With like-minded professionals, he registered the Film Industry for Rights & Equality as a non-profit society
He is now working towards improving the conditions of the Alemaari (nomadic) community
Chetan took the initiative of establishing FIRE to look out for the safety of women in the Kannada film industry. When this proposal was made, some members of the Kannada film fraternity were not for it. People are still hesitant to talk about the issue. But at least now people are aware that they can't get away with any kind of exploitation against women.
Chetan Ahimsa spent the first 23 years of his life in the US. He made regular trips to India during his summer vacations. Thus, Karnataka and Kannada played an integral role in shaping his understanding and identity.
“I was more than just hyphenated from an American standpoint; I was a hybrid from a global perspective. As I matured, I began to comprehend the unjustified privileges I was a beneficiary of — in education, economics, health, parental love — in comparison to many of my Indian counterparts. I felt it my responsibility to dedicate my life to giving back,” he says.
While studying liberal arts at Yale University, he read about Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan. “She inspired me,” says Chetan.
In 2005, he rejected lucrative career options and came to India on a Fulbright Scholarship that required him to work in conjunction with the National School of Drama, Bengaluru and help engender social change through theatre.
His year-long project focused on directing socially conscious, gender-empowering plays with Karnataka’s villagers, specifically women. To get a grassroots performance understanding, he travelled across the state from Old Mysore to Karavali to North Karnataka with Kannada theatre groups, worked with street theatre groups in Bengaluru, and interviewed and interacted with altruistic theatre personalities. He then spent months in Gundlupet and Begur in Chamarajanagar district, writing and directing Kannada plays that questioned practices such as dowry. “Village women enacted the roles, and the plays were performed in front of local crowds,” he says.
While he explored the wonders of Karnataka, a stark reality struck him — inequity based on class, caste, gender, region, and language. “I understood that what our state and nation required were non-violent initiatives to establish equality, social justice, and scientific temperament. To accomplish this, I would have to begin at the very bottom. I decided to enter Kannada cinema since I could continue my artistic pursuits, make ends meet, and importantly, connect with people across Karnataka,” he says.
After a couple of successful films (Aa Dinagalu was a hit), his work began to spread across the state. Subsequently, he began taking up the cause of Adivasis, Dalits, farmers, labourers, women, and students, leading protests through mobilisation, sit-ins, television interviews, and published articles. Chetan is now working towards improving the conditions of the Alemari (nomadic) community. “Over the past year, I have visited their colonies in Bidar, Kalaburagi, Yadagir, Ballari, and Chitradurga, finding them homes with the help of the district administration,” he says.
Chetan founded Film Industry for Rights and Equity (FIRE) in March 2017. It was a television sting that triggered the idea. “In mid-2014, a popular 24-hour news source did a sting to expose the dark underbelly of the Kannada film industry, revealing how sexual harassment continues to manifest through the casting couch. Up to that point, I had understood this gross reality through informal interactions with women colleagues. What was most shocking was what happened in the aftermath of the story: complete silence from the film fraternity,” he says.
Chetan wrote an article on how to institutionally remove sexual harassment from the film industry. He later approached members in positions of power to take up this cause. “They not only dismissed my suggestions but also denied the existence of the casting couch in our industry. The industry desperately needed a movement for gender equality,” he says.
With like-minded professionals, he registered the Film Industry for Rights & Equality (FIRE) as a non-profit society. “I founded FIRE as an independent, industry body that takes up the struggles of three neglected groups: women, workers, and writers,” he says. Actor Sruthi Hariharan, co-founder of FIRE says, “He has inspired me and many to fight for what is right. And I think to achieve a clean and safe environment, we need more men like Chetan.”
Kavitha Lankesh, also a co-founder, adds, “When this proposal was made, some members of the Kannada film fraternity were not for it. People are still hesitant to talk about the issue. But at least now, people are aware that they can’t get away with any kind of exploitation against women.”