#MeToo and the conspicuous silence of Kollywood
Barring a handful of stars, most do not seem to want to address the elephant in the room.
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As the #MeToo movement gains momentum in India, popular playback singer Chinmayi Sripaada has been at the forefront of leading the campaign down south in Chennai. The singer recounted her personal experience of sexual harassment against noted Tamil poet and lyricist Vairamuthu.
On October 9, the singer took to twitter to reveal her story. In a series of tweets, Chinmayi explained how the lyricist had allegedly harassed and threatened her with political power.
Chinmayi narrated a story from a music concert she performed in Switzerland. She had allegedly been asked by the organisers of the programme to "cooperate" with Vairamuthu and visit him at a hotel in Lucerne. After she refused, Chinmayi was reportedly told her career would be over. The singer said the incident took place in 2005 or 2006.
Playback singer Chinmayi Sripaada has been at the forefront of leading the campaign down south in Chennai. (Photo: Indiatoday.in)
Chinmayi also shared another incident that took place a few years ago where she was allegedly threatened by the lyricist for refusing to sing the “Tamil Thai Vazhthu”, the State song of Tamil Nadu, at a book release function.
While Chinmayi was lauded for taking on an industry stalwart at the risk of losing her career, brickbats were no less either. She has been at the receiving end of a vitriolic campaign for accusing Vairamuthu.
With a patriarchal tone, many of them questioned Chinmayi’s story.
A peek into her twitter timeline gives one an insight on the trauma the singer has endured for outing Vairamuthu. The most-asked question was why she had invited him to her wedding, despite having faced harassment at his hands. A video of the singer and the poet at the former’s wedding was widely shared on social media.
Responding to these charges T Padmhasini, Chinmayi’s mother said it was she who invited Vairamuthu for the wedding as he is part of the fraternity. "I belong to the older generation. I believe in respecting everyone and inviting people who contributed in Chinmayi's success. My daughter did not have any role in it," she said.
Talking about the incident, Chinmayi said that she had the courage to come out and speak only because #MeToo had become a people’s movement and she realised that the anonymous posts on the lyricists were close to her own story.
"It is difficult to have the guts to speak up about any kind of sexual assault. That is the truth of India, today. People have quit their careers, too afraid to speak up. I didn’t want to take this to my grave," she said.
A National Award-winning lyricist, Vairamuthu is revered in the Tamil Film and Literary fraternity. Calling the allegations a blatant lie, the lyricist dared the accusers to file a case. In a video response shared on his social media account, Vairamuthu said the allegations against him have an ulterior motive and that he is ready to face the case in a legal manner.
"For the past one week, I have gathered strong evidences. I have discussed the issue with my legal team and I am prepared to face the case in a court of law", he said in the video.
He further adds: "People need not decide if I am a good or a bad man. Let the court decide I will obey the court".
Calling the allegations a blatant lie, Vairamuthu dared the accusers to file a case. (Photo: Indiatoday.in)
The #MeToo campaign has hit Kollywood — the Tamil film industry hard.
Barring a handful of stars, most do not seem to want to address the elephant in the room. Actors Samantha, Siddharth and Varalakshmi are among the others who have extended support to Chinmayi. The Tamil Film Producers Council announced it is setting up a three-member probe committee to look into these allegations.
Could the conspicuous silence point to the way we treat our stars?
"Most certainly," asserts director CS Amudhan, adding, "As a society we tend to be reverential to our icons. The direct name calling has sent people reeling. Plus speaking out in any industry could come with a professional cost. However, there is a responsibility to speak up and reassure people like Chinmayi".
Whether the campaign is a watershed moment or not, costume designer Vasuki Bhaskar says the campaign is only the beginning. The question of how to take it forward, however, looms large. Bhaskar said, "At the moment it’s a collective frenzy. We are treading on a tricky path. We need to find a way to address the issue and make workplaces safe for women. The union ministry for women and child welfare taking cognisance of the matter is a welcome step."
Even before the #MeToo campaign, Varalakshmi launched the Save Shakti movement last year to encourage women to come forward and complain about sexual harassment. The movement called for a grievance-redressal body in Kollywood and for setting up of more “Mahila Courts” to try cases of crime against women.
A vocal supporter of the campaign, Varalakshmi urged women to speak up and not tolerate disrespect in any form, saying: "Change cannot happen without people coming forward to share their stories. When more women come to tell their stories there will be a change in the society. We can do our bit to reduce the crime against women. I hope the next generations of women are not subjected to these harassments."