"Is she flexible?"
That was the question posed to the manager of a young Telugu actress sometime last year. On the plate was a trip to the USA, where the actress was expected to be part of an event organised by the Telugu Association of a city in the Midwestern part of the USA, close to the Canada border.
The manager's antennae shot up and she made it clear that the question annoyed her. The person at the other end, a Hyderabad-based coordinator of the organiser in the US, understood his query had not gone down well and immediately tried to make amends.
"It only means taking selfies with the event organisers and their family," he explained.
The manager sensing something was amiss, did not agree to the trip. And after the arrest of a couple of Indian origin in Chicago for allegedly running a "high-end prostitution ring" by luring at least five south Indian actresses, she is glad the actress she manages did not walk into a trap.
The couple - Kishan Modugumudi and his wife Chandrakala alias Vebha - were Hyderabad-based till a few years ago, working in a production firm before vanishing from the city scene. However, they seem to have kept their contacts in the Deccan alive as their representatives are former film journalists and secretaries to film stars. In fact, the representative quoted above was the manager to a prominent actress from Mumbai who acted in several hit films in Telugu and is now reasonably busy in Bollywood.
The couple targeted actresses who after tasting initial success were not getting significant work. The ploy was to approach the women, talking about the advantages of networking with the Telugu diaspora in the US and then luring them into the sex racket. The money offered to attend the event ranged between Rs 5 and 8 lakh.
The criminal complaint filed on April 28, 2018 by the Homeland Security Investigation in Illinois charges Modugumudi and Chandrakala with purchasing airline tickets and hotel rooms for the five victims (mentioned as A, B, C, D, E) and subsequently take them to Telugu conferences across the USA for "purposes of identifying potential customers who would pay the Modugumudis in order for the customers to engage in commercial sex acts with the victims".
The complaint lists out in great detail how the five victims were advertised and used for commercial sex acts. In the conversations that have included in the complaint, Chandrakala is reported as haggling furiously over the money to be charged from the clients, asking for anywhere between 1000$ and 2500$ for two to three hours. She is also reported to have sent several photographs of the victims to help the customers decide, indicating a cold and calculated racket.
It is not clear from the complaint the extent of the involvement of the actresses. Victim A is quoted as saying that except in Chicago, in the other three cities, "people were sent to her room for the alleged purpose of prostitution". She however claims she did not engage in any sexual act but merely "engaged in conversation'' for 30 minutes. Based on her admissions, Victim A's visa was revoked and she has been denied entry into the USA.
But another conversation recorded on January 22 this year between Chandrakala and Victim D clearly indicates that the actress was as much involved in the racket as the two pimps. Other conversations between Kishan and customers show the address of a hotel in Texas where a room for Victim C had been booked for two hours.
The modus operandi of the couple was to ensure any actress was first asked to fly into Chicago, even if the event was on either side of the coast. They would be told that they could spend two days for shopping and sightseeing. The identity of the hotel would be invariably kept under wraps and with a reason, as a source who traveled on such a trip discovered on landing.
"The hotel was extremely shady," he said. The starlet's team kicked up a fuss about the suspicious-looking arrangements and forced the couple to book a return ticket to India immediately after the event. They even refused to stay at the accommodation arranged by the organisers and stayed at a relative's place instead.
The event is where the couple would solicit customers by circulating the photographs. The complaint quotes customers who were interrogated admitting that "Vebha is known in the local Telugu community as one of the women to go to or contact regarding sex with actresses."
The racket is believed to have been in operation for the last 4-5 years though the victims interrogated are those who traveled in 2017 and the first quarter of 2018. On December 22, 2017, Victim A sent an email to Modugumudi, throwing light on the web she was caught in. She wrote : "You constantly keep calling me and threatening me. I would like to stop all interaction via voice messages, text messages or call etc, please do not call me and don't try to contact me. It was very unpleasant doing business with you and I don't want to do any business with you now or in future. If you try contacting me again I will have to make formal complaint."
The identity of the five actresses has been kept a secret though in Telugu film circles, most people seem to know who had traveled to the USA for events organised by the couple.
The Telugu Movies Artistes Association plans to advise its members to be wary of shady operators whose antecedents do not seem above board. But this case coming to light, soon after the casting couch allegations leveled by actress Sri Reddy against top guns of the Telugu film industry, does not show Tollywood in a flattering light.