With Her Assertion, Survivor in Kerala Actor Case Rattles Kerala’s Patriarchal Gerontocracy

The shift from “victim” to “survivor” isn’t new as an exercise in nomenclature. But when a person who was subjected to sexual assault comes forward to talk about it, she is embodying it in all political rigour.

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A social media post in black letters against a yellow background, published both in English and Malayalam by South Indian actress Bhavana Menon on her Instagram account on January 10, has created quite a stir across Kerala. The post referred to the alleged sexual assault she faced five years ago, with the actor speaking about it publicly for the first time, but gained topical value due to two developments: a new witness going to the media with his version that Dileep, the popular film star, is part of the criminal conspiracy; and two, Vanitha, the women’s magazine, featuring Dileep and family on its cover, inviting a huge uproar for trying to shift public sympathy in favour of someone accused of sexual violence.

The post says:   

“This has not been an easy journey. The journey from being a victim to becoming a survivor. For 5 years now, my name and my identity have been suppressed under the weight of the assault inflicted on me. Though I am not the one who has committed the crime, there have been many attempts to humiliate, silence and isolate me. But at such times I have had some who stepped forward to keep my voice alive.”

The shift from “victim” to “survivor” isn’t new as an exercise in nomenclature, thanks to the terminological sensitisation brought about by feminists. But when a person who was subjected to brutal sexual assault comes forward and talks of her journey from being a victim to a survivor, she is embodying it in all political rigour.

Her confident, first-person claim to survivor status combats the dehumanising, silencing third-person narratives about a victim and her “honour”. Even the legal requirement to keep the survivor’s identity anonymous is used to build on “shame”, forgetting that “she is not the one who has committed the crime”.     

The post has become quite a sensation in Kerala. It got more than half a million likes in a couple of days and was discussed by young Keralites widely. It was also shared by young actors and actresses. Much later, Mammootty and Mohanlal, the two superstars of Kerala, also shared the post as Insta-stories – though their Facebook pages, where they have millions of followers, did not acknowledge the survivor’s post.

The duo was also criticised by the youngsters for doing “too little, too late”. Their behaviour, the youngsters said, suggested that Mammootty and Mohanlal believed they could just let these things tide over, as though nothing had happened. In short, the fact that the two stalwarts of Malayalam cinema were forced to follow the actions of women and youngsters is a major shift because it signals the possibility that business might not be as usual from now onwards. 

After the 2017 assault, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) was formed. On its demand, the Justice Hema Commission was constituted by the Kerala government to look into issues of discrimination and exploitation of women in cinema. Its report is yet to be tabled in the legislative assembly by the Pinarayi Vijayan government. The WCC’s demand, echoed by many on social media, to release the report has largely been met with callous silence by the government and the powerful men of the Malayalam industry. This only raises questions about the implications of the report’s findings for influential people in cinema, business and politics. Members of the WCC like Parvathy, Rima Kallingal and Anjali Menon have been advocating for the tabling of the Hema Commission report with astonishing ethical sense and clarity.

These developments suggest that if the report is released, the state government is anxious about its ability to maintain its current stand of favouring the closely guarded trans-party, trans-community, male nexus. Perhaps, the patriarchal gerontocracy – the rule of the old – in Kerala is scared of a domino effect once heads start rolling in the film industry. 

To understand the nature of patriarchal gerontocracy, it is useful to understand the “Mammootty-Mohanlal” (M-M) obsession peculiar to Malayalam cinema – this part is not just linked to but also represents the whole of Kerala society. 

Curiously, the strength of the M-M is not just maintained by ‘fan fights’ or box office blockbusters. In every interview, regardless of who is the subject or what is the medium, stock questions about these two actors are asked: “How was it working with them?” “Who is your favourite?” “What surprised you about them?”. Imagine young Bollywood actors getting asked about Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan in every interview, as though they are tributaries to these monumental superstars.

The media has their usual excuse: the two Ms sell like no other. From small online portals to websites of established newspapers, articles regularly go to great pains to include either Mammootty or Mohanlal in the headlines to “increase traffic”. Award shows always take special care to accommodate one of them as the best actor or some other category – again, to “lure the public”. It is lazy recycling masquerading as market compulsion.

Mohanlal and Mammootty. Photo: Epsajeevan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

This is the Kerala pattern. The current icons in politics and literature are also 60-something, 70-something men. Given the finances to sustain lives come from remittances of international and intra-national migration, and the social values of the state remain largely feudal and conservative, this obeisance to stalwart figures is hardly surprising. But this pattern – held up by men in their 30s and 40s – saturates the public sphere and blocks out newer possibilities.  

Women, the worst victims of this social order, have been taking on these regressive and dangerous forces from different corners in the last two decades. There have been sustained micro-movements against sexual exploitation cases, which men try to hush up; the “Kiss of Love Protest” and “Take Back the Night” movements fought back against violent, patriarchal vigilantism; there have been women-led movements for labour rights and ecology. The formation of the WCC is also a landmark event, while the historic public protest against the sexual exploitation within the Catholic church by five nuns is another, and the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act gave young Muslim women the political milieu to challenge the old, male leadership of the Indian Union Muslim League through a constitutional framework.

All these movements have shaken up the public sphere but were not able to bring about a paradigm shift because of the male control over institutional spaces, which orchestrated resources to negate female collectivisation. This perhaps led the powerful men to believe that whatever happens, when push comes to shove, their word will still prevail. But deep down, these movements did contribute to a counter-consciousness.  

There is also another, global component to reckon with: generational conflict. Generational conflict is particularly telling and ground shifting when scientific discovery, artistic movements and epochal shifts get merged with the youth of the period. After the boomer generation of the 60s, the Gen Zs (people born in the new millennium) are going through a major generational conflict with their parents.

As natives of the digital technology era and products of decades of globalisation, they find the values of their parents’ generation incompatible and even totally pointless. The youth has everything that equips them to inhabit a different mindscape altogether and these impulses, if properly channelled, can change the way society thinks.  

Bhavana’s Instagram post, and the whole movement by women in cinema, boldly captures the intersection of the ethical questions and political aspirations of the hitherto silenced and alienated women and the unrecognised young generation. That confident utterance, surely, is a moment that has begun to delegitimise the patriarchs and the critical mass the movement has gained can potentially rattle what looked like the formidable fort of Kerala’s patriarchal gerontocracy.   

N.P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.