There’s a depressingly long history of sexism and patriarchy in the state.
When famous personalities say horrible things, their supporters, fans or the media usually give them an “out”. They claim their words were taken out of context and issue earnest apologies, promising that what they said is not a reflection of who they really are.
Not quite the case with Mansoor Ali Khan, an actor, failed politician, and courter of controversy in Tamil Nadu.
During a press interaction for the movie Leo, which stars Vijay, Trisha and also Khan in a bit role, Khan said he regretted not having any “bedroom scenes” with Trisha.
“I thought I would carry her to the bedroom just like I did with other actresses in my earlier movies. I have done so many rape scenes and it’s not new to me. But these guys didn’t even show Trisha to me on the sets during the shoot in Kashmir,” he said, as translated by Indian Express.
When backlash inevitably followed, Khan refused to apologise, issued threats, and got a whole lot of press in the process. His apology – forced out of him, presumably, after the backlash – finally arrived days later.
But there’s a depressingly long history of male actors and politicians making sexist comments about women in the state. Unfortunately in Tamil Nadu, the land of social justice, they’re often ably assisted by sections of the media – the same media that literally chased women this week because they were at a pub in Chennai.
Men in Tamil cinema
After Khan’s comments on rape and “bedroom scenes”, Trisha tweeted that Khan’s statement was “sexist, disrespectful, misogynistic, repulsive” and that she’d never share screen space with “someone as pathetic as him”.
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Other personalities soon panned him. Leo director Lokesh Kanagaraj said he was “disheartened and enraged” to hear Khan’s “misogynistic comments”. Superstar Chiranjeevi said the comments “reek of perversion”. Actor, BJP leader, and National Commission for Women member Khushbu said Khan owed an apology to all women for his “dirty, misogynist, lowly mindset”. The South Indian Artists’ Association, also known as Nadigar Sangam, said it would suspend Khan if he didn’t apologise. The National Commission of Women took suo motu cognisance of the case and urged the police to book Khan.
Khan, who’s been convicted of rape though the Madras High Court later overturned his sentence, then held a press meet on November 21. Remarkably, he refused to apologise, accused Nadigar Sangam of “clashing with the Himalayas”, and threatened to “become a volcano”. As The News Minute pointed out, this is a sanitised version of what he actually said in Tamil.
He also said his words were “distorted”, that he spoke “in jest”, and that his daughter is Trisha’s “fan”. Khan has now been booked by the Chennai police for sexual harassment and words, gestures or acts that outrage a woman’s modesty.
Finally today, he offered up a questionable apology on social media, saying, “Please forgive me! May God bless the fortune for me to bless your mangalyam…”
But misogyny in the world of Tamil cinema runs deep and so Khan is in stellar company. In 2019, actor Radha Ravi slut-shamed actor Nayanthara during an event. The DMK, of which he was a member at the time, swiftly suspended him. In 2021, as a member of the BJP, he slut-shamed Nayanthara again.
And why wouldn’t he? This is the same man who once said that if he’d known Hindi, he’d have had the “opportunity to rape Aishwarya Rai”.
Then there’s Vairamuthu – poet, lyricist and Tamil champion who was outed for sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement. Since then, 17 women have accused him of harassment including singer Chinmayi, who lost work as a result of naming him. Vairamuthu himself hasn’t lost stature or work in the Tamil film industry, and has been honoured and platformed by the DMK.
Also during the 2018 #MeToo movement, filmmaker Leena Manimekalai accused director Susi Ganesan of sexual harassment. Ganesan filed a defamation case against her and Manimekalai’s passport was impounded. In January 2022, the Madras High Court restrained Manimekalai, Chinmayi and journalist Dhanya Rajendran from making “defamatory statements” against Ganesan.
And these are just some of the more high-profile cases that got some amount of traction on media and social media. The Tamil film industry still doesn’t have any form of internal complaints committee to deal with such issues.
Whither the media?
Coverage of Mansoor Ali Khan has predominantly been on who-said-what and how he’s now been booked. But media houses in Tamil Nadu often get a bad rep for sensationalism and misogyny.
And – let’s face it – they often deserve it. Case in point was events that unfolded in Chennai this week.
On November 20, news channels like Thanthi TV, News Tamil 24x7 and Polimer News aired “reports” on women at a pub in Chennai. Footage included cameramen chasing after these women, many of whom tried to hide their faces.
As reported by The News Minute, it all began when a group of men weren’t allowed inside the pub over a dress code issue. A reporter from a news channel came along and summoned other news channels. Media personnel then fell over themselves to capture pictures and videos of clients – especially the women – at the pub.
Headlines on all three news channels condemned the women for being “half-dressed” and “drunk”, and participating in a “manmatha koothu”, which I’m struggling to translate but “love dance” might work. After two complaints were filed, the Chennai police registered an FIR today against a News 24x7 journalist and five others.
But it’s par for the course for a section of Tamil media. During festive occasions like Pongal and Deepavali, many of them host pattimandrams, or debates. While they’re good for spotlighting social issues and giving women space to speak, they often devolve to conclusions like “women must sacrifice more” or “women must be selfless, not selfish”. More often than not, male speakers get the last word.
This upholding of patriarchal values trickles into news reportage too.
When a college student was stabbed to death at a railway station in Chennai in 2021, Polimer News used graphics and reenactments to explain the “romantic relationship” between the victim and her killer. At the time, a reporter with the channel told Newslaundry there was a “perpetual need to sensationalise news”.
Perhaps this encapsulates the state of the media in India today. Sadder still for a state that prides itself on being progressive and yet continues to be profoundly patriarchal.