It’s been almost a year since Chinmayi Sripaada, award-winning singer and dubbing artist, accused influential Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu of sexually harassing her. Since then, she has been banned by the Tamil film industry’s dubbing union, given some relief by a Chennai court, lost many job opportunities and been trolled online. But through it all, she has been indefatigable in her pursuit of justice, not just for herself but for thousands of other survivors.
Not only does she engage with her online harassers with wit and sarcasm—“because this is not the way to speak to me and there are girls and women who are watching”—she also organises solidarity meets offline to bring together women from different walks of life and advocate for safer workspaces.
In a phone conversation with HuffPost India, Chinmayi spoke about what she has learnt in the past year, where she gets the energy to keep fighting and why she thinks art and the artist cannot be separated.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
It’s been a year since you spoke out about your experience of sexual harassment in the Tamil film industry. What has a year of publicly fighting sexual harassment taught you?
One of the things it has taught me is that however difficult the going feels, one has to be relentless and it is not at all easy. And I knew this when I walked into it, naming a man who’s politically backed like Vairumuthu. He has the Tamil nationalistic pride thing also going, he has all these Tamil nationalists wanting to back him because he speaks for the language and it doesn’t matter if he’s molested how many ever women.
And the general power circles that be, the men that can actually take a stand, have this conundrum and I don’t blame them for it—whether they separate the art and the artist. This is a question we have to keep asking over and over. I do believe that the art and artist can’t be separated, because if it’s just about the art, then take away his name, na? Don’t give him credit. Put some other name. If that’s okay, then why ever not? We, at some point, have to as a society not allow these men to perpetuate the cycle of abuse and allow these men to retain the very power that they have used to abuse women. This is a stand that men in power also have to take because they are the ones holding money, holding power (right now), and the power to make decisions and most of the time they are propping each other up and patting each other’s back.
At the same time, I do know that there have been men in the Tamil industry who have taken a stand and very publicly and vociferously. They have spoken for the movement and for the women, asking people to not side with the aggressors. There’ve been directors like Vetrimaaran who’ve given interviews, composers like Govind Vasantha who said ‘it doesn’t matter if I don’t work in the Tamil film industry anymore, I’ll stand with her’. So I kind of learned to count my blessings and to focus on this, instead of the overwhelming majority. The minions of DMK literally came after my blood—so much of slut-shaming, asking me what is my rate per night. This is the very thing that I was afraid of (at 19) when there was no Twitter, when there was no social media, there weren’t so many channels, there was no access and you couldn’t even know at the time that you were allowed to speak about issues like sexual harassment. In this one year, if anything, I know this has become drawing-room conversation, people talk about sexual harassment without fear or shame, the concept of safe and unsafe touch. Earlier, a lot of us used to hear from NGOs that they had a very hard time getting a foot in the door to teach children about safe and unsafe touch and now schools have slightly opened up. Even now, schools in Chennai stonewall a lot of NGOs. I tried to open some doors because I help The Red Elephant Foundation organise these workshops for free in school. The number of schools that have stonewalled us saying, ‘Hey, don’t give ideas to children.’ And these aren’t ideas we are giving, we are telling children to be safe and telling them to name body parts as body parts. When you remove shame from naming body parts, your genitalia, speaking about sexual harassment will also be normalised.
In the past year, I have definitely had my lows and moments where Tamil journalists — a couple of them — have badgered the hell out of me. Those were the days I wondered and questioned why I’m going through this. Because men like Rangaraj Pandey (CEO, Vendhar TV) are very powerful journalists and the way they take a conversation can shape the public opinion and mindset. He chose not to do that and he chose to side with the aggressor. Those were days I was questioning humanity and whether there is still niceness in people. I’m not saying I’ve not had my lows. There are other journalists saying ‘It’s because of people like you that real people with real issues don’t get justice. I think the next time you speak will be after the next 12 years and we will wait.’ This is the stuff Tamil journalists have said to my face. I’ve seen it all — I’ve seen the best side, I’ve seen the worst side. I’ve had people walk up two types of people — ‘I’m really grateful, you’ve opened my eyes’ and some of who’ve been able to identify abusers in their circle, and others who say “Ram sab accha hai, lekin Ram kisi aur ke ghar paida ho to theek hai”, “I’m glad you did this but I would never let my daughter do this.”
At the time, I try to have conversations with them. I try to understand why they would do this. They think by outing the predator, we’re opening the floodgates for more sexual harassment. And that fear is not unfounded because that is the very fear why women like me didn’t speak up when it happened, because you out a predator and one story of sexual harassment, in the minds of the average man, he thinks, ‘Okay, she is no longer an untouched woman. Since some other man has touched her, I can also touch her.’ They think this woman is now free-for-all.
[After Chinmayi spoke up in October 2018, at least eight other women alleged that Vairamuthu sexually harassed them. He has denied the allegations — Ed]
You had said: “If I was treated at least 20 or 30% better, several other women would have come out speaking against Vairamuthu in public.” Has this one year led to making any space for collective action against workplace harassment within the Tamil film industry?
Absolutely. The number of singers the singer Karthik has harassed... I mean, the sheer number is daunting. I think, if this (speaking out) had been normal, these girls would have stepped up and said, ‘This happened to us’. And the fact is that the general public had no idea that Karthik did something like this, except for a few stray reports that came through. Even here in Tamil Nadu, people don’t have an idea. He’s been successfully rehabilitated. Other male singers like Mano called me and said ‘Why are you doing this? His career, his life, oh my god. How can you do this to him? He’s struggled so much to get somewhere.’
Other film industries in south India, like in Malayalam and Telugu film industries, have been able to create groups, and address and work towards creating workplaces safe for women. Do you think in the past one year, any space for such collective action has been created in the Tamil film industry?
No. Nothing of the sort has happened. They have not even come close to setting up an ICC, and I don’t think they will either.
You’ve taken your fight offline as well by holding solidarity meetings to talk about safe workplaces for women. How did you decide to do that and how has it been different from the conversations you have online?
It’s not very different from conversations online. There is some organic aspect to it. One of the things that these women working in software companies who came to one these meets said is that ICCs in IT companies set-ups are basically a sham.
The second thing they do apparently is — I corroborated with my lawyer — that the HR of every organisation is supposed to file a sort of report either with the labour ministry, labour commissioner or the registrar of companies every quarter, or annually, on the number of sexual harassment cases reported in the organisation.
They don’t do it, because apparently, it shows up when you Google the company and will reflect badly on the company. The girl does not get justice. Sometimes, they just give the guy 3 weeks suspension. This is the insight that I have gotten. Solidarity meet is through which I have realised that you are supposed to have in every district, every area an LCC (Local Complaints Committee) which is supposed to be supervised by the district collector. The head of the LCCs are supposed to be there so that women don’t have to go to police station to file these cases.
In the country, despite the fact that Visakha judgement came so long ago and LCCs are a part of that, only two states have them.
This is the state of affairs in this country after so long. And I also know, this is the story now because it’s one year, is somebody going to write about it in the second-year anniversary of MeToo? Because I’ll get 10 calls this year, next year I’m sure it won’t even be one call.
[A PIB press release from July 2018 says 29 states/UTs have formed LCCs, but activists have alleged that many do not function properly — Ed].
Is that why the solidarity meets — to create safe spaces in the real world, apart from having conversations online?
Also, because I think these conversations need to continue. Every Sunday, even if 10 people turn up out of which four are new, and then they have conversations — girls and women have just opened up and begun to talk. The other day I went to an event and spoke to a few singers backstage — we were rehearsing and having a casual chat over lunch — and I realised that all of them had a story. The good thing now is that at least we have come to a point where women are able to have this conversation in normal or loud speaking voice instead of hushed tones. And for me, that is a step forward. We have to, unfortunately, be grateful for these baby steps we are taking. At least we are not ashamed of saying we need to shift the blame. That is the one thing I keep harping on, we have to come to a point where we look at sexual harassment as just another crime in this country. As soon as sexual harassment comes up, it’s no longer a crime. It becomes about shame and all of it has to be borne by the survivor. Not only does she need to worry about her own emotional and mental health, and getting over the trauma, but she also has to worry about what happens if she outs this guy, and what happens to his wife, children. Why does the survivor have to bear this burden? This is a conversation I continue to have and will repeat till I die.
When you talk about people like Vairumuthu, who have powerful political affiliations, what do you think can be done to hold them accountable?
I’m not sure because then it becomes a political game, no? The only way and method I know is to ask questions of the same guy—they are propping him up in their political functions — and while propping him up and calling him a great guy, they end up shaming me on these stages.
You’ve said you don’t take abuse and trolling you face online personally. Why do you find it important to keep responding to these comments?
I pick and choose some of them because if I responded to all of them, I would have probably ended up responding to all of DMK’s party members who came after me. The response would have run into lakhs. But I do pick up a few tweets to retweet or respond to because this is not the way to speak to me and there are girls and women who are watching. Then I respond and say ‘don’t give me this bullshit’, so they know that it’s okay to respond to your aggressor and say no. This is precisely why I respond, because most of the time it’s not because I want to — it’s a different thing that you don’t have an effect on me, but don’t think that you can say this and get away with it.
How do you keep up the mental and emotional energy to keep having this conversation? Are there particular ways in which you take care of yourself?
I do work with energy healers and friends as well. I am open about the fact that I take energy healing therapy not to keep this negativity and anger in me all the time. I’m cool with that. I don’t know where I get my energy from. All the time I’m firing on all four cylinders.
What does the South Indian Cine Television Artist Dubbing Union’s ban on you look like today? Do you see any chances of it being lifted?
Technically, the dubbing union ban is still on but I have the court’s interim injunction. By law, I can work but Radha Ravi (president of the union) and all harass people when they try to hire me. So that’s also happening. This ‘orders reserved’ thing I’ve been hearing for the past 4-5 months and every 15 days, my lawyer and I go to court. Radha Ravi’s advocate makes sure he comes to court and keep character assassinating me.
In this past year, are there instances or moments that have given you hope for the future of this movement, particularly for the women in the Tamil film industry?
Particularly for the women in the Tamil film industry, at some point, the women will also have to decide to stand up and speak for each other. Unless and until everybody decides to do it for the other person as well, nobody has to really come out and publicly name and shame anybody anymore. At least, among them, if they have this whisper network ‘be careful, this guy comes on too strong, you need to watch yourself around this guy’. I wish somebody had warned me. At least now I hope, people would be okay enough to warn each other.
I think in general I have faith in the innate good nature of human beings, despite everything I have personally gone through in life. I do believe this is a stepping stone to better things. If there are ways and means for women to speak up and to also take this legally, nothing like it. At the end of the day, sometimes all it requires is for a woman to stand up in her own circle of people and say ‘this man misbehaved with me’, and then how the support system reacts to that. Because the woman really gains nothing except it triggers her and she goes through those memories all over again, and she will have physical reactions to it. She gains nothing from naming her harasser, except that she doesn’t want to be around him, or deal with his ego or make sure that he will not harm her. Because most women are scared something will happen to them if they name the guy. That is the fear they come from, it’s a fear that men also use to their advantage, the men in power. When we say men in power, it could be a man who wields power or influence over your family or your own small world.
I believe, I wish for it at least, I hope that things will get better.