Posted by Kunjila Mascillamani
There is a silent culture in film schools across India. A culture of sexual violence carefully cultivated by the male professors, nurtured by patriarchal elements, and a clouded mystery of silence around it. Much like the Catholic Church. No one talks about it because firstly, film-making is a liberal space and secondly it is unholy to doubt your mentor, who is going to give you the next big break into movies.
Everyone suffers it silently the initial few days or months, the victim learns to internalise, like any other abuse, it quickly becomes the norm. Every year new victims graduate shedding the memories, go out and make films. The sexual violence in the industry that follows from the schools is so rampant, it is all glaringly obvious in the cinema we produce.
Film schools are considered to be liberal and progressive spaces where everyone has equal rights and great cinema is born. What does not make news is that while film students, including women, shout for their rights in their places of education, they are doing so standing knee deep in sexism, misogyny and a culture of sexual harassment. The same culture which is carefully hidden behind slogans of ‘Eisenstein, Pudovkin We Shall Fight, We Shall Win. John, Ghatak, Tarkovsky, We Shall Fight, We Shall Win.’
Yes, we shall fight but never for women’s rights in film schools.
In December 2015, Film and Television Institute India (FTII) and Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI) started buzzing not with excitement but with disdain when the video of a young filmmaker, also an alumnus of FTII, receiving an award hit the digital world. During the award ceremony for at Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), Adwaita Das who was awarded the best editor award that year and exposed a professor at FTII. Nilanjan Dutta, an associate professor of film editing at FTII, was guest of honour at the festival. She told everyone present there how he had sexually harassed her while ragging her in FTII, when she was a student there.
Film schools are liberal and progressive spaces giving equal rights to all, but the victims absorb continuous harassment, silently learning to internalise it, like any other abuse
In December 2015, as many as six girls including me in SRFTI made complaints of sexual harassment against professors and students. Three professors and four students were accused. While all professors were found guilty by Internal Complaints Committee for Sexual Harassment (ICC-SH), the cases against students still hang in a limbo. SRFTI appointed a second ICC called the ‘Student ICC’ to look into the complaints against students. This move which is against the law is yet to be rectified. Two years after the furore it caused in the media, there seems to be no difference. The most recent complaint was lodged against a professor of Department of Producing in December 2016.
Initially, the students at SRFTI who complained in December 2015 thought that they had been victorious in putting an end to the horrible practice but they were mistaken. After the complaints they realised that SRFTI authorities were colluding with the guilty professors. Today, the students are fighting against the move by the Ministry of I&B which appointed Ms Debamitra Mitra as Director of SRFTI.
Mitra shares the same address as one of the professors found guilty of sexual harassment by ICC-SH and who was dismissed by SRFTI. In the first meeting of the Governing Council (highest decision making body of SRFTI which has rape and sexual harassment accused Madhur Bhandarkar and Irrfan Khan as members) which was convened after Mitra took charge, the ICC-SH was dissolved.
Later she sent out a mail to the women’s group Maitree which had spoken on behalf of the girls. It accused the girl students as ‘nefarious women’ who were ‘wayward’ and misusing the Sexual Harassment Act. She then harassed my mother. She snatched her phone away twice saying she was recording the conversation. She also said that I had complained against a professor after having stayed with him for a ‘sufficient’ amount of time implying that it was a false accusation. The girls wrote repeatedly to the Ministry of I&B and even Minister Venkaiah Naidu and received no reply. Actor and activist Amala Akkineni who now chairs the Governing Council has promised action and I have written to her putting forward the following demands;
1. Safety of complainants: All complainants except one are still in SRFTI, trying to complete their courses. The complainants are not safe because they are under direct threat from the administration. The Director is ignorant of sexual harassment rules and the problem itself and the attitude reflects in the whole conduct of the institute.
In the most recent Academic Council (AC, the academic decisions making body of SRFTI) meeting that was convened, it was decided that the three students accused of sexual harassment would be allowed to come back to campus. This is when the respective complainants and witnesses are still on campus. Clearly, there is a threat to their safety. Yet even as we are having this correspondence, the AC has made the decision despite protests from the student body representatives. This is the primary problem.
Threat is not in the form of physical violence at least for now. It is that every day life of the complainants is extremely difficult. Complainant X who complained is under the fear that her harasser will return to campus any day. Complainant Y has had to live on campus with her harasser professor and student being present on campus. I spent most of my days under direct threat from students against whom I had lodged repeated complaints. These are just a few examples. As a tradition, our films are never sent to festivals. Our shoots are deliberately disrupted by inaction of professors. While every student handles problems that arise during shoots and other work, we handle those and the problems imposed on us and us alone.
This violence is multi-faceted and to tackle this it is not enough that individual problems are sorted.
2. Even after ICC declaring the professors guilty the complainants have no respite from their influence and intimidation. Every educational institution or workplace has to have an ICC which is a semi-judicial body. SRFTI seems to think that they are beyond the realm of law because there are two ICCs in SRFTI which is illegal. Secretary Ajay Mittal had made this clear after I questioned him regarding the same in front of Debamitra Mitra, Amaresh Chakrabarty, Debashish Ghoshal and at least a dozen SRFTI members. Yet even today, this ‘student ICC‘ as it is called is considered to be a second ICC and they still make decisions.
How can such anomalies even be addressed when SRFTI does not seem to have regard for the law of the land. Not every student is in a position to employ a lawyer and fight a case in the High Court. We do not have money or time or energy to do that. For the same reason SRFTI thinks it can go ahead with fooling the law and its students this way. It has to be made sure that these anomalies are sorted. The second ICC with Sanjukta Pahari as chairperson is null and void. SRFTI has to acknowledge this mistake and rectify it.
The power equations and nuances of violence in film schools can only be understood and explained by students, especially by those who have faced it.
3. The status of the court case is most important and it has to be monitored. We had repeatedly alerted the administration that the SRFTI lawyer is not performing in court. The lawyer that an NGO arranged for us keeps updating us regarding our case and this is the only way in which we have access to information. SRFTI does not update us regarding this.
Providing the documents if required in this context seems a distant possibility. Tampering of evidence aside, how do we make sure that SRFTI even provides the necessary documents when it does not respond to us complainants nor the law? To make sure that this does not continue, every complainant has to be provided with all the documents that they require which are in possession of SRFTI.
4. It is not just awareness programmes that SRFTI needs. Along with awareness programmes, every month, the ICC should convene a meeting of all girls to review the working environment and take measures if required. The student body should have seats reserved for women because the sex ratio on campus is skewed.
5. SRFTI has not drafted a sexual harassment policy yet even though it was one of the recommendations by ICC in their report which found the professors guilty. A watertight sexual harassment policy is the first step towards justice in sexual violence. This has to be formulated under the expertise of feminists and activists as well as student complainants.
The power equations and nuances of violence in film schools can only be understood and explained by students and especially those who have faced the violence. This will be extremely useful because it can set an example to other institutions like FTII also where there have been complaints of sexual harassment. This document can be made public and it shall be an achievement and a milestone in the pursuit of gender justice.
6. Most importantly this cycle of abuse has to be stopped. Today we are fighting for the removal of Debamitra Mitra because of a direct conflict of interest. Even if we win, tomorrow, keeping the history of abuse in SRFTI in mind, there is no doubt that another such person will be appointed. Relatives of the professors, people with a history of sexual harassment themselves, all of them can easily find their way into SRFTI and harass girls and complainants. How do we even address this problem?
We are students with no power or influence. Transparent appointment of officials, even professors is unheard of in SRFTI. This has to change. If it doesn’t our efforts are in vain. Out of the original six, there are just three women speaking in tired voices, there are no protest marches or rage like when Gajendra Chauhan was appointed Chairperson at FTII. For girls aspiring to join film schools, SRFTI is the ominous writing on the wall.
Kunjila is a writer, filmmaker from Kerala, currently living in Mumbai. She’s a feminist who blogs about cinema, gender and sexual violence. She also likes making films about women’s stories. You can read her blog at: http://kunjilacinema.blogspot.in/
Featured Image Credit: thewire.in