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Actor Rima Kallingal slays it as she lays bare sexism in the Malayalam film industry

Rekha Balakrishnan
16th Jan 2018
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At the recent TEDx Thiruvananthapuram event, Rima Kallingal asked, ‘How long do you dumb down, how long do you stay silent, and what does it take to break your silence?’

Rima Kallingal. Credit - ShafiShakkeer Photography

That Rima Kallingal is outspoken comes as no surprise. The feisty actor from the Malayalam film industry has always spoken up, loud and clear, whether it’s through her work, her personal life, or her stand against different problems plaguing the film scene in Kerala.

Whether it’s a woman thirsting for revenge in 22 Female Kottayam, or an unconventional wedding with director Aashiq Abu, or questioning Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on feminism, Rima Kallingal refuses to take things lying down.

When a Malayalam woman actor was sexually assaulted in a moving car in February 2017, Rima lashed out against the insensitivity of the media who reported on the incident, and also against accused actor Dileep’s fans for celebrating his bail and release from jail.

Rima, who is not one to mince words, spoke about the gender disparity, blatant sexism, and misogyny that exists in the Malayalam film industry, in a hard-hitting talk at a TEDx event recently.

Journey of questioning

Right at the outset, Rima declares herself a feminist. “I am a feminist and my feminism started with a fish fry. Once upon a time, my family was seated around the dining table with my grandmom, dad, my brother, and myself. My mom is serving food and never in her entire life has it occurred to her that she can actually sit down along with us and we can all serve our own food. But that story is for another day. And today she does three fish fries and she makes sure that the oldest one at the table and the two men at the table get one each. The 12-year-old me sees this and weeps.

I am deeply hurt and I demand to know why I am not considered deserving of the fish fry. My family is shocked but my mom is flabbergasted. She could not fathom why I was overreacting because she probably never got fish fries in her entire life. But then that’s how my journey of questions began.”

Facing the real world

The actor talks about being in an industry that shuts you off if you ask questions. Citing her own example, she recalls a time when she was banned by the Theatre Owners’ Union for working in movies and a television show.

The problem, Rima says, lies in remaining silent and being afraid to question. “When I entered the film industry, I was treated with words such as ‘shelf life’, ‘adjust’, ‘compromise’, asked to smile more and more often, to dumb down. We are good at putting up an act, we are always told to be someone else, someone whom society wants us to be. That’s why we have 150 actresses entering the industry every year to act opposite 10 male actors who rule the industry,” she says.

She raises a pertinent question, “How long do you dumb down, how long do you stay silent, and what does it take to break your silence?”

Breaking the silence

She also touched upon the terrible ordeal faced by her colleague when she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted.

“In spite of knowing the consequences of going ahead and pressing charges, she stood up for herself and demanded the justice she deserved. I think she broke every single stereotype and convention that was associated with women in her situation and that’s what it took to break my silence.

And that opened a Pandora’s box of questions and we are seeking answers. Let me give you a small glimpse into this Pandora’s box. In the wake of this incident, the president of the All Malayali Artists’ Association remarked that harassment and sexual harassment, in particular, was a thing of the past. Social media abuse on women is alarming right now but if any of you want to feel any better, please listen to the comments section of an actress’s Facebook profile. They kind of have our whole life figured out because they tell us what to wear, what to do, how to act, how to behave as a woman, a daughter-in-law, a wife, and you will also get to know all the different sexual positions that they would like to rape us in.”

Gender disparity and sexism

What is most disconcerting, says Rima, is that women actors are paid one-third of that of their male counterparts. Also, male actors are given precedence when it comes to meaty roles.

She explains: “The Visakha Guidelines are not followed in the industry despite paying 40 percent entertainment tax to the government.”

“Male actors in between say 20 and 70 years, whether married or unmarried, with or without kids and grand-kids, are given a platform to explore their craft, to excel in roles that are exclusively written for them; to grow, to evolve and to see their career take off when they are in their prime. And that is the way it should be. And I am so happy for them as an artist. But not so much for an actress who takes every decision in her personal life and it affects her career: getting married, getting divorced, getting a baby, if at all her career gets till there. Everything that she does affects her career.”

Reel and real life

A question that still remains, says Rima, is whether art is imitating life or is life imitating art?

“This profession gives you so much love and support from everybody around you, it’s priceless.”

“It is not possible to turn a blind eye to unabashed sexism, ageism and casteism that exists in our society and is reflected in our cinema content, and in the very fibre of our industry.”

“You cannot not be disturbed by the fact that an artist community is not trying to change that narrative. You cannot not be disturbed by fact that an audience community in an open-minded and progressive state in the country today is not vehemently asking for that change in the narrative. For the first time in this country, 20 women from different walks of cinema come together and ask these uncomfortable questions on behalf of everybody who wants to ask these questions, and have formed the Women in Cinema Collective. We are at a very important crossroads in our lives. We at least live at a time where we can actually ask for the fish fries if we think we deserve it. We need to seize this moment and sow the seeds of change.”

Carpe Diem! As Rima Kallingal would like to believe, it’s time to seize the day and sow the seeds of change so that the future generation will not have to struggle through the same ordeal.

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