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India actress breaks silence on sexual assault

Bhavana Menon, a popular actress from the southern Indian state of Kerala, who was abducted and sexually assaulted in 2017, has broken her silence after five years, describing her “difficult journey from being a victim to a survivor”.

Menon, who has worked in more than 80 films in southern Indian languages and won a number of prestigious awards, was assaulted by a group of men while travelling from Thrissur to Kochi in February 2017.

Her assault made headlines, especially after Dileep, one of Malayalam-language film industry’s biggest actors and Menon’s co-star in half a dozen films, was named as an accused and charged with criminal conspiracy. He denied the charges against him, but was arrested and held in custody for three months before being released on bail. The case is being heard in a trial court.

“I was just a normal fun-loving girl and then this one incident happened that turned my life upside down. Most people see the smiling photos I post on social media, but I have been to hell and back,” Menon told me on the phone from the southern city of Bangalore.

“I became this victim, this ‘assaulted actress’. And for long, I kept asking, ‘Why me?’ I was blaming myself and I was looking for a way out,” she said.

“But in 2020, after the trial began, I spent 15 days giving evidence in court. And that’s when things changed. Here I was, wanting to forget and move on, but then I had to remember everything, every tiny detail about the case.”

On the day of her assault, Menon was travelling from her hometown Thrissur to the city of Kochi, where she was to dub for a film the next morning, when she was kidnapped. Her attackers made videos of the assault – “maybe they wanted to blackmail me”, she told me.

Actor Dileep
Image caption,Dileep was arrested in 2017 and spent three months in jail

Considering her – and Dileep’s – celebrity status, there was tremendous media attention in the case and on any given day, local news channels invited panellists to speak for and against her.

Many took to social media and indulged in victim shaming – they asked why she was travelling at 7pm and questioned her morality, some abused her and some said the case was all made up, that she had “staged it”.

“I was devastated, broken into a million pieces, all these things were very hurtful to me. I sometimes wanted to scream at the top of my lungs,” she told Indian digital platform Mojo Story. “My dignity was snatched and then I was victim shamed.”

Under Indian law, the identity of those who have been sexually assaulted is to be protected at all costs, but Menon said that right from the start, it was known that she was the one who had been attacked.

“I was an established actress and the initial reports only said I was kidnapped, so some of the TV channels showed my photographs. Once the details of the sexual assault became known, they removed my name and photos, but by then everyone knew it was me.”

In January, for the first time since her “nightmare” began five years ago, Menon publicly acknowledged in an Instagram post that she was the “survivor” of the assault.

“This has not been an easy journey. The journey from being a victim to becoming a survivor. For 5 years now, my name and my identity have been suppressed under the weight of the assault inflicted on me,” she wrote.

“Though I am not the one who had committed the crime, there have been many attempts to humiliate, silence and isolate me. But at such times I have had some who stepped forward to keep my voice alive. Now when I hear so many voices speak up for me I know that I am not alone in this fight for justice,” she added.

Her post was shared by some of the biggest Malayali stars, including Mohanlal and Mammooty, and many Bollywood actresses spoke up in her support.

Dhanya Rajendran, editor-in-chief of The News Minute website, says that by choosing to speak up, Menon “is being very brave” while also being careful since the case is sub-judice.

“Physical assault is one thing, but then she’s a celebrity so she has to face intense public scrutiny and reactions from society and the film industry. There’s also a court case going on. Then there’s the video of the assault and there would always be the fear that it could be leaked to the public.”

The actress says she’s aware that she’s privileged because she’s a celebrity, has the full support of her husband and family and the financial means to fight her case, but the past five years have not been easy.

“There were at least a hundred times when I felt like giving up. There were so many times when I’ve asked my friends and family and even my lawyers if I could take it all back, turn the clock back. I’ve thought about leaving the country and going away somewhere to start afresh, I’ve thought so many times about killing myself.”

So what has kept her going, I ask?

“Every time I would think about giving up, 24 hours later, I would change my mind. Because it is my dignity on the line, I have to prove my innocence, I have to prove that I have not done anything wrong,” she says.

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