Chinna chinna aasai | Siragadikum aasai | Muthu muthu aasai | Mudinthuvaitha aasai | Vennilavu thottu muthamida aasai...
(Small desires, fluttering desires, pearls of desire, kept hidden, the desire to touch the moon and kiss it¦)
It was with these beautiful, poetic lyrics that Vairamuthu made his entry into Tamil Nadu's film elite set. He had previously written lyrics for a couple of other films, but with this " the opening song of Mani Ratnam's Roja (1992) " he was positively catapulted into the super sphere, along with then debutant music composer AR Rahman. Vairamuthu, Rahman and Ratnam would team up on several other films as well.
Cut to 2018, and Vairamuthu is among the public personalities named in the ongoing #MeTooIndia movement. The popular singer Chinmayi Sripaada was the first to name Vairamuthu in her #MeToo story, but other women followed. Among them was Sindhuja Rajaram, a California-based singer and sound engineer. Chinmayi said that when she had been an up-and-coming singer several years ago, Vairamuthu had asked her to come to his hotel room, while they were in Switzerland for an event. Sindhuja recollected being inundated with calls from Vairamuthu, asking her to meet with him so he could read her poetry. When her refusals continued unabated, a friend became the focus of similar attentions from Vairamuthu.
Other (anonymous) accounts by women claimed that the veteran lyricist had made unwelcome advances towards them. Vairamuthu has strongly denied all the allegations.
The allegations divided the Tamil film industry. Many of the younger artistes " particularly women " supported Chinmayi staunchly. But the old guard stood as solidly by Vairamuthu, whose illustrious career spans a quarter of a century, and who wields considerable clout. The Old Boys' Network began questioning the survivors; #MeToo was dismissed as a "Western fashion" being used by women for mileage, or to settle scores. At a press conference convened by the women of the industry, reporters " mostly male " engaged in relentless heckling.
Chinmayi, apart from being a much awarded playback singer, is also an acclaimed dubbing artist. She is also a successful entrepreneur. She was brought up by a single mother and was introduced to Vairamuthu when in her teens. Referring to the time Vairamuthu attempted to proposition her, Chinmay said the veteran lyricist had threatened to end her career when she turned him down. On the brink of making it big, Chinmayi and her mother felt they couldn't reveal what had transpired, to anyone. Besides, as two single women without any connections, they were in a vulnerable position.
That she continued to associate with Vairamuthu over the years is now being touted as the reason for why her allegation could be false. Even though Chinmayi has explained the reasons for her silence time and again, the vicious attacks on her credibility continue.
The allegations against Vairamuthu indicate a pattern: Encourage young singers to come to his office-cum-residence, listen to them, praise them, take their phone numbers, promise to introduce them to AR Rahman, or get them a singing opportunity. After that they would get persistent phone calls. If they did not respond, there would be threats made.
Even though many prominent personalities would be named in the #MeToo wave, Vairamuthu's name remained on top of the list.
Even as the survivors were mercilessly shamed, the industry's seniors remained silent spectators. Even the outspoken Khushboo, when asked by a TV channel for her opinion on #MeToo, refused to take a stand. She said she hadn't faced sexual harassment in her four decades in the industry, and neither did she know anyone who had. She professed support for Chinmayi as a friend, but also said she'd always known Vairamuthu to be a respectable individual. She also asked why Chinmayi hadn't filed a formal complaint. Chinmayi's husband, the actor Rahul Ravindran replied: "It's heartbreaking that you think the question is still valid."
AR Rahman's sister, the singer Raihanah, told the press that she had heard of the allegations against Vairamuthu. She said she believed Chinmayi. When asked if her brother would continue working with Vairamuthu, Raihanah said Rahman was a recluse who didn't listen to gossip, but he didn't work with people involved in controversies.
As for Rahman himself, he gave a rather bland statement:
Some expressed disappointment, saying they expected Rahman to issue a stronger comment. After all, hadn't his name been used by Vairamuthu to allegedly lure the women?
Chinmayi herself was thankful to Rahman for his support.
As the weeks roll by, it is becoming increasingly obvious that harassment of this type has little to do with sex and more to do with power play. Older men in positions of power enjoyed preying upon the young women who came to them seeking career opportunities. And for decades they got away with it.
And for those who ask why the women who have now attained a certain stature in the film industry are speaking about what happened to them when they were newbies looking for opportunities, here are the questions they should be asking themselves instead:
If these women don't speak up for themselves and their juniors now, then who will? If they don't give courage and strength to the younger women who are following in their footsteps, then who will? Should they have spoken when they were younger and more vulnerable and risked destroying the careers they had slogged for? Should they have inflicted hurt upon hurt on themselves for no fault of their own? Why are we supporting powerful predators and not the vulnerable? Why is the onus on women to prove their statements?
#MeToo has unleashed a powerful force. Hopefully people will now realise that men who force women to exchange sexual favours for career advancement are nothing but predators.