Breaking a five-year silence, Malayalam actor Bhavana spoke in an interview about his journey from sexual assault “victim” to “survivor”. The actor was abducted and assaulted in a moving car by a group of men in February 2017; the breach was allegedly at the behest of a powerful male player in the industry. For many women, Bhavana’s story picks up painfully similar details. She spoke of her anger at the hassle-free, low-cost rehabilitation of men accused of sexual violence, her ‘name and identity’ buried under the weight of the assault; to be shamed and abused on social networks, to be put in the dock, like any other victim of sexual violence. She shared how she found her strength in showing up in the courtroom to defend herself and how she realized that standing up for herself, speaking her truth, would empower all the women who followed her.
This has also been the promise of the #MeToo movement – that women’s voices would reach out to break the silence and shame around sexual violence – even if it is a fleetingly fulfilled promise. It’s important to remember, however, that the assault on the actor preceded Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning — the flood of sexual assault allegations by multiple women against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein — by a few months. The case has split the Malayalam film industry in two, with the investigation leading to superstar Dileep being named as a defendant. This led to the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective, an organization for professional women in cinema, which continues to lobby against sexual exploitation in Malayalam cinema. But the lack of institutional response, the willingness to show solidarity with powerful men and to silence female victims, characterized this case as much as others. In the wider entertainment industry, for example, women like filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, singer Chinmayi Sripada and actor Tanushree Dutta have faced backlash for speaking out.
“We need to normalize the idea of the person who has had trauma going out in public and expressing it,” Bhavana said in the interview. This is indeed the minimum that societies owe to victims of sexual violence. The truth is that for every Bhavana and Priya Ramani who finds the courage and support to hold sexual predators to account, there are countless other women who are easily silenced. It is up to the rest – institutions and workplaces, the judiciary and the police – to enable their courage, to strengthen their quest for justice.