Not many outside the South Indian film industry know Geeta M Gurappa or have heard of her achievements. As a sound engineer and film mixing engineer, Geeta has worked with veterans such as Mani Ratnam and Shankar. But despite being part of the industry for three decade, her's is not a known name.
It is exactly this gap that the South Indian Film Women's Association (SIFWA) hopes to bridge. "When I heard that it is going to be launched, I instinctively felt that I am a part of it," says Geeta.
SIFWA, which will be launched formally on 1 May, hopes to bring together women who work behind the scenes and address their issues. Started by a group of women assistant directors, it was initially planned to be an organisation that caters to only them. "But when we began working on bringing women together, we realised the forum needs to address the issues of all women working behind the scenes. We call these departments 'crafts'. There are 24 crafts in filmmaking, and women are involved in almost every one of these. But they have faced discrimination of all kinds. It is time we started fighting against it," says VP Eshwari, secretary of SIFWA and an assistant director, "The association already has over 80 members, including writers."
Perhaps the only issue that women have begun to speak about in films is the casting couch. Actors like Varalakshmi in the Tamil film industry, and very recently, Sri Reddy from the Telugu film industry, have spoken up about their experiences. Eshwari says the casting couch is a problem faced by women across cinema, not just actors. "But it is just one of many problems that need to be addressed on an urgent basis," she says.
She points to the struggles of make-up artist Bhanu, who fought hard to be accepted in the profession. "She came at a time when women were only hair stylists, not make up artists. Bhanu's struggle was arduous, but she never gave up. She was forced not to accept any work offered by men who felt threatened by her presence. But Bhanu sought the help of women's organisations to break the glass ceiling," says Eshwari. As an acclaimed make up artist today, Bhanu has worked for several noteworthy films including, Rajinikanth's Sivaji and Enthiran.
"It may sound ludicrous, but did you know that the application form for the film directors' association has no column for women? There is only a handful of women directors, but that does not mean that they shouldn't have the right to be part of this association and speak about things that matter to them. As basic as it may sound, one of our demands is to have a column for women introduced in the form," Eshwari says.
Film director Halitha Shameem explains how even some basic necessities regarding women's needs are not met with on film sets. "Most times, there are no proper toilets when a shoot is on. We have to either request to use the caravans of women actors, or go out of the location and ask households in the locality to allow us to use their toilets. It is very humiliating, but we have no other option," she says.
Meena Marudarasi, assistant director and deputy secretary of SIFWA, says the discrimination goes beyond the wage gap. "We have to struggle for equal work too. Most women assistant directors are given very mundane jobs to do, like taking care of the costume continuity or helping out women actors. It is as though we are not capable of doing anything else. We come to the industry because we love films. But there are times when most women have walked out of projects because they have not been treated well."
They also point out that there is virtually no woman anchoring stunt sequences or doing the work of light officers. "They believe we are simply not capable of doing this," says Eshwari, "Our idea is to change these perceptions."
In 1977, women first voiced their concerns over the discrimination they had faced in the film industry. Since 1969, they have not been given raises. These women, working as cleaners, demanded a raise and were instead refused work. After three months of unemployment, these ten women came together to form the South Indian Women Employees in Films Association, through which they put forth their demands. A few months later, the association merged with the Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI).
The association has given them hopes about bringing about a change through the SIFWA. "The change we intend to bring about is not just with regards to our working conditions. We intend to slowly change the way women are portrayed in movies too, and make films more sensitive," Eshwari says.
Very recently, actor Sivakarthikeyan announced that his films will no longer have sequences that 'disrespect women or show them in poor light'. This statement came soon after his film Remo was criticised for romanticising stalking. Activists feel that organizations like the SIFWA are capable of exerting pressure from within the industry, which will help introduce and promote a more sensitive portrayal of women on screen.
SIFWA office bearers have met several Tamil film directors to explain their objectives, and the directors in turn have promised to support the organisation. "It is high time that the women are recognised for their work. I am glad the SIFWA is happening, and as a director, I will do my bit to support them," says Balaji Sakthivel, an acclaimed film director.
The organisation also plans to publish a magazine"Thiraiyaal (Film Woman)"which will document the travails and successes of women in films. "However mightily successful you are, you will not be known unless you are an actor, as far as the film industry is concerned. Thiraiyal will break all such established norms," says Meena.
Together, they hope the SIFWA will encourage more women to enter the film industry. "There are women who drop out, women who don't take that initial big step at all, even if they love movies. We want them to know we are here, and that together, our voices will be heard."