(This is by Rajesh Touchriver in response to the #MeToo allegations which I had blogged on 22-10-2018, posting it here as I think this response should also be known)
It is around 8 months now that a newcomer actor alleged that I have mentally harassed her, discriminated her based on gender, passed sexist remarks and blackmailed her. She also alleges that I sent her an inappropriate message ‘ready to dance’ at midnight. In these last 8 months, she has alleged another short film director of patriarchal bias…and now she accuses a senior actor in Malayalam industry of inappropriate behavior that happened in 2016.
For the better part of the last eight months I was shooting and thereafter busy with post-production work, so I did not have time or energy to respond to these allegations. And then I also waited to see whether the person is making any complaint to a legally competent body so that I can present my facts there. In the absence of any formal complaint, I am confused, how am I supposed to clear my name. Now with these new set of allegations against a senior actor and my name being repeated a hundred times over, maybe as a troll but still my name; I am left with a situation where allegations are pasted in public memory (for short term or long term the time will tell) again & again. Finally I have to break my silence!
I am making a conscious choice of not mentioning the name of the person for the simple reason that I have no axe to grind with this person. And my present statement is just a statement of facts based on the behavior of the person on my sets and should not be taken in any way to point out at the character of the person.
I have known this newcomer by telephone contact from 2016 as she was referred by a common associate in the industry. Although she kept in touch requesting for a break I could not accommodate her as she was not suitable for any of the characters for the Telugu film I was making at the time. In 2018, for my new bi-lingual film there was character of a female police officer that suited the look of this person. I invited her for an audition to Bhubneshwar. She came to Bhubneshwar with her mother. On the completion of audition when she was selected, I was told by this person that she had taken a lot of debt to reach for the audition and cannot go back . Since many of the cast & crew were already in Odisha, I requested the Producer of the film to provide her accommodation so that she can be part of the rehearsals. This is her first feature film.
When the shoot started everything was fine, this person due to language problem was mostly around my technicians and makeup persons who were from Kerala. There was easy comradeship, jokes and light banter on the sets in an otherwise very stressful shooting schedule.
The stress triggered due to multiple reasons but one of the many was the limited dates the lead actor could give for this film. All efforts were being made to complete his scenes. Since we were working on tight budgets all supporting actors were asked to reach the location in the morning itself and as per the situation the combination scenes were completed. This is when the problem started with this person, she started throwing tantrums on the sets, abusing the Managers that she was being made to wait for her scenes and why couldn’t she come to the sets when her scenes would start. When complaints started pouring in from others about her behavior, a senior actor even counseled her and advised her to understand the shooting conditions and pressures involved as she is just starting her career in the industry.
When finally, the scenes where this person has to perform started, I was faced with a bigger crises, this person did not like any feedback or correction.
I live & breathe cinema and I was in no way going to compromise on the performances. But this person would start crying in front of all the crew and stage walkouts from the set. Out of sheer frustration, I started sending her messages on ‘whatsapp’ my feedback about her performance and what needs to be done to correct it. My messages both appreciated her good performances and criticized her bad performance (screenshots of all the messages available).
As the shooting schedule was rigorous, due to our race against time to complete the scenes of the lead actor, most often than not we would come back to our rooms only after midnight.
As I was and I am still looking at all this as a professional challenge while working with newcomers, I did not have any personal grouse then (or now) against this person, so light banter on commonly joked matters on the set continued even on whatsapp, which is the famous ‘ready to dance’ midnight message.
In the meantime I was also faced with updates from my team who complained that this person was picking fights with other supporting actors. In one such instance there was a big fight over some ice-cream. This lady abused another female actor for some ice-cream which created a big scene on the sets.
Perhaps the worst situation, I had to face was while shooting a fight scene at the beach. This person was enacting a police officer in this film and had to do a fight scene with several other actors on the beach. During the course of the shoot, watching the monitor I noticed that she was completely drenched and her upper portion of her body could be visibly seen through the drenched Tee Shirt. I asked my assistants to go and inform her to dry up and re-shoot. All my assistants refused, as by this time most of the cast & crew were not even willing to go near her. Somehow I sent an assistant with a towel to her. And I had to personally go to her and ask her to dry up and change her inners.
She immediately flared up and started accusing me that I was making comments on her body. That was it, I lost it and give her a mouthful that this is not an ‘item number or a piece film’ for people’s bodies to be flaunted, the role is that of a police officer and all decorum for the same has to be maintained. Somehow we completed that scene.
As we were coming closer to completion of scenes with this person, I also realized that the Producer had not paid the promised remuneration. I personally intervened and told the Producer to do the needful. Due to several factors the Producer did not immediately respond. The finally showdown came on the last day, during which my wife Sunitha Krishnan was also a witness. This person refused to act, till her payments were not cleared.
As the shot was already ready, I requested the Producer to make part payment and resolve the matter. The Producer made part payment in cash and yet this person would not budge. She demanded that the Producer gave it to her in writing that her payments will be cleared and she will be given flight charges for her return (of course the cost of the flight tickets to be deducted from her payment). As the shooting was delayed for already an hour, the Producer gave it in writing and ensured that the shooting was resumed.
I received a message from this person on her way back to airport thanking me for the support and the opportunity I gave her…little did I realize that after 2 ½ months this person will be accusing me of mental harassment and other charges, for reasons best known to her.
I am forced today to take screenshots of my ‘whatsapp’ messages and keep it safely as supporting document when the time is right to show to the world as I want people who are reading this and following this to know the exact facts and also understand how ‘truth’ can be distorted.
I am not here to defend myself, that is for you to independently verify the truth. I also do not want to throw aspersions on anybody’s character or their professional outlook. I know as a person, I have a style in functioning, which all my actors are much aware. I cannot sweet-talk to anybody man or woman, some may call it very abrasive and rude. For me once I cast a person in a particular role, that person ceases to be a man or a woman, he/she is just an actor playing that character and I will apply all strategies to ensure that the person does justice to that character. I have witnessed tantrums from many actors and technicians on my sets and I take it in my stride as an occupational hazard.
My love for cinema is absolute…and I will continue with the same passion and commitment and in the same style albeit some modifications in my casting methods…maybe a relook on my position whether I want to take further risks providing opportunity to newcomer actors and definitely of course have code of conduct and safe-guarding procedures in all the agreements.
And as a post-script I also want to state, my liking or not liking a person does not come in the way of my films and all cast & crew are promoted to the best of my ability.
Finally I want to take this moment to thank my wife, my family and all my friends including my actors, assistants and technicians for their unstinting love and faith in me…if not for that…this phase could have been very stressful.