Even as society struggles to break gender stereotypes and end physical and mental abuse of women, movies continue to be made with regressive plots involving the male lead winning over the female lead, through various forms of coercion including stalking. Remo, a movie that has hit the screens recently follows the same template where male lead Sivakarthikeyan stalks and wins over the female character played by Keerthi Suresh. The movie was boycotted by many people across the state for glorifying the act of stalking.
While the Tamil film industry continues to produce movies such as Polladhavan, Padikkadhavan etc., that redeem and sanction stalking, one woman has started a petition urging the industry to stop glorifying the act. Iswarya V, a PhD scholar at the Madras Christian College, began the petition with support from a few friends and has managed to get 3000+ signatures till date. Citizen Matters caught up with Iswarya:
Was there any particular incident or trigger that led you to start the petition?
It was the murder of IT employee Swathi in Chennai that catalysed the movement. Right after the heinous murder of Swathi there were many discussions around the subject of stalking. Such a gruesome murder in the heart of the city in open view of people is a sign of a much bigger problem, a social milieu where a man feels bold enough to come and stalk a woman like this and even kill her if denied.
Generally, a man possesses a sense of entitlement in the sense that a woman cannot say no to him. This is not a problem faced by one person called Swathi, but many among us. We started to look out for the factors that lead men to feel this sense of ownership. One of the primary culprits I identified was cinema where youngsters, both men and women, are taught that we cannot say no to a hero. Whatever happens, at the end of the movie, the woman has to agree to the man. This is being propagated everywhere and many of the industry people have no knowledge that stalking is in fact a crime.
Why do you think viewers have accepted stalking without any questions asked?
Very often, people use the term “oru thalai kaadhal” (one sided love). We argue that this whole notion of using the word “love” in order to elevate the emotion is a fallacy. There is no question of love here. Many of us have a skewed understanding of love which is basically borrowed from the movies, where a man decides that he wants the woman and he does anything by hook or crook and wins over her. That has become a template and we are trying to question the very template, in the first place.
Youngsters watch movies in different languages in our country. In this scenario, why do you target Kollywood alone? Why not entire Indian cinema?
We are addressing immediate problems with immediate causes, and this is the main reason for focussing just on Kollywood. After starting the petition, we began tracking cases and understood that the issue is not just about Swathi but has affected the lives of many women. Seven women were injured and six were killed in the last four months for not accepting proposals from men pursuing them. But the culture of stalking is still being promoted vigorously by Tamil movies, the latest being Remo. The crew was not even ready to accept that there was a major problem with the movie and openly proclaimed that stalking is just another form of love!
There is also an opinion that such movies attract family crowd. What would you say to that?
In India, we are very conservative in that there should not be any nudity and intimate scenes. I believe that our censorship is not guided by questions of ethics but by our idea of discomfort. In that confused notion of censorship, it is held that what a family audience will object to is people being intimate on screen or shedding their clothes. But corrupting ideas like ill-treatment of a woman, eve-teasing or objectification of a female body are considered acceptable even among such audience, as we are all familiar with the male gaze.
The camera too has a male gaze which everyone is used to; everyone identifies the problem but no one objects to it, especially the so-called family audience. We live in a patriarchal society, we are all conditioned by that society and we all accept that this is normal and acceptable. For instance, many women themselves are of the opinion that the female community should not be allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple, owing to the stereotypical ideas that surround us.
Do you think Kollywood has failed to evolve over the years? After all, stalking was present in older Tamil cinema as well…
One of the things we have been observing about cinema is that the act of stalking has always existed in Tamil cinema, right from the times of MGR and Sivaji. There are however two crucial differences which we have ignored. The first difference is that in most of those movies, stalking would be a minor plot in the movie and dominated by other aspects of the storyline. For example, they would highlight the family commitments of the hero and his social position. The entire plot was not tied to the idea of stalking and winning the girl over. This aspect of cinema has gradually changed over the years.
The second difference lies in the general context of our society. In the earlier era of Tamil cinema, many viewers still lived in large families with conservative set-ups. They grew up with certain social values and pressure and were more influenced by the elders. Due to the technology boom, we are now more connected to our smartphones than our grandparents and get influenced by what we see rather than what we might experience or be taught in a collective set-up.
In this situation, films that glorify stalking have a greater impact on young minds. There is also research that has shown that there is a reasonably significant correlation between people watching stalking movies and believing that the act is right in real life. This leads to zero condemnation and prosecution.
But people claim movies portray reality and not the other way round. Do you think so?
Let’s look at the way movies portray any other crime, bank robbery, for instance. By default, we are aware of the truth that it is a crime and in any anti-hero movie, we would know that the hero is committing an act which is against the law. The portrayal of robbery as a crime in itself is a positive step.
On the other hand, there are quite a few movies where the act of stalking is not shown as a crime at all. Rather, it is something that the so-called ‘cool guys’ engage in. The bad consequences of stalking from the perspective of both the genders is completely ignored. A better understanding of stalking and its import would be conveyed to the movie-watcher if the stalker is beaten black and blue by the cops, like in 7G Rainbow colony.
Talking about society, in India we have a serious demographic issue with a skewed sex ratio (920 females for every 1000 males, just an assumption). According to a study, the surplus men are of the opinion that the women are dodging them by not marrying them due to their social status and their hatred is channelized to women in general. Movies that contain content against women reinforce their belief that men are the virtuous ones and women are the evil ones; persuasion and wins through stalking and dominance give them extra hope.
The aforementioned sociological conditioning happens most strongly for people aged between 14 and 17, and many of the recent crimes were in fact perpetrated by people who would have got exposure to such content when they were that age.
We are looking at the long-term impact of such movies and are strongly advocating that the censor board make such films completely ‘A’-certified at the least, so that the growing generation is not exposed to such movies. Again, we cannot assure that completely because the same movies would be telecast later on television.
You have mentioned that discriminatory social conditioning affects those in the 14-17 age group very strongly. After the Delhi gang rape case, the Juvenile Justice Act was passed which says that for heinous offences, juveniles in the age group of 16-18 years may be tried as adults in certain cases. What is your take on this?
Neither the victims nor the perpetrators of sexual assault are confined to people above 18 only. To minimise or end such crimes, our education system has to radically change and inculcate in our teens and youth the values of consent and knowledge about healthy sexual relationships. Until the system is in practice, I don’t think that the above-18 rule has to apply, at least as far as sexual offences is concerned.
If punishments are going to be lenient for young kids, I feel they could well be recruited by people of crime gangs. Given the very complicated world that we live in, the fear of law could prevent the crime. If one is able to instil a sense, in the minds of kids, of what the law holds and the punishments it could inflict, prevention of crimes would be much more effective. What we need is more awareness and certainty of implementation of laws rather than just a law in the books .
Cyber stalking is also a growing threat to women. From several incidents in the recent past, we understand that addressing it is really difficult. Why do you think so?
We are not able to address the issue primarily because of two reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t happen explicitly in the open and secondly, when the society’s attitude to physical stalking is so shockingly inadequate, their understanding of cyber stalking is far more lacking. There needs to be sensitisation at every level starting from the police. Since Swathi’s murder case, awareness of physical stalking has increased among the police force. Similarly, school students, college-goers, law enforcers and society in general should also be sensitised about the issue of cyber-stalking.
You have gained considerable support for your petition from common people; what kind of response did you get from the film industry?
Within the film industry, eminent television host cum director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan signed the petition, Actor Karthik Kumar, Actor Siddharth, Director R.S.Prasanna and Director Halitha Shameem have supported me. Our hope rests only in young generation film-makers who understand such things and are ready to question them.
What are your plans after sending the petition to the film industry?
I’m going to get involved in the Orange Days movement which was initiated by the UN long back. It is a 16-day campaign from November 25th till December 10th, with a thrust on highlighting and creating awareness of issues that are related to preventing and curbing violence against women.