Kerala, India CNN  — 

After Rima Kallingal’s friend and fellow actor was abducted and sexually assaulted in early 2017, she remembers watching the media coverage of the attack in horror.

“These news channels were reporting in such a callous, irresponsible way about such a heinous, terrible thing,” she says. That moment made clear to Kallingal how little women in her profession are respected.

She recalled corrosive comments on social media as well. “They were questioning her character,” she says. “It really didn’t matter for them that a person had been attacked.”

WCC member Rima Kallingal and K.R. Meera, a well-known Malayalam author.

Kallingal called a friend of hers, who called another friend … who called another friend. Before long, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) was born.

Today, the group’s membership features some of the biggest female names in Mollywood – as the Malayalam-language film industry in the southern Indian state of Kerala is known – as well as technicians and lesser-known actors.

The WCC predates Hollywood’s Times Up campaign, which was sparked by multiple allegations of sexual assault against powerful director Harvey Weinstein and others in the #MeToo movement. Weinstein has repeatedly denied all allegations against him. It also comes at a time when feminist activist movements are gaining ground in Kerala.

Indian women form a "women's wall" protest in Kochi in southern Kerala state on January 1, 2019.

In January 2019, millions of women formed a human chain around the entire state in protest against a refusal to admit women to the Sabarimala temple. And in 2018 nuns in the state protested at the High Court to demand the arrest of a bishop accused of raping a nun. The trial is yet to begin.

Members of the WCC announced solidarity with the nuns, showing that their feminist mission extends beyond the film industry

With her or with him?

In February 2017, Kallingal’s friend was abducted in Kochi, Kerala. The well-known actor, who can’t be named under Indian sexual assault laws, was filmed while being sexually assaulted inside a moving vehicle.

The victim initially won some support from the film industry before Dileep – one of the industry’s biggest stars, whose real name is Gopalakrishnan Padmanabhan Pillai – was arrested in connection with planning the assault in July 2017, according to local media.

Dileep is one of several accused in the case and his trial on multiple charges relating to the attack was scheduled to begin on May 1. In the past, he has said he’s innocent, according to CNN affiliate News18.

CNN’s calls and emails to Dileep’s lawyer went unanswered.

Despite having faced some backlash, in Kerala, Dileep is still seen by many as a hero.

A WCC hashtag meaning “with her” was countered with a “with him” equivalent. A film starring the actor which was released during the 85 days he spent in jail before being freed on bail was a roaring box office success.

A few months after the assault, the WCC met with the chief minister of Kerala.

“He thought we were there to focus on the case, but it was not just about that,” explains Kallingal. “When all us women got together we realized we are all seeing the same things, the wider context in which this happened.”

The state government subsequently launched the Hema Commission, an in-depth inquiry into gender inequality and abuse in the movie industry. Its report will be published in May, according to the WCC.

Changes in film

Over the past two years, the WCC has become an outspoken voice in Kerala on issues of equal pay, sexual harassment, abuse and the depiction of women in film.

“Popular cinema largely represents popular taste and there are given roles women have to subscribe to. That is reflected behind the camera, too,” says Fowzia Fathima, a WCC member, cinematographer and director. “The continued suppression and marginalization of independent women in the industry pushed us to come together in solidarity.”

The collective also offers legal and moral support for individual women, from a case against a producer who was accused of using a body double for a scene without the actor’s consent, to the alleged rape of a junior actor.

The group has also had an impact outside of Kerala.

Fowzia Fatima is a WCC member.

“In the past couple of months, WCC sister organizations have come about in the Tamil and Telugu-language industries, which is a big deal,” says Fathima.

Women in the Telugu film industry have begun to put pressure on the Telangana state government to address gender inequality, says Fathima. A commission was set up there in April to investigate, she adds. In Tamil Nadu, The South Indian Artistes’ Association has launched efforts to form an internal complaints committee to handle accusations of sexual harassment from its members.

At the top, the WCC’s message seems to be getting through in some areas. In February, the Kerala state government announced funding of 30 million rupees (nearly $430,000) for women filmmakers. The issue of equal pay in the industry is the next target on the group’s list.

Feminist movements

The work of the WCC, however, has come at a major cost to some members.

Lower-profile women – usually those working behind the scenes – say they have been left jobless as a result of their activism. Those WCC members who are celebrities have also struggled for work, after a fierce backlash from film industry insiders and fans.

Actor Parvathy Thiruvoth Kottuvata, known by just her first name, was harassed online after she criticized a scene in a film starring an adored cinema hero, saying it was misogynistic. Her abusers “did not leave any stone unturned,” she says.

They used footage from her films to create pornographic memes and sent warnings on social media that her time in the industry was over. “What made it nastier was when I started getting messages of death threats and rape threats. The rape threats were pretty graphic,” Parvathy says over WhatsApp.

Prominent directors and producers also tried to shame Parvathy in public debates. “(They were) talking about what kind of a woman I am, a loose woman … (saying) we know how such actresses get ahead in their careers,” she recalls.

In response, Parvathy says she went into “pure war mode,” reporting her abusers to police and fighting back on social media – inadvertently prompting a hashtag and Facebook group for like-minded women called OMKV, an acronym for a Malayalam phrase that loosely translates as “get lost.”

A complaints commission on set

Kallingal herself failed to secure any work in the industry in 2018, but is now appearing in a film directed by her husband based on the real stories of those impacted by the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala last year.

Arriving on set, she says she was approached by a crowd of female fans seeking selfies.

“Ladies come up to me and take my hand and say, ‘Thank you for speaking for women.’ I don’t think we’ve ever connected with other women the way we connect with them now,” she says.

Although the production is, as typical, male dominated – Kallingal is one of the only women on set – she says it is the first in the state to have an Internal Complaints Committee, created “so people understand that women are not voiceless and if they have an issue they can go complain.”

On the site of "Virus" which has  an Internal Complaints Commitee for women.

The commission, composed of the producer, director and one person not involved with the film, will record complaints and ensure action is taken within 45 days. “The issue might be resolved without going to the authorities, but if the woman still wants to take the case to court then we will help her with that,” Kallingal says.

Other members of the WCC hope their work will secure a greater number of movie roles for women and pave the way for more female technicians and camera operators.

Women outside the group have credited the collective with making men in the industry more aware of how they treat women, according to several WCC members.

That’s exactly what Kallingal wants to achieve.

“We are just asking for basic respect, as human beings and as artists,” she says. “We definitely add value to the cinema industry and we want to be acknowledged.”

This story is part of Bolly Lolly Dhally, a European Journalism Center (EJC) project about women and feminism in the South Asian film industries.