyone to speak the same language. We’re just saying let’s have the same intention.
Do you think attitudes towards feminists are changing in Kerala? And how did you feel about being called a feminichi? I loved that word so much, I kept deliberately trying to create situations to use it.
You know what, I recently was sent an article [about being labeled a feminichi], and my friend said we shouldn’t encourage people to call us feminichi. I said, it’s a word, they’re going to tag us and brand us something at every point of our lives. So, let it be! And as soon as I heard feminichi, I said, oh wow! It has such a local flavour! By the way, I just got a bag by the really very cool sustainable bag makers, The Burlap People, on which I engraved it. It’s my friend and fellow feminichi Aysha Mahmoud’s design. I just stopped myself short of getting a tattoo, I thought that might be too much, but I have it on my bag.
I like the word feminichi. They think it’s a cuss word, but I’m like thank you, exactly. Feminichi all the way.
How have older women in the industry reacted to the events of the past year? What do you feel they think about what’s going on in the industry?
I feel like most of them have faced this in different ratios and percentages. What they faced is not what we’re facing right now. And I feel like we’re a lot more vocal about it than they were at the time. They had different ways of dealing with it: they would either get away and do their own work, or they would sort of manage to be around without being exploited too much. They also have been told that speaking up is not the best thing to do, and feel “let’s just all get along”, as somebody very famously said in his post. It’s easy for them to say! They haven’t gone through the kind of discrimination we have.
That’s basically what the younger lot is telling the older generation now: That we understand this is what we’ve been told, but we’re not okay with it, and I’m sure you were not okay with it either, but you convinced yourself to be okay with it. Let’s not do that anymore. So that conversation is extremely healthy as of now. Some of them may not be sure about WCC, but I feel more the WCC does things, the more it shows through its actions what can change in the industry, I’m sure they will join hands with us. They’ll realise that it’s not about threatening someone else’s survival, it’s just about finding your own dignity and integrity in the workplace.
So where do you go from here? What happens next, and is a good time to be working in the industry?
It’s a great time. It’s the best time that’s happening. We’re going to have a lot of issues, I’m sure about it, but we only know when we’re faced with them.
But we feel like what we’re doing is basically educating ourselves. We’re not Miss Know-It-Alls in the WCC. We are all learning what’s happening around us, we’re studying. We’re studying ourselves, as to how we’re reacting to the issue, why we didn’t do this before. We are shocked at our assignments years ago. Instead of allowing that to bog us down, we are actually having conversations with our fellow actors and technicians saying you will go through this.
Last thing. How have the men in the film industry been reacting to everything that’s been happening, and all the changes to come?
Some of them have been extremely critical of WCC, and any action we do. They say, aise karne ki kya zaroorat thi, you could have been nicer. We don’t consider those viewpoints because they doesn’t help us grow in any way. We look for healthy dialogues.
Some of them criticise us extremely constructively, because they’re with us. They’re so many people, Bobby Sanjay, Rajeev Ravi, Murali Gopy, Aashiq Abu. All these are men who know we can all get along and work together, and they say, “let’s talk about it, we were never told about this problem before so we never knew how it’s been affecting us all, so let’s talk about it.” We’ve got immense support from a lot of men. We expected it from them too, so we were pretty happy that they delivered.
Then there are those who don’t even want to acknowledge the issue, they just want to go about their business, and wouldn’t comment on it. We see them, we know who they are, and we know that they can’t stay quiet for long. And then, of course, those who no matter how much or how many times you explain, just don’t understand the logic of equality through feminism. They just don’t, they cannot. So, we’ll leave them at that. That is not our battle.