Male Dominance, Exploitation and Hypocrisy in Malayalam Film Industry: Interview with Shakeela by Dalit Camera

Guest post. SHAKEELA interviewed by DALIT CAMERA

[With English translation of transcript also by Dalit Camera]

DC: In the early 2000’s, your movies were very popular while those of mainstream heroes were flops. At that time, the government places several restrictions on your movies. What is your response to that?

Shakeela: Even I have watched the movies of these big stars. They have the just as much “glamour” scenes. However, they have termed only my movies as soft porn, A-film, Shakeela movies, bit movies, etc. That is because Kerala, in particular, is a male dominated society. Therefore, their domination is very evident. Men are given preference. Even if girls study well, they are never encouraged. In such a place, can they accept a woman from another state achieving such high status? Yes, it true. There were several problems.

DC: Do you see any change in laws and regulations after your entry into cinema?

S: Nothing like that. After I came out, people started saying there are no such movies and that the Censor Board won’t allow such movies. However, I still see them running. So, it is not that I changed anything.

DC: Even in the older movies, there were scenes which were sexually explicit. However, after a point, the government started certifying certain movies as B-grade. How can we make sense of this differentiation?

S: I’ll tell you something… The reason is what I told you earlier. It is a male dominated place. And it is the same dominant male audience which watched my movies. That’s where I first gained fame and stardom. But for the outer world, they appear to be progressive and educated. So if you think about it deeply, you understand that it is there that I became popular. But if you want to differentiate, I could only say that in whatever I do, I want to be number one. Whatever it may be. For these events, everyone comes. But I have to stand alone. By alone I mean, I have my own world, and I stand as the star in that world. For this reason, or for some other, no one ever invited me to any function or film festivals. I was never considered for any awards.

DC: How are you represented in TV channels, tabloids and film magazines? How do you think the society views you?

S: Everybody has both good and bad sides. Like that, a person who rejects me would certainly have enjoyed watching my movies. Any person who pretends not to know me at all would have been eyeing me for some time. First of all, I am not a person who socialized much. I just stick to my house, my family and my job. I do not go out much, and so do not know much about how people approach me.

DC: In an interview with Times of India, you mentioned that, in the 2000’s when you were a star, you never knew how much profit your films made. By the time you found this out, it was already too late. How do you view this in retrospect?

S: People usually claim that I didn’t have proper guidance to select the right movies, and unwittingly ended up taking these movies. But, if everyone wants to act in “good” movies, who will act in these kind of movies? They had written all this, but I don’t subscribe to that. Of course, there is a lot I have to learn. I still identify myself as one among you. I do not like to show off my star value as a celebrity. That I still have not learnt.

DC: What is the current position of women in the film industry?

S: It is just as usual. Nothing has changed. There is something I appreciate about present-day actresses. They just come for a short time, mint money and walk out. They get settled with their family, and they plan it all out properly. In my time, all these were not there. There was so much of responsibility. Looking after my parents, taking care of my siblings, this and that. Now, there is nothing like that. “See, you are educated. I have come to act in cinemas to make money and get settled.” They are very clear.

DC: During the 2000’s, a lot of political parties attempted to ban your movies. The state government implemented rules and regulations to curb their circulation. Who stood by you during this period? Did any women’s organization support you?

S: No one stood by me. Neither women’s organizations, nor men’s organizations. No one supported me. You have to understand one thing. Tickets… Tax… When my movies were running house-full, there were taxes for even Rs. 10 tickets. So, the government was actually making money out of me again. Even the government. When they were demanding that my movies be banned, that may be because of pressure from other mainstream movie stars. But I heard about this just the same way you did. No single hero called and informed me personally. That’s the only truth. Now there are a thousand versions of that story. But, that is all that happened in 2000. I got to know things by hearsay. No one approached me directly.

Next, from the government’s side, there are lots of faults in censorship. So, even while shooting, when I get one-hours breaks, I would listen to stories. Depending on these stories, I would accept the roles. The shooting will be based on these stories themselves. To speak frankly, I was at a shooting near the airport, at Jyothi theatre. I took a lot of effort to play that character. I played the role of a priestess. So when the posters came out, I asked  the make-up man to go watch the movie as I had taken a lot of effort in playing the role. After the movie, he seemed quite disturbed. He wouldn’t speak to me till evening. When I asked him, he told me, “It’s nothing. There is only one scene in which you shown in that dress. After that, there are merely women appearing naked.”

That day, everything in my life changed. There was a shoot in the morning. After packing up and leaving by 6 in the evening, I called the press myself. I told them that I will not act in Malayalam films any longer. I returned the advance for 23 upcoming movies the next day itself. It is just that I do not have time to watch my movies. If I had, I would surely watch all of them. It was only later that I heard that bit reels with visuals of naked women were inserted into my films.

Who should I blame now? Should I blame the government? The heroes? The directors who made the movies? Or the people who watched them? Everyone is responsible for this.

DC: Adult films were marketed in Kerala using your face. You were heavily exploited. However, you were never aware of your payscale. By the time you figured this out, everything was over.

S: Those days, I had a manager to take care of my appointments. I hardly had time to visit home even. It was a big thing to meet my mother once a week. After I left the Malayalam film industry, I asked my mother how much money she had left. She told me that my sister had taken all the money, and there was nothing left. What can one do after that? It was only then that I checked how much I earned each day and how much my call sheet was. Only then did I realize that night shift was paid separately. I realized it only six years back. It was my fault that I didn’t save anything.

DC: Looking back, how do you find your life?

S: Everyone asks me a question: “Do you regret doing such movies?” In any magazine, that would be the first question. I certainly do not feel any regret at all. You might remember any other artist by a certain role they played in certain movies. But who doesn’t know Shakeela? So no regret. They were all happy moments. I got fooled out of my money purely by my fault. I trusted them, that’s all. Apart from that, my experience and the work I did was all fun for me. It all worked out happily for me.

There is this case against me. Someone had watched a movie in a theatre in Tirunelveli. I told them that I have acted in “glamourous” roles in all my movies, not this alone. So why is there a Censor Board? A movie is released only after it is passed by the Censor Board. Why should a case be filed on me? I agree that I act in “glamourous” roles. That case lasted for eight years. I had to go to Tirunelveli twice a year. I plan it out as a trip. There was one hour’s work at the Court. After that, I would drop by to Kodaikanal. Otherwise, I would  go to Ooty. It was like a joy trip. At that time, I had to wear a burqa. The first I went to Court, I didn’t wear a burqa or anything. I was just wearing some dress. But there was a big crowd. So the next time, so that people would not recognize me, I went wearing a burqa. Now, there is a problem. They said that I reveal my body in movies, but come to court wearing a burqa. All of us – Shakeela, Roja, Bhuvaneswari… To that, I answered that Roja and Bhuvaneswari are Hindus. You can oppose them wearing burqas. But I, being a Muslim, wear a burqa, and so does my family. How can it be a problem when I wear a burqa? I am not involved in money laundering or any other business. But now I am forced to go and come just because some jobless guy filed a case for time-pass. So it became a huge problem – wearing a burqa. Let them say what they want. I shall continue wearing a burqa and take things as they come.

DC: There are several women’s groups in Tamil Nadu. How are your interactions with them? Also, what was your reaction to the recent Delhi rape?

S: All these feminist groups who talk about women’s issues are a bunch of jobless people. You first claim your rights at home, from your husband. You have 100 percent right for that. If you go and ask some random man for your rights, where is the sense in that? First you prove yourself. Look at Kalpana Chawla. She achieved something. First, do something of that sort. Instead of that, you keep clamouring for your rights. I do not understand why they do this. It is all our choice. “If you have a problem with your husband, you are leaving him and going away.” It is like that. You marry someone within a “patriarchal” society and ask him to change, why would he agree? When it came to the problems I faced as a woman, no one helped me. I won’t ask for help either. I did not face any such issues myself.

They didn’t come. It is not that they avoided me, it is just that I kept to myself. Even if I approached them, what could they have done?

The average woman is oppressed by her husband in her household…

DC: Why is it so..? Most of the women you had seen are so…?

S: It is not like that. All the women I have known are earning, independent and live according to their wishes. I do not understand who are the people who claim for these rights. Not for whom, but who is asking rights. Take me for example, my co-actresses, their mothers, sisters and family are all living comfortably on their own. Then why are these organizations wasting their time? When it comes to rape and such matters, they are grave criminal offences. Why should one waste time with endless litigations. I recently saw on the Internet how rape cases were more swiftly and seriously dealt with in (I suppose) UAE.  If that’s the case, no one would ever commit rape. Instead, here you know who committed the rape, and still waste time with filing cases and court hearings. What is the need for all this?

DC: They say that the film industry has a lot to do with violence on women.

S: Why is it so? Otherwise, you won’t marry and have a family? Why do you have to exploit cinema along these lines? As though, you have to watch a movie to get married. As though, you have to watch a movie before your first night. So why target movies? How many good messages are there in movies? You leave all that aside, and say “he raped”, “he raped”, and it is all because of cinema.

DC: What are the prospects for aspiring young actresses in the film industry? Are they extremely vulnerable to exploitation?

S: It is nothing like that. Compared to Silk Smitha, I never had her body shape or her beauty. It is a matter of time. You need not have a great figure. It is all about the time. You need some luck and a bit of talent. That’s all. Apart from that, you can only reach your target if you go through the right channels.  A lot of people, unwittingly pay money to small companies, who in turn run away with it. Some companies often ask young actresses to “adjust” with some people. All that is not required. In my time, how did I enter the film industry? I failed in tenth standard. What adjustment did I make? Nothing. So you have to go by the right channels. You should not approach cheap brokers and all.

DC: From Silk Smitha’s time to yours, there was a change in the representation of the female body within films. How did this affect film as a genre?

S: That is not what had happened. It is the dress which has shortened in length and has reached bikini level now.

DC: Why won’t these movies be termed B-grade by the Censor Board?

S: That is something you should ask. This is something the general public should ask. Let us, for now, just assume that my films are indeed B-grade. If someone wears a miniskirt in it, it is considered wrong. It is marked out by the Censor Board, who would refuse to pass it unless it is edited out. I think, in the movie Billa, the actresses wear two-piece bikinis. Is that OK?

DC: What is the reason behind this? Why do they selectively offer Censor Certificates?

S: I do not know the reason why.

DC: Even in old MGR movies, you can find clothes which are more revealing than in recent films.

S: There was some beauty in it. Even those are clothes worn for girls. It was beautifully narrated and beautifully shot. It was just revealing enough to make it sexy by their aesthetic standards. Then my movies came out, in the middle of which they showed women in the nude. That was one fault. What I mainly wanted to ask is, when mainstream actresses appear in two-piece bikinis, how can the Censor Board pass the movie? In so many Hindi and Tamil item songs, actresses simply wear a bikini and dance along to songs. How are Certificates given to these movies? You have to ask this. Who am I to ask? Just for this, you can form an association and ask.

DC: Will you support us?

S: Sure. I will ask why you discredited my movies while you allowed these movies to be passed.

DC: So many people might have come to interview you. What do you think is their main intention in interviewing you?

S: To sell books about me. That’s all. What will you learn after writing about me? What will you do after knowing me? It is just a timepass for them. It is timepass for my fans. Unnecessary questions repeated time and again. How many times I have to answer how I entered the industry! Even I got bored! You just take another book and check and you will know how I came. You just take last week’s Diwali edition of Kumkumam. You will find how I entered the industry.

DC: Do they just ask about the industry alone?

S: They start with that. Then they ask about other women in the industry. I do not enter into any discussion about other women. For example, I just talked about women wearing two-piece bikinis. I had decided not to mention any names, but I ended up dropping them. I am telling you. This is the problem. They asked me Khushboo said so and so, what is your response. She said what she wished. What should I say about it? I do not avoid controversies because I am afraid of them. I will say the truth according to me. I will answer whatever comes to my mind when you ask a question. Afterwards, if they say I said this and that, let them do whatever they want.


5 thoughts on “Male Dominance, Exploitation and Hypocrisy in Malayalam Film Industry: Interview with Shakeela by Dalit Camera”

  1. Not only in Malayalam film industry, even in other languages too the film industry is riddled with caste and religious discrimination. For instance, the Telugu industry is virtually in the hands of ‘kammas’: the dynasty of NTR or ANR. The writers and lyricists are mostly brahmins. Only producers/ directors like R. Narayana Murthy encourage artistes of other castes. Religious discrimination is very high. Mano (Md. Nagoor babu) is less popular than S P.Balasubrahmanyam (brahminic origin).
    Female artistes like Halam and Jayamalini, who were used as dancers and vamp and disco dancers are not cared for as their part is taken over by regular mainstream artistes. These are lured by offering lumpsum amount and luxuries.
    The basic problem lies with the certification of films. Many films with obscenity are released but message oriented films are not certified on grounds of ‘anti-national’ (which means mostly anti- government or reality). The actors and film units of non-mainstream suffer economically due to market forces which promote ‘masala’ films. Thus, women artistes, particularly lower caste and muslims suffer most if they do not heed to the run-of-the-mill stuff.
    The need is, therefore first of all the censor board should promote’good’ films showing reality rather than ‘commercial’ and money making films. The industry should promote lower castes and muslims in all spheres. Instead of private funding, all the films should be government-funded and the artistes must be protected financially and morally. Film industry has become a heaven for mafia and profiteers. This ‘business’ should be transposed as ‘artistic ‘/’entertaining’ industry promoting good habits and simple living.

    1. Dear Sheshu Babu, I tend to disagree with part of your argument. I won’t speak for Telugu cinema, as it’s unfamiliar territory. However, I doubt if there’s religious discrimination in Malayalam or Hindi. I believe there’s an equal mix of Hindus, Muslims and Christians there. And to be honest, I have no clue about the castes of Malayalam’s Hindu actors. However, it’s still male-dominant and male-centred with a lot of chauvinistic statements made (it’s started changing recently). It’s easy to say that films should be funded by governments. They would just degrade into PR material for parties in power. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in “masala” films. It’s an industry which provides livelihood to millions of people – from actors to light-boys to poster pasters to tea shops. And Indian film industry is the largest in the world, about 7-8 times bigger than the Nigeria, the second in rank. Speaking about making films for social causes, I don’t think they need to go through the route taken by mainstream cinema. Shoot and upload on youtube and your message goes to an infinitely large audience.

  2. Hi, I do not know what provoked this interview. The views expressed by Shakeela are very personal and it should not be taken as a final word for the male domination and female exploitation in the Malayalam film industry is concerned. Hers is one of the views. I happened to read her autobiography (as told to type) in Malayalam published by a mainstream publisher. Throughout the book she plays the role of a victim. The first part is all about how flamboyant she was during her high school days and how her father had groomed her but within the religious limits. In the book she clearly says that her body revealed a lot of possibilities which she did not know how to channelize. Finally she came to films. Then there is a chain of stories of exploitation and her elder sister turns out to be the real villain.

    Shakeela was the need of the time. Malayalam film industry was looking for a way out from the films that the triumvirate ruled- Mammootty, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi – Dileep alternatively. They were repeating the same methods that the came criticizing when the entered the industry. Their problem was with the leading actors of that time like Prem Nazir, Soman and so on, who still went to ‘college’ at the age of sixty. (Today at the age of 64 Mammootty does more less the same!). In such deadlock situations, some directors come up with alternative ideas of film making. In 1980s it was K.S.Gopalakrishnan and Abhilasha team who did ‘forest’ based films. Abhilasha acted in nude in her debut film ‘Adipapam’ (original sin) as Eve and the mythological setting of the film gave ample scope for skin display. Shakeela’s entry was the need of the next decade and most of the film catered to the high school, college going, college drop out, jobless, unmarried, diaspora kind of crowds who enjoyed these films as a possible avenues of defection and rebellion tinged with sinful pleasure.

    Shakeela, perhaps as a naive actress did not recognize this historical factor and it should be callous to say that she was absolutely unaware of the exploitation of her body. She knew it and also she knew the success of her films. She, in this interview as well as in the book speaks in retrospective so the situations are seen more in context and views are expressed in philosophical tone. By accusing the industry of male domination and also blatantly saying that most of the young actresses come to make money and get married are absolutely lopsided. While we accept there is male domination in the industry (not only in the making but also in the narratives, which is thankfully changing these days as the Malayali heroes are no longer looking for virgin ‘heroins’- example : Life of Josootty, Ennum Eppozhum etc) we cannot say that such kind of crass exploitation is still there as the industry has opened up in a big way. The studio culture where the ‘muthalali’ (owner) called the shot is a thing of past and Shakeela somehow mixes up these two time scales and reiterates that she was never forced to make any ‘adjustments’ in an attempt to keep her ‘virgin’ status. It is ironical to hear from her that the new actresses come to make money and even if she does not say that they make ‘adjustments’, she almost intends it, which does not sound good.

    We also have to see why Shakeela’s films lost charm in due course of time. It is not just about censoring or the allowance the authorities make on the mainstream film actresses in the scantly clad roles. The discrimination has to be primarily seen in perspective: First of all Shakeela movies are meant to cater to a particular audience which is understood though unsaid, so such kind of discriminatory censorship is called for, while the mainstream movies where the heroins are seen in two pieces (which Shakeela has a problem with) are meant for mainstream audience and generally these films are termed as general entertainment vehicles, without the intention of being pornographic. Whereas Shakeela movies are intended to be pornographic; that’s why when she appears in a nun’s attire the audience responds to the character in a vulgar way (and fornication with a nun is a world wide pornographic fantasy as we all know).

    Globalization and the changing climate and context of film watching have also contributed considerably in sending Shakeela movies out of fashion. Her movies were mostly played in C-class theaters where one could have the film experience from Rs.10 to R.35. Shakeela also says it in a different way; she emphasizes that by this cheap ticket price, a lot of people see her movies and the money goes to the government. But that is not the truth. The demise of the C-grade theaters was the subject of a movie titled ‘Kanyaka Talkies’ (K.R.Manoj, 2014) where porn films were played thanks to the fading patronage. The shift of the audience from the C and B grade cinemas to multiplexes is one of the reasons why Shakeela became a thing of scorn. Nobody would like to deal with ‘filthy aesthetics’ in a sophisticated context provided by the multiplexes, though many of the non-peak time week days shows are just an apology for many young couple looking for a some privacy.

    Shakeela therefore is an interesting case study to understand the paradoxical relationship of the malayali male audience with the sinful pleasures provided by the Shakeela movies. For them Shakeela no longer gives enough excitement as more and more pornographic clippings of real people are available on net and in whatsapp. However, the very same male audience will not feel it problematic to visit single screens to abuse the movies of ‘Santosh Pandit, in order to keep the aesthetic purity of films, interestingly the flip side of shunning Shakeela movies. Shakeela has to be studied along with a series of other vamps who came and left who never got the social acceptance like Helen in Bollywood and Smitha, posthumously in the South. She was cannonised nationally by the film Dirty Picture. We have a series of vamps who had fired the nights of the Malayali male audience, namely Jayamalini, Anuradha, Disco Shanti, Nilex Nalini,

      1. Dear Francis, if your question is genuine, you must be unaware of the existence of a search engine called Google. To cut the long story short, he’s an art critic and he may/may not have an interest against Shakeela. What he does here is to provide more perspective to the article, rather than speaking against her.

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