At a Nayi Soch TEDx Talk hosted by Shah Rukh Khan on 7 January, Ekta Kapoor told the story of how when she was making her start in the business, media professionals would ask her dad, Jeetendra, why he was investing all his money in his daughter’s “hobby”. They would apparently tell him to buy her gold instead, to which Jeetendra responded that she should have gold inside her, not outside.
Ekta Kapoor was one of the three prominent women who spoke about sexism and discrimination in the Indian entertainment industry this month, an issue that is particularly important in the present global climate. Kapoor, in a seven-minute-long segment on Star Plus, discussed her privileged rise to success, and women’s representation on television. Bollywood actor Kalki Koechlin, in a two-and-a-half minute long video for BBC, spoke about the everyday discrimination that actresses working in Bollywood face. She also discussed the career-bound reasons why they hesitate to speak out against it. Malayalam actor Rima Kallingal began her 15-minute long TEDx Talk on 3 January in Trivandrum by crediting being denied fish fry in favour of her brother for inspiring her first thoughts on sexism.
None of these women were presenting their magnum opuses on sexism in their speeches this month. Far from it. But given the fact that their statements do inarguably come smack in the middle of a loaded global moment of reckoning around sexism and harassment, it’s hard not to conclude that these were the issues the women felt most pressed to speak about right now, and that their choice of subjects, and opinions are quite clearly representative of their own positions.
Especially (but not mandatorily) in contrast to the other two speeches, you notice the wealth of privilege Ekta Kapoor grew up with, and not just when you hear of the sad story of her mother selling her gold to send her brother to study abroad. You get a sense of how relatively pleasant Kapoor’s entry and journey in the entertainment business must have been, especially when she talks about how she met producers so often they started asking “Jeetendra ki beti ko kitni meeting denge bhai?” (How many meetings will you give Jeetendra’s daughter?) Keeping her own journey in mind, and the experience she must have had on her way to the top, it becomes easy to see why Kapoor thinks confidently of the industry itself as an emancipatory tool for women, and not one that victimises or discriminates against women and needs overhaul.
She says that instead of casting women as dancing extras, “TV ne auraton ki kahaniyan kahi” (TV told the stories of women), which is important in its own right, and gave her the chance to explore topics like domestic violence and marital rape on television. Hands quivering with passion, she declares “TV ne hum sab ko bahut kuch diya hai” (TV has given us a lot of opportunities), and ends her speech by offering other women who are struggling in the industry her mentorship, and presumably her advice on how to make it to the top. She doesn’t ponder on the deeper questions of what causes the industry to be such an unfair place for women. Perhaps, because she isn’t best placed to, and hasn’t had to think so deeply about it. You get the strong feeling that Kapoor’s faith in enacting change from inside the system would put her firmly in the camp of those who believe that wearing black to the Golden Globes award show is a revolutionary act of resistance.
Kalki Koechlin’s statements are so brief it would be unfair to call them a speech. They’re part of a heavily excerpted conversation under three minutes long on why women in Bollywood don’t speak out about sexual harassment. She talks of upcoming actors who endure comments on their looks or weight, or get suspicious calls from casting directors at 2 AM. She talks about the daily battles she faces in her work, like why she’s being asked to wear revealing outfits, and whether a steamy scene is being slipped into a movie for “titillating reasons or to make the plot go forward”. She discusses how celebrities choose not to speak about harassment because it would automatically mean that “you are dealing with hundreds of people throwing their opinions at you, and it can really shake a person emotionally.” She encourages women to maintain their support systems, whether online, or friends and family. In the available excerpts, she doesn’t mention the separate struggles of women working in the industry beyond actors, like assistants, beauticians and other women working on set, who presumably look at their immediate challenges in a different way.
Rima Kallingal’s speech is the longest, and to be fair, the only one that was explicitly meant to be a deep, comprehensive speech on gender discrimination in the entertainment industry. Wearing a black saree embroidered with the words “speak up for your rights”, she delivered a measured, thoughtful speech to an audience that cruelly refused to laugh at any of her jokes, except just the once when she said she was always served beef on sets because Kerala. Woo!
In her speech, she touches on a variety of sites of discrimination against women, from the discrimination girls are exposed to at home, to the reality of being a female actor working in the industry. She says that male actors between 20 and 70 are given all the time and space in the world to really explore themselves with roles designed for them, irrespective of whether they’re married, divorced or parents of multiple children. And that that’s the way it should be. Only it isn’t the same “for an actress who takes every decision in her personal life and it affects her career: getting married, getting divorced, getting a baby, if at all her career gets till there.”
You can tell that Kallingal has had to think deeply about sexual violence and harassment and the structures that allow for it in the industry in recent times. Perhaps all women in Malayalam cinema have had to, after the abduction and assault of their colleague in February last year.
She talks about how the film industry fails to follow the SC-mandated Vishakha guidelines, how film sets have an ironic gender ratio of 1:3 in a state with the best social markers in the country. She further talks about how women are told they have no share in profits from granting satellite rights and that they play no role in box office collections. She also mentions how harrowing it was to hear Innocent, whom she referred to merely as the then-president of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA), say that sexism in the Malayalam film industry was a thing of the past.
Towards the end of her speech, she says, “I kind of know the privileged platform that I have, and that it’s impossible to stand in the middle of that kind of privilege and not stand up.” She says that for her, “it is not possible to turn a blind eye to the unabashed sexism, ageism and casteism that exists in our society and is reflected in our cinema content, and in the very fibre of our industry.”
Now you can make separate judgements on what each woman said, and how deep an understanding of sexism their separate statements indicate. But between them, the three have actually managed to provide a really comprehensive view of the different kinds of challenges different women face at different levels in the industry, and the approaches they could choose to tackle it.
Kapoor seems to be in the camp of fixing the system from within, Koechlin’s excerpts were on actresses, but made no mention of all the other women working on sets, and the exploitation that they face. Of the three, Kallingal seems closest to an Audre Lorde-esque can’t-break-the-master’s-house-with-the-master’s-tools type approach, talking about the need for celebrities to speak out no matter what the consequences, and the importance of forming your own collectives and spaces, like the Women in Cinema Collective.
It feels quite satisfying, because it feels like the three women have managed to capture a broad representative slice of the moment we’re in. The three videos could be relatable to varieties of different women, depending on their own lives, experiences and opinions on how to beat the system.
Co-published with Firstpost.