Sex, crime and cinema
Under the glitz and glamour of celluloid, away from the romance, spotlights and exotic locales, lies a world of sleaze, corruption and blackmail.
By Arunkumar Sekhar, Gopinath Rajendran, Sharadhaa A, Murali Krishna CH & Sajin Srijith
The exposure of an international prostitution ring involving South Indian actresses, models and TV anchors, and the controversial appointment of a Malayalam actor accused of abducting a female colleague have brought the spotlight back on the sexual predators lurking in the underbelly of the southern film world
These are excerpts from phone messages between Chicago-based event manager couple—Kishan Modugumudi and Chandrakala—and a client seeking the sexual services of a Telugu actress in America, retrieved by US Federal agents monitoring an international prostitution racket. They found that South Indian actresses, models and TV anchors brought by unscrupulous Telugu event organisers to Illinois on B1 and B2 visitor visas were being sent out for sex with customers for $2,000-3,000. Popular actress Madhavi ‘Heart’ Latha, who has performed at events organised by the Modugumudis for Telugu organisations in the US, says, “They would send bogus invitations and sponsor fake visas for artistes in the name of performing at cultural programmes.
They have worked closely with many top names in the industry, as well as newcomers. Any event manager can invite an actress to perform at cultural shows and will be paid high fees if she agrees to meet clients’ demands.” With rising woman power and social media might, organisations such as FIRE (Film Industry for Rights and Equality) have come up to protect actresses from sexploitation. Founder and actor Chetan, who is working to make the Kannada film industry safe for women, says: “When invited abroad for shows, the girls don’t have a support system. Hence, they are pushed into a prostitution ring or a casting couch situation.”
Under the glitz and glamour of celluloid, away from the romance, spotlights and exotic locales, lies a world of sleaze, corruption and blackmail where predators stalk young pulchritudinous hopefuls with promises of stardom. The casting couch is alive and well in tinsel town, and willing actresses are available for the right price at home and abroad. The most common reasons young girls take the sordid path are ambition, poverty and blackmail. In June, Chennai Police arrested Tamil actress Sangeetha Balan for running a prostitution racket at a private seaside resort. Cops have made numerous such arrests over the years. Some like Divya Sri and Sravani ran sex rackets themselves, peddling models and actresses. In the make-believe world of movies, illusion rules—in real life, the hero is a villain, the virgin has a sleazy past and the vamp has a heart of gold.
The Adjustment Trap
Hidden by the sheen and sparkle of filmdom, lies a script of pretences. ‘Adjustment’ is the euphemism for sexual favours in the film industry. Says Latha, “Casting managers and agents of event managers entice actors who do not get sufficient work, with the promise of big money in exchange for sex. They claim to have launched many top actresses and pretend to be producers, citing ‘adjustment’ as the norm for a role. Many of the girls agree, to survive in the industry.” Activist-actress Sri Reddy reveals how the Modugumudis operated. “They worked closely with local managers in Hyderabad to coordinate with celebrities recommended by some producers and directors, for whom fake documents would be arranged for procuring US visas. Should any of these actors refuse to budge some filmmakers here would step in to ensure their compliance.”
Reddy, who has alleged sexual exploitation in Tollywood and Kollywood by prominent film personalities, draws a frightening picture of the helpless girls at the mercy of the touts abroad. “Their passports are confiscated. They are confined and not even given a car to travel around and told that they are in the US on a three-month contract. Since events happen only during weekends, they are coerced to sleep with four to five persons a day during weekdays.
If a girl starts an argument, she doesn’t get paid,” she says. The Modugumudis’ modus operandi could have come straight from a film script. Once the girls landed, they would arrange meetings with potential customers at the shows itself. A wink or a nudge would indicate a valuable customer. Otherwise, it’s just a simple ‘hi’ to a new client. Revealing photos of the actors in sleazy outfits would be circulated on WhatsApp to chosen clients in the Telugu diaspora. Once, an A-list female actor was asked to send her semi-nude photograph to a client and she obliged. The agents’ commission was between 30-50 percent.
Actor-politician Khushboo says the girls were fully aware of what was expected from them. Veteran actor Rohini agrees. “I don’t think anyone forced them into the racket, if at all such ‘forcing’happens. At the end of the day, it’s their choice.”The internet, where fake news thrives, has proved to be a promoting factor for sleaze. Arvind, a casting director associated with Vijay TV and who has worked in Tamil films such as Dora and Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada, alleges that fraudulent casting directors create fake pages on Facebook to lure ambitious starlets. “Anyone can upload photos of over 1,000 models and create a portfolio claiming to be their manager or agent. One Instagram post seeking models for an unknown film could get over a hundred responses.”
The casting couch has been a contentious issue in the industry for decades. Sireesha, a junior Telugu actress, has many horror stories to tell. “Since childhood, I was fascinated by acting and entered films 13 years ago. I was noticed by an artiste coordinator, who asked me to visit him under the pretext of giving me an opportunity to act. He spiked my soft drink, and raped me along with three of his friends. They took my pictures on their mobiles and blackmailed me for sex.
This went on for almost two years and I slowly began to get a few small roles. I also started getting a bad reputation and since then, many executive producers, including some of my father’s age and some renowned actors, have shared my bed.” She exposes them as voyeurs. “Some of them order me to make WhatsApp video calls on which I have to strip.” Her Telugu colleague Supriya’s story is equally abject. “An actor, who ruled the roost in the early 90s and now plays character roles, is known to harass junior artistes. He gets drunk and abuses us sexually and flies into a rage when we refuse his advances. Directors and producers are aware of his conduct, but choose not to intervene. He exploits his co-stars and brazenly taunts them with obscene jokes. He calls us his bit***s. When my daughter came to see me on the sets he touched her inappropriately.”
Some women in the film industry are also involved in entrapment. Renowned lyricist Shreshta recounts an aspiring female director inviting her to a party in Goa. She sensed something fishy and refused. “A popular actor hinted that she wanted me to sleep with some industry personalities. It’s a vicious circle, in which once someone gets snared, it’s difficult to get out,” says Shreshta.
Well-known Malayalam film actress Parvathy has exposed the casting couch in her field, exposing men who ask women to sleep with them in order to get a role. Actress Sruthi Hariharan exposed a Tamil producer for saying she would be shared with five other producers if he gave her a role—she was ostracised when she refused. Members of the Kannada industry recount aspiring actresses are often sexually snared with promises of fame by unscrupulous producers, directors and agents. A small-time female actor, who wished to be anonymous, says, “I was driven by the hope of getting a role. After a few times of yielding to promises, I realised I was just being offered a dream, which would never become a reality. In the process, I was branded sleazy.”
An independent Malayalam film producer, who also wanted to remain unnamed—most industry people on record preferred to be anonymous—affirms that the dreaded casting couch is alive and well, and the pursuers are perversely innovative in their approach. “Some directors ask an actress to act out a love scene with them first before the actual shoot,” he says. A prominent fellow-actor laments that it’s the girls who have little education or economic stability, who mostly fall into the sex trap. He says, “Don’t expect girls who are breadwinners to come forward. They compromise but remain tight-lipped, since they have to protect their careers. Some need an alternate source of income. Perhaps they’ll come forward years later, when they reach a position to do so.”
Says Arvind, “I’m a casting director and get about 100-120 profiles on average each day. There are at least two to three women who express willingness to do ‘anything’ for a role. I discovered they were asked to do ‘adjustments’ by agents who had received their profiles. The perception among some young girls that a single film is enough to instantly turn an actress into a heroine and a celebrity encourages such accommodation.” He believes that millennials are driven to seek such short-cuts. “I had gone to attend a college fashion show in Coimbatore and was impressed by the fabulous production values as well as the looks of the models. Many such girls enter the highly competitive modelling world and may get roles in ads first, then TV serials and finally cinema. By the time they finish college, they have tasted fame and want more, and some of them are willing to do anything for it.”
Actor Rohini believes sex in cinema is more about money than just fame. “In acting, no certificates are necessary. The kind of money in acting vis-a-vis other careers where skills are needed is the main attraction. Fame is only an additional factor.”
Name and shame
Actresses find it daunting to take on the male-dominated establishment. Recently, actor Dileep who is accused of abducting a famous actress was reinstated in the Association of Malayalam Movie Actors, attracting condemnation from political leaders and female actors. According to a Malayalam star, real change will happen only when harassed women name and shame sexual predators. “The Dileep incident has rattled many cages, but can we really compare him to Harvey Weinstein? A real #MeToo movement will happen here only once names are called out. And there is no point in saying that you were part of the casting couch syndrome after you’ve made a name for yourself and got everything you wanted. Are they afraid someone is going to reveal they had consented many years ago?” At the height of #MeToo, a few leading female actors in Malayalam cinema lent their support by revealing their experiences, but did not offer names either.
Kavitha Lankesh, film director and vice-president of FIRE, says, “Unless women put their foot down and demand respect, sexual harassment will not end. And if anybody complains, they become outcasts. While heroines have said that the Kannada film industry is safer, I am not sure to what extent it is ‘safer’.”
A well-known Malayalam actor says by not revealing the names of the tormentors, the women are doing a great disservice not only to their colleagues but also to young upcoming actresses. “Anyone who thinks that the casting couch doesn’t exist is living in la-la land. Women have to be strong enough to say ‘no’. Then, the same man will not behave in the same way with other women. What we’re seeing right now is a lot of noise, and not much in the way of action. The public is finding it hard to buy the sob stories of some victims because they are unwilling to reveal names. Recently, a friend of mine joked that he is finding it tough to get a bride because he is from the film industry. Such is our reputation,” he says.
Veteran actor Khushboo believes the #MeToo movement here started too late. “Everyone keeps quoting incidents of the past. Be here and in the now. Every single time the problem happens, be strong enough to speak out.”
Lights, Safe and Sound
Casting director Arvind says aspiring actors need to educate themselves on industry pitfalls. “Using casting directors is standard practice in Hollywood and Bollywood. But it is new in Tamil cinema. There are a lot of ‘agents’ around. Girls must inform themselves about the real role of casting directors, and approach people like us who know exactly the options available in each film, instead of going to multiple production houses and submitting their profiles.” Rohini asks aspiring actors to participate in acting workshops to improve their skills, so that their talent endures in the long run. Chetan says the newcomers are common targets. “They don’t have the credibility to accuse a senior industry figure. Only organisational strength will add credibility claims,” he asserts and argues for a self-regulatory mechanism in the field.
Producer Dhananjayan feels newcomers in the industry now have someone to protect them. The South Indian Film Women’s Association has been set up to safeguard all women in cinema, not just actors. He lauds the power of social media in countering sexual intimidation. “There is no stigma of physically approaching the police. Harassers are exposed and such matters escalate very quickly on social media. A popular female actor had posted about a TV producer asking her to meet up after work. Though she didn’t name him, imagine how scared he must’ve been. It is not easy for anyone to do anything and get away anymore.”
Khushboo lauds the work of organisations such as Nadigar Sangam. “They are on point of giving young girls and women confidence through counselling so that they can report any abuse to the Sangam.” Rohini is not approving of media reporting on the lives of stars. “Apart from the worry of having a short-lived career, actors fear what can be written about them the most. It scares the families of many girls entering the industry. Some random journalist, for the sake of hype, creates fake news that can affect an actor’s life. Journalists do not speculate about the personal lives of doctors or lawyers; so what gives them the right to talk about a star’s personal life? We are hurt more by the press than people inside the film industry.”
In the world of cinema, international or Indian, serial sexual harassers are protected by the establishment’s power to make or break stars. When Sri Reddy stripped to protest against the casting couch, the media and the industry initially dismissed her as a publicity stunt. She was banned by the local artistes’ association. However, Reddy’s courage led the National Human Rights Commission to act, following which a sexual harassment committee is being set up to monitor the Telugu film industry. Deviants exist in all fields, but in the film world, both in India and abroad, it is the predators who are being now hunted. Slowly, but surely.
How the Girls were Trapped
Filmdom’s predators stalk young hopefuls with promises of stardom and big money
- Event managers contact an actor or an aspiring young artiste, and invite her for shows
- Casting managers and representatives of event managers typically lure college girls, weak-minded actors
- They project themselves as having been responsible for launching many top actresses
- They sometimes claim that they are going to produce a film themselves and cite ‘adjustment’ as the norm
- They offer huge money, and send fake invitations, sponsor fake visas for artistes/actors for performances at an event
- They pay actors highly if they agree to meet the clients’ demands. Many agree out of a desire to survive in the industry.
- Some female actors are also lured in by emotional blackmail and romantic promises