Written by Dr. Tara S. Nair MPhil, Ph.D., Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR). This article was first published in Economic & Political Weekly in 2017
In May 2017, in a pioneering move, a group of women creative workers from the Malayalam film industry formed the Women in Cinema Collective to address gender issues in the sector. The formation of the collective not only challenges the patriarchal world view of Indian cinema, but has dragged into the limelight the ugly underbelly of commercial film-making controlled by cliques, cartels, and celebrity power. On a more positive front, it prepares the ground for women who are joining the film industry in larger numbers to lay claim to legitimate spaces for self-actualisation and creative satisfaction.
In May 2017, the Malayalam film industry witnessed an unprecedented development: a section of its women creative workers joined together to form the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), to address gender issues in the industry. They have presented a set of demands to the state administration, which include the formation of anti-harassment cells during film production, increased representation of women on movie sets, equal remuneration, and a safe working environment throughout the film-making process for female artists and technicians. The Government of Kerala has responded by constituting a committee under K Hema, a retired judge of the high court, to investigate the working conditions of women in the Malayalam film industry (Deccan Chronicle 2017).
What circumstances led to the birth of a collective exclusively for women in an industry that prides itself on having numerous associations and trade unions that represent every activity within its value chain? Why should this new entrant—currently an informal group of concerned women film workers—be marked out as distinctive in the already dense associational geography of the mighty South Indian film business? To answer these questions, one must delve into the recent history of the Malayalam cinema industry.
The WCC’s formation was prompted by an unfortunate incident wherein a driver, who has reportedly worked with actors and film production companies for several years, waylaid and harassed a popular South Indian actress (Menon 2017). The brash and brutal nature of the incident evoked public anxiety regarding the increased prevalence and intensity of violence against women. At the same time, the arrest and detention of Dileep, a popular actor deeply involved in a range of activities in the movie value chain like production, distribution, and exhibition, for allegedly abetting the crime to settle some personal scores, added a new dimension to the incident.1 Moral panic aside, the incident gave rise to disturbing questions about the conduct of the largest creative industry in the state and how cliques and cartels have come to control its resources and markets. It seems to mark the lowest point in the Malayalam film industry’s tryst with hyper commercialisation, hegemonic collusion, and the cultification of super stars, who have a certain discursive power and a legitimate voice over the rest of the population (Marshall 1997). The only positive outcome is that the event and what followed revealed the false and fabricated nature of the commodity called “celebrity.”
The Decade of Decay
It cannot be denied that the 2000s had a stunting influence on Malayalam cinema, which has otherwise been home to iconic directors and superb performers and technicians since the mid-1960s. Formulaic film-making, based solely on the assumed prowess of superstars,2 aided amply by screenplays manufactured to project the ultra-masculine image of male protagonists, seriously impaired the aesthetic and cultural value of cinema in Kerala during this period. Devaluing women’s position in society in general (by representing them as sheer commodities and appendages to macho male protagonists) and their contribution to the aesthetics and commerce of the film enterprise in specific (through discriminatory wages), was very much part of the construction of superstardom. It may be argued that such marginalisation is not peculiar to Malayalam cinema and, indeed, it is very much a defining feature of mainstream Indian commercial cinema. It is perhaps important to report here the findings of a recent global study that shows that movies in India—along with movies produced through United Kingdom/United States co-productions or collaborations—have the lowest percentage of girls and women on screen, at just 24.9% (Smith et al 2014). When it comes to people working behind the camera as directors, writers, and producers, India has one of the most skewed gender ratios, with 6.2 men to one woman (as against the overall average of 3.9 men to one woman).3
There have been clear indications since the mid-2000s that mainstream film-making in Kerala has come to be regulated by “sanctions,” overt and covert, issued by associations and unions to punish artists and technicians who “defy” their diktats in speech or action. While the overall financial performance of the industry suffered during this phase (Poduwal 2010; Nair 2009), leading actors, directors, and producers too split into warring camps to fight for control over the business and, more critically, the creative aspects of Malayalam cinema. Several controversies rocked the sector; the most prominent were the conflicts in the views of producers and actors regarding the actors’ contractual obligations and the defection of a section of directors from the Malayalam Cine Technicians Association (MACTA), founded in 1993, to form an alternative union called the Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA), with 17 constituent sub-unions, which represented all types of workers along the value chain.
There are allegations that FEFKA and the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), a collective forum established to promote “the common good” of cinema artistes, imposed bans against senior actors like Thilakan. A veteran actor and 11-time winner of state and national awards, Thilakan virtually disappeared from mainstream Malayalam films (Nair 2010) after invoking the wrath of the leadership of organisations like FEFKA and AMMA for his outspoken critique of the industry; he was perhaps the first to speak about the “mafiaisation” of Malayalam film-making. He spoke vociferously on media platforms, exposing unhealthy tendencies in the industry, and lobbied for protecting the freedom of artists who are workers in their own right.
In a curious turn of events, in 2014, Vinayan, a film director who once led the MACTA, but became the victim of the informal sanctions levied against him by the new power lobby of FEFKA and AMMA, contested the anti-competitive practices and abuse of power by associations and their leaders by filing a case with the Competition Commission of India (CCI) (Kumar 2017). He alleged that on different occasions, the associations and their leaders tried to force actors, technicians, producers, and financiers to withdraw from his projects. Towards achieving that end, they allegedly imposed a ban on his co-workers by issuing circulars and show cause notices. Vinayan also argued that such bans were meant to topple his efforts to streamline the working conditions of artists and launch the “Cinema Forum,” an initiative that envisioned collaborations between film-makers and distributors to make low-budget movies with new actors (K K Sharma Law Offices 2017).
While disposing its order in the case, the CCI (2016) observed:
This case brings into sharp focus the conduct of these associations, who have used their clout to disrupt competition and fair-play in the market through their anti-competitive diktats. It is evident that OP-1 [Association of Malayalam Movie Artists or AMMA] and OP-2 [Film Employees Federation of Kerala or FEFKA] are mighty organisations in the Malayalam film industry, having renowned actors and other players as their members. Further, OP-2 is a registered trade union and a federation of 17 sub-unions of different types of technicians/workers employed in the Malayalam film industry …. It appears that it is highly difficult, if not impossible, for any director/actor/producer, etc, to operate and flourish in the Malayalam film industry without their concurrence. Despite there being no written declaration or agreement or official circular bearing [the] signature of the office bearers of any of the associations … declaring that no one should cooperate with the Informant, it is apparent that the players operating in the industry knew that they have to follow the ban imposed upon the Informant. The fact that even renowned actors … were also influenced or threatened by these associations, and were bound to abide by their anti-competitive diktats, speaks volumes about the anti-competitive effects which such associations are capable of having on the market. (pp 71–72)
The CCI has found that AMMA, FEFKA, and the Directors’ and Production Executives’ Unions affiliated to the federation have indulged in anti-competitive conduct in violation of the provisions of the Competition Act, 2002; as such, the CCI has imposed penalties on these organisations and their office-bearers to deter them from engaging in such activities in the future.
Relevance of the WCC
How is the WCC’s entry into the picture significant considering the current situation in Kerala? For one, the initiation of this collective has extended the canvas of the debate concerning the future of Malayalam cinema. It tabled the issue of film workers’ rights to equal opportunity and equal pay as the most important. The WCC puts forward, in whatever preliminary form, a collective alternative voice to the patriarchal feudalism that rules the industry’s conduct at all levels; it draws attention to the labour and production practices followed in cinema-making, which have developed to be illiberal, anti-women, and collusive. That labour practices in the film industry are guided by highly informal, personalised, and arbitrary arrangements that are intricately intertwined with dubious channels of capital mobilisation and deployment, is popular knowledge. This is despite the presence of a mighty organisation like AMMA and a plethora of unions that represent practically all actors and activities—minor and major—in the film value chain, again federated at the aggregate level as FEFKA. The WCC stands to question the efficacy of these organisations in ensuring the safety and well-being of its own members and could potentially claim space in the film industry that genuinely belongs to its female creative workers, on terms that are acceptable to them.
A closer look at the limited communication that the WCC has issued in the public domain reveals an urge on its part to characterise cinema as a place of work. However, this should be preceded by two clarifications: a detailed and transparent assessment of the movie value and revenue chains and a clear definition of who a film worker/employee is. The first exercise is undoubtedly complex because there could be several variants of the value–revenue chain, depending on budget levels and financing structures. However, this would bring about better transparency in transactions and facilitate proactive policy intervention on the part of the state. As for describing who a film worker is, the constitution of Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI) defines the term “film employee” as encompassing anyone employed on wage, salary, or contractual basis in any work connected with the production, distribution, and exhibition of films. Even those who earn more than the minimum wage or mutually arrived at tariffs “on a contractual basis,” like the performing artiste, would be covered under this definition (Nair 2005). However, performing artistes in India have always preferred non-trade union formats to organise themselves. According to Nair (2005), this could be because of their assumed “distinctiveness” as high value talent with a far higher capacity to bargain for their remuneration as compared to other workers. They would, hence, prefer to be outside the purview of collective bargaining efforts for minimum wage/tariff that is central to a trade union’s identity. It is also beneficial for them to not be a part of any system that may bind them to specific projects or limit their ability to renegotiate terms in case the project runs into hold-up risk that could rearrange the bargaining power enjoyed by them and the producer–investor. Indeed, this is the time to review the existing labour systems in Malayalam cinema, especially contracting instruments and arrangements, in ways that benefit all parties involved.
The local press and television media have been feasting on reports around the aforementioned attack on the actress to the point of even eclipsing the films being released for the time being, thanks to the alleged involvement of a popular star in the incident. However, there has been very little effort to address the fundamental question of how to streamline the structure and conduct of the Malayalam film industry, which is highly commercialised, yet virtually unregulated. This question is seldom asked in sensational media debates dominated by arguments on the cosy nexus amongst cinema, business, and politics. Also, there have been no serious efforts to leverage these debates to reinvigorate the conversation on women’s status in Kerala. A state known for its dense cultural capital and superior human development, Kerala presents some serious contradictions when it comes to the treatment of women. This is not to belittle the salience of some isolated voices, including from within the film industry, that recognise how decadent patriarchal beliefs and dominant gender codes are reproduced in films to justify women’s subordinated roles in family and society.
The formation of the WCC may go down in Indian film history as a landmark event for its pioneering role in posing an eloquent challenge to the status quo dominated by a patriarchal world view, produced and reproduced through material and ideological means. The collective also represents, again in revolutionary ways, the articulation of feminist consciousness in the creative industry, “an awareness of inequality of women and a determination to resist it” (Epstein 2002: 31). This seems inevitable when more young, educated, talented, and articulate women join various departments of film-making with visions of pursuing professional creative careers. The generational differences in gender beliefs and work ethic are perhaps important to consider in any industry, and particularly in an industry that deals with a product like cinema, which is valued for its cultural meaning and significance. Market researchers inform us that despite the persistence of gender disparity, young, “millennial” women’s attitudes and beliefs have been evolving with respect to gender roles and women’s empowerment. There has been a definite intergenerational shift in attitudes, as the youth are “optimistic about their futures and have greater expectations for their careers, their finances and their personal lives” (Nielsen 2017). Young women now join the cinema industry to seek creative satisfaction, glamour, and wealth; however, they also demand to be treated as creative workers who are equal in status and dignity to their male counterparts. What one is witnessing now seems to be the beginning of a difficult, but socially and culturally desirable, phase of negotiations between genders to lay claim to legitimate spaces for self-actualisation and creative satisfaction.
One hopes that the WCC does not lose its steam while dealing with the ambivalent structures of a fluid world that defies all notions of “durability” (Lee 2005). In order to survive this challenge, it must strive to grow beyond a select set of individuals and cultivate deeper solidarity with movements outside cinema and groups within the industry. The days ahead are critical for the WCC.
1 He was released on bail on 3 October 2017, after spending 86 days in police custody.
2 It must be mentioned that the “star vehicle” has historically been integral to film-making. The star phenomenon typically results when market rents are channelled disproportionately towards the most highly valued performers to ensure low costs and high quality productions, or when consumers start identifying any specific performer or director as an imperfect indicator of the quality of film; in turn, this drives producers, distributors, and financiers to consider the same as a proxy for film’s likely success (Barnett 2012). From such transactions, the ethereal “star power” is produced, which is a peculiar form of public subjectivity that negotiates the tension between a democratic culture of access and a consumer capitalist culture of excess (Marshall 1997).
3 The gender ratios are far better in countries like Brazil (1.7 to 1), Australia (2.5 to 1), the UK (2.7 to 1), and China (3.1 to 1) (Smith et al 2014).
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