Imagine opening up Twitter to see strangers theorising about the exact shape and size of your ex-boyfriend’s penis.
Grit your teeth and scroll past it.
After some frantic scrolling, the tweet you land on is speculating about who you’ve given blow jobs to and how good you are at them.
Scroll, scroll, scroll, somehow scroll.
Here’s a tweet about your mother being a sex-worker. Here’s one about your father’s condom use. Here’s one asking you to die.
My crime was criticising Salman Khan. The punishment lasted days.
This past weekend, a similar fate befell TheNewsMinute’s editor-in-chief Dhanya Rajendran. On Friday, Dhanya went to the movies to watch Jab Harry Met Sejal. Like everyone else who’s watched the film, she hated it. She walked out before the intermission.
Then she tweeted:
In the three days since, Dhanya has been called a slut, a whore, and a sex-worker, all by fans of the actor Vijay. In Tamil, she’s been called a thevediya (prostitute), punda (vagina), motta punda (shaved vagina), and more. She’s been asked to upload nude videos and to reveal who she’s giving blowjobs to. To be clear: this isn’t “trolling”. It is sexual harassment and abuse.
Vijay fans created the hashtag “#PublicityBeepDhanya” to neatly contain all their attacks, and they trended it nationwide. That hashtag alone has over 30,000 tweets under it, and the cumulative tweets attacking and harassing Dhanya number well over 50,000.
Sura, the Vijay film she mentioned walking out of, is seven years old. It was critically panned and a commercial failure even when it was relevant, but none of that mattered to Vijay fans this weekend. A woman had criticised their hero, and it was their moral duty to avenge him.
Roll up the sleeves, crack the knuckles, put the woman in her damn place.
There’s no way to know too much about who these people are. Most accounts this abusive hide behind anonymous handles and either have no photos or fake ones. (And despite pleas from trolled women around the world, Twitter is infamously unhelpful in punishing such folk.)
In Dhanya’s case, all we know about these scum-people is that they are fans of Vijay. In my case, all I knew was that they were fans of Salman Khan. And, honestly, that’s enough.
Vijay, Salman, and countless other male actors have found success by entering already-misogynistic film industries, and shooting to superstardom as poster-boys of that misogyny.
Khan’s films have famously romanticised stalking women, harassing women, and objectifying women, all of whom go on to fall in love with him. So it’s no surprise that his fans online exhibit similarly violent sexism online, and an inability to reckon with a woman without sexualising her, be it in praise or protest.
Vijay’s films haven’t been too different. I haven’t watched many myself, so I reached out to Lavanya Mohan, a friend, writer, and Tamil film expert.
“They're mostly misogynistic,” she told me, and “very heavy on ‘teaching the heroine a lesson’”.
Behaviours that actors condone become behaviours their fans exhibit.
She sent me examples too. Here’s a scene in which Vijay tells a woman that she got molested because of the clothes she was wearing, and advises her that women should be modest. In another film, Vijay gets a woman’s attention by stomping on her feet, invading her personal space in public, and then telling her it’s her own fault for not sitting with her feet tucked in. In a third film, Vijay confronts a woman when she invites him to her wedding, saying he can’t stand her “belonging” to someone else. All of these women go on to fall in love with him.
The underlying notions here – that women are possessions of men, that women are at fault for any harassment they face, that women must be “modest” or face the consequences – are weaponized and deployed against real-life women online by fans of the actor.
This explains why, when Dhanya called out Vijay’s fans for being abusive, many responded with variations of “if you didn’t want abuse, you should have kept your mouth shut”.
His casual victim-blaming in films translates to the understanding that, in the real world, when a woman is attacked, it is her own fault. That when a woman doesn’t behave by your ideals, it is your right to attack her, silence her, and put her in her place.
The behaviours that actors condone in films become the behaviours their fans exhibit in reality. Feminists have said this so many times, it borders on boring. But this past weekend demonstrated that, somehow, it’s still necessary to keep on saying.
My experience with this is thankfully restricted mostly to the virtual world, but of course the effects of our horrifically misogynistic films is playing out in streets and homes too.
Two years ago, an Indian man in Australia was let off charges of stalking and harassing two women after his lawyers argued that he had been influenced by Bollywood films in which men get women to fall in love with them via aggressive, non-consensual pursuit.
Here at home, such behaviour barely even makes it to courts. Indian women are well acquainted with stalking, harassment, and assault because Indian men are bombarded by pop culture heroes who tell them that behaviour is ok, and even welcome.
(I mean, if you’re an Indian woman and you haven’t been followed down a street by a man singing a “romantic” movie song, are you even an Indian woman?)
“For decades, the movie industry has put us on a staple diet of misogynistic movies [in which] the hero puts women in their places,” Dhanya told me in a message this afternoon. “That is precisely why most of the abuses are sexual in nature because they believe that makes a woman uncomfortable.”
“This kind of organised trolling is not condemned by the actors."
And far from condemning the misogynistic behaviour of their fans, male actors continue to profit off films cruxed on misogynistic plots, characters, and tropes. To honestly address the real-world sexism their films have birthed would be to question the mindset that built their rabid fan-bases in the first place.
If Salman Khan or Akshay Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan called a press conference to announce, “Actually, chappies, stalking is bad!”, they would astound their most ardent fans.
If Vijay now tweeted, “My dudes, you can’t blame a girl for her own harassment!” he’d alienate all the asses who will fill seats the next time he has a film out.
Some actors have made token-statements about women's empowerment and equality, earning raucous social media applause, but typically they've signed another film that perpetuates harmful notions about women even before the applause has died down.
At the end of her quotes to me, Dhanya asked: “This kind of organised trolling is not condemned by the actors, so does it have their tacit approval?”
I’d go so far as to say yes, it absolutely has their approval, and to call it "tacit" is needlessly generous. In every film where an actor has gotten the girl by stalking her, harassing her, or undermining her, that actor provides his explicit approval to his male fans to do the same to women in the real world.
Dhanya is now taking legal action against some of the vilest abuse she faced, as she should.
Hopefully some of the Vijay fans will face the consequences of the horrific sexual harassment and abuse they perpetrated this weekend.
But even if they do, it repulses me that the actors who encourage this behaviour in the first place all stay off the hook, despite being the ultimate wrongdoers.
How dare they live in cushy homes while having built a world in which we're afraid to leave ours? How dare they wear designer clothes while our wardrobes are restricted by the lurking threat of assault, heightened by their "romantic" films? How dare they enjoy the adoration and worship of millions, while we live under countless restrictions, self-imposed for safety from their fans?
Each movie ticket is a vote, and we should use that economic democracy.
Somehow, acting in regressive, shitty movies isn't a crime, even if those movies go on to spur a million crimes in the real world. But I can't shake off the feeling that they should face some consequences, still.
In a country where rape is rampant, assault is commonplace, and harassment is normalised, we should be enraged at the men who have turned crores in profits by encouraging that behaviour against us.
We should boycott them, protest them, and put them out of work. Each movie ticket is a vote, and we should use that economic democracy to express that, no, this half of the population won’t line your pockets while you continue to put us in grave danger every day. There is a helplessness I feel even typing this, knowing it won't happen. At a national level, we've been so starved of quality entertainment for so long, that rich, privileged stars have gotten away with peddling mediocrity and sexism for decades, never suffering a single economic dent for it.
Still, someone has to keep on asking, so I guess I will: How dare they make our world uninhabitable, and continue to stay perched on pedestals above it?