Playback singer Chinmayi.Playback singer Chinmayi.   | Photo Credit: S.R. Raghunathan

The message is: ‘if you speak up, this is what will happen to you’

A storm broke out after singer Chinmayi accused poet-lyricist Vairamuthu of sexual harassment in the wave of #MeToo that swept through South India. While some in the industry did speak in support of her, she faced a lot of trolling and abuse for making the charge. Life has pretty much changed, for her after #MeToo, she tells The Hindu in a frank, exclusive interview.

How exactly has life changed for you after #MeToo?

Before #Metoo, I used to sing three songs a day. After an album as successful as 96 (movie), in which I had dubbed for the lead actor as well, I should usually get work for the next one month. But, after my involvement in the #MeToo movement, there has been a silence. In a month, I used to do 10-15 songs, out of which 5 songs would be in Tamil. This has dried up as well. And then, the dubbing union terminates me. I realised it is not a coincidence. Recently, I had signed on to dub for two movies, which were subsequently cancelled.

Why were you terminated from the primary membership of South Indian Cine, Television Artistes and Dubbing Artistes Union?

The office-bearers of the dubbing union say that they have debarred me for not paying the subscription fee — but in February 2016, I had paid a subscription fee of ₹5,000. In 2016, my name was there in the list of members.

They have put in my name, along with 96 others, for not paying the subscription fee. According to the union bylaw, the membership automatically lapses and a new card has to be bought. Since I had dubbed for 96Irumbu Thirai and two other recently launched films, it clearly means that I was a member.

What are the issues that you have against Radha Ravi, president of the dubbing union?

The dubbing union seems to be the only union which takes 10% of the income of each artiste, for each assignment, compulsorily. There is an FIR filed against Radha Ravi for sale of land in the name of the union. Despite that, he continues to hold the office of the president. T.N.B. Kathiravan, the general secretary, says that if I keep talking like this, it would be my funeral. The bylaw says that if I have a problem with the union, I cannot go to the media or police – which would mean termination of membership. Therefore, if I have a problem against Radha Ravi, I have to go to Radha Ravi to complain against Radha Ravi.

What are the major challenges in addressing sexual harassment in film industry?

This is going to be a challenge because how will you define workplace in the film industry? We are all freelancers. Our workplaces can be the director’s residence, a bathroom in a café which can be the shooting spot. The laws should evolve.

How do you think Tamil film industry has dealt with harassment issues compared to other film industries?

Not just in Tamil, women who are a part of WCC (Women in Cinema Collective) in Malayalam have all been out of work. They are saying that producers don’t want to deal with those associated with WCC. They want to show us as examples to other women to say ‘if you speak up, this is what will happen to you. So don’t do it.’

In Telugu, they seem to have a proper system in place, especially after the Sree Reddy revelations. In Hyderabad, they have formed a women’s collective, Supriya Yarlagadda (from the Nagarjuna Akkineni family), is part of it.

Here, however, the powers that be haven’t spoken up in a manner that gives confidence to victims. It always comes with statutory warning: ‘don’t misuse MeToo’. It is not as if men haven’t misused laws or traffic laws haven’t been broken.

Have you reached out to influential women in Tamil industry to form a collective?

It would be nice if influential women take a stand and say – don’t shame the victims even if you can’t help them. I don’t want to arm twist them into doing something that they don’t do spontaneously. They know what is happening and they follow me on social media. Some of the most vocal women who speak up for women’s right… Khushboo gaslighted victims, asking why I am speaking after 13 years. You are not listening to me now after 13 years. Would they have listened to me when I was just 19 years old?

Where do you think is the change that should happen?

The individual unions should each have an internal complaints committee and the FEFSI — the entire lot — need to be sensitised on how to deal with issues such as these. If most of the members are gaslighting victims, which ICC (internal complaints committee) are we supposed to go to?