They have seen, heard, and felt it all—the couch that demeans them, the money that evades them, and the roles not taken. These actresses want to break barriers but find bottlenecks every step of the way—they wonder what will truly bring change.
It is 5 A.M. Harini* knows she has a long day ahead, filled with shoots for her latest project. She is excited, but also knows the day will be just like any other—dialogues, makeup, socializing and working late nights. Like every other day, she hopes she will reach home to have dinner with her husband and two young children. But before leaving, she says that she always wears a smile.
“Because they always want a smiling actress,” Harini says as her voice trails off into a mumble.
“I learnt things the hard way because I was an outsider in this industry. One cannot trust anyone here—they are all out to get you,” Harini added.
She said that she recently attended an after-party and faced an uncomfortable incident. “This was a director I had worked with for over two decades. On the face of it, he was a family man with and wife and two kids. He always seemed very respectful. But that night was different,” Harini said.
She added that she usually avoided after-parties due to some activities she was not comfortable with. But her director had compelled her to attend that particular after-party. Since she trusted him, she went.
“He was completely drunk and walked right up to me. Without mincing his words, he said, ‘I want to have sex with you tonight’,” Harini said.
The Film Companion, an English language entertainment journalism platform, and Ormax Media, a specialised media consulting firm, released a report called ‘O Womaniya 2021’. This report highlights the issue of women representation in Bollywood (Hindi), Kollywood (Tamil), Tollywood (Telugu), Mollywood (Malayalam) and Sandalwood (Kannada)—these industries make up 93 percent of the Indian film industry.
Sexual harassment: Veil versus reveal
“Casting couch has been there for generations. But in Sandalwood, there are many associations, but I do not think any of them are sensitized to the issue. Instead, these platforms are a voice of patriarchy, not very different from the powerful male perpetrators who crush the survivors’ voices,” said Chetan Ahimsa, Sandalwood actor and core member of The Film Industry for Rights and Equality (FIRE).
Founded in 2017, FIRE is a platform that aims to ensure that women feel safe in the workplace. Several actors and actresses are members of FIRE, but the body has drawn some ire in the last few year after it lent its support to Sandalwood actress Sruthi Hariharan. In the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2018, she filed a sexual harassment case against veteran actor Arjun Sarja. But after hearing the case, a city court closed the case in January 2022.
“Because FIRE supported Sruthi, we received a lot of flak. People slut-shamed her because she accused Arjun Sarja of sexually harassing her. They even wanted to ban Sruthi and I from the industry,” Chetan said.
Sruthi said that she went through a lot of emotional stress after the incident. “I felt constantly seen, recorded, judged and analysed by the media. It came to a point when I said to myself, ‘I do not want this’. My experience wasn’t as nearly harrowing as what some women face in the industry—this goes unnoticed.” she said.
After the incident at the party, Harini said she spent days trying to figure out what was wrong—she added that she knew what the director and so many others had done to her was wrong but did not know how to deal with it.
“Now I felt that every time he looked at me, he looked at me in that dirty way—a sleazy, disgusting glance. The way he would hold my shoulder and tell me to act out a part—the scenes I did in front of him—it all comes back. And to think, I never doubted him even once,” she said.
Harini said she decided to complain to the authorities, but another film crew member stopped her. “He said to me, ‘Where is your proof? He was just drunk. And besides, if you think the head of production is any better than the director, you just keep fooling yourself’.
Actors say that many survivors do not reveal the incidents because they do not want to jeopardize their career and the lofty pay that comes with it.
Midas’ touch for him, nothing for her
“But the problem is that this industry has a pay disparity. “A male actor earns very handsomely; Darshan gets around Rs. 5 – 7 cr for one film. But a top actress? She gets just Rs. 1 cr,” Naresh*, a former Sandalwood director said.
Roberto Pedace’s analysis of the pay gap in Hollywood used the sample of 400 actors in over 100 movies between 1984 and 2018. The study found that male actors were paid $57.4 million (Rs. 5.74 cr) and female actors were paid $21.8 million (Rs. 2.18 cr)—this meant that women earn only 38 percent of the male actor’s salary.
Some actresses say that the rapid sprouting of women-centric films does little justice to pay equity. “Nayanthara is called the ‘The Lady Superstar’ because of her women-centric films. But if you compare her pay with Rajnikanth, he is paid far better,” Sruthi Hariharan, Sandalwood actress said. She added that the number of women spearheading films is lower. “Many applaud women-centric films—but no one realizes the problem when I say, you can literally count the number of such films on your fingertips,” she said.
Apart from the women in front of the camera, there are also women who occupy positions behind the camera—makeup artists, costume persons, art directors, etc.
Smitha Kulkarni is an assistant art director who has also worked as an actress. She said that male ego is a major bottleneck for women to get equal pay. “Whether you are in front of the camera or behind, your pay as a woman is lower. The pay ratio of an actor to an actress is probably 80:20, and the pay ratio of a male director to a female director is probably 60:40. Better, yet not quite,” she said.
She added that women need to work considerably harder than men to make a mark. “It is like we have to constantly keep proving that we ‘deserve’ the money that we have worked for,” she said.
For over twenty years, Harini has been used to the industry norm of women being paid lesser than men. She almost seems indifferent when she says that women in the industry just accept the reality. She has moved into the Television serial industry now, but said that low pay continues to haunt women in the entertainment field. “The TV industry is better for me in that I do not face many sexual advances like I do in films. But women here still have a pay gap. “Women get paid much lower—they don’t argue because it is normalized—they have no say. If you complain, they throw you out. Simply put, A zebra can’t aspire to be a lion in this industry,” Harini said.
The role not taken
But there is a hint of regret in her voice when she talks about a recent item song offer she turned down. “I thought it was going to be sleazy. I did not want to be shown in such a manner. I thought that it was fine when I was young, but was worried how it would impact my husband if his colleagues see it. So I turned it down,” she said.
But when she saw the item song, she was surprised to know it was not sleazy and was done quite elegantly. “I thought it would be trashy but was cheeky and classy instead. That is when I regretted it. All for reputation,” she said.
The ‘O Womaniya 2021’ report mentions the ‘Bechdel test’. When there is at least one scene where women have a conversation on any topic other than men, the movie passes the Bechdel test. The report added that male characters outspeak female characters by 4 times in trailers.
Actresses also feel that the industry typecasts women. “Women are always thrust into glamorous roles. If not that, they are always someone’s wife or mother,” Sruthi said.
Harini said the film industry often treats women without any respect, and the roles on screen reflect that. “They treated me like I was some mindless bimbo. I would suggest something, and they would instantly snap back at me, telling me to do as told. It is a male dominated industry after all,” she said.
The ‘O Womaniya 2021’ report stated that ratio of women to men in the industry was 1:20.
Smitha Kulkarni said that men in the film crew often have pre-defined roles for a woman to play behind the camera. “Women are still not in top positions in the industry. They tend to get into departments like costumes, makeup, etc. And that is normalized. But since I have not abided by these unsaid rules, men always ask me, ‘How come you are in the art department?’ To their mind, this part requires a lot of physical work, and a woman cannot do it,” she said.
She added that men sometimes directly tell the woman they are incapable. “They said, ‘Nimge artha aagala bidi’ (You wont understand this, so let it be). But the worst part is when women do not support women in the industry,” she said.
The hand that feeds can also destroy
The lack of women representation is not limited to the film industry—actors say that most associations that are constituted to solve issues often have a patriarchal mindset.
“These associations are misogynistic and use their influence for profit. Even when women go through sexual harassment, the bodies slut-shame them and shun them away. They are often hand in hand with powerful people,” Chetan said.
In July 2017, the Kerala government formed the Hema Committee—named after Justice K Hema (retired), the committee aims to tackle sexual harassment and gender disparity. In 2019, it submitted a 300-page report to the Kerala government—this report confirmed various malpractices in the industry, like casting couch, pay disparity and the use of drugs and alcohol. Although the government was criticized for taking up the issue two years later, it recently asked each production house to form an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
The Sexual Harassment Of Women At Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal) Act, 2013, states that there should be an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at a workplace which has 10 or more women employees.
“But if we again give the power to producers to form this ICC, who says that people in power can’t be perpetrators themselves?” Chetan said.
But actors say that the #MeToo movement has also had many fake cases. Pruthvi Banwasi is an actor and CEO of The Finer Side, an agency that caters from Turnkey project to set up theatre acting in schools. “Yes, there are things that go on behind closed doors in the industry. But not everyone is sleazy. Men are afraid these days because sometimes women misuse the MeToo hashtag to get them into trouble,” he said.
Chetan said each case needs to be solved by analysing the context. “We need to differentiate between an accusation stemming out of a genuine case and one that sprouts out of a consensual relationship gone sour,” he said.
Industry insiders say that things are changing due to the awareness that the #MeToo movement brought. “There are men who are actively trying to hire more women in their film crews,” said Smitha.
But Sruthi said the change is slow due to the deep-rooted patriarchy. “The industry is changing, but we are not there yet—we are not completely egalitarian. The gender disparity is still there. But even if we break occupational stereotypes, patriarchy is still rooted,” she said.
Sruthi said that some people avoided her in the aftermath of the incident, but she does not regret her decision. “The thing is, I found my justice the moment I spoke out. I had put everything on the line—my career, my family, my friends. Because I had the courage, I didn’t know it then, but now I know, I have done my bit in providing a better world for my daughter,” she said. She added that people respect her more now. “I never felt let down by our judicial system. People do not look at me as just a pretty face anymore,” she said.
Lose the battle to win the war
Sociologists say that the film industry reflects society. “In this country, people worship actors like they are Gods. Many say this is regressive, but I believe we can harness this to bring a positive change. If this ‘God’ or role model can actually preach progressive ideas to his viewers, why not?” Raof Mir, a sociologist said.
But sometimes, what happens on the screen can have a lasting impact of what happens in society. Samyukta always wanted to be an actress. But growing up, she was always discouraged from pursuing this career. She said that her mother would tell her that if men could letch at her off the screen on the roads, it would be much worse on the screen and in the industry.
“Most women encounter men staring at them and singing item songs. And then I remember where I see those things first. Movies. It starts from there,” Samyukta said.
But Mir added that the change cannot happen overnight. “Look at how society uses certain apparatuses to control married women. That they need to be a certain way or choose a certain role in order to be ‘decent’. Again, men manipulate technology to work through the prism of the male gaze,” he said. He added that this manipulation is evident in the way a scene is framed, shot and edited in a manner that is pleasing to the male gaze both on-screen and off-screen.
He added that even the ones who may stand up to injustice are forced to stay quiet. “Nobody wants to challenge the dominant patriarchal ideology,” he said.
Harini says that women are conditioned to believe that men are biologically wired differently from women—she said this makes them think women are their ‘public property’. “Now, I know this won’t ever change. My way of handling it is making a list of who is safe to be around and who is not. What else can I do? Complain?” her voice muffles into a hopeless laugh. She then excuses herself to welcome her kids who have come back from school. “Hello! How was your day?” she says before switching into the mask of calm composure she uses as an actress.
“You know, I met him a few days ago. The same director. I wanted to just slap him. But I know, that in this industry, you need to brush it off and smile.”