‘Why are seniors silent?’: Angry Telugu actors speak out against sexual abuse
Anger, disgust, and agony were the dominant emotions that filled the auditorium at the Somajiguda Press Club of Hyderabad on Sunday. Tears rolled down the faces of those assembled as artists from the Telugu film industry narrated their experiences of the "casting couch" and the financial exploitation. However, the artists didn't despair and appeared resolved about moving forward and intensifying their protests.
“I once saw an advertisement on TV about casting and went for the audition. The director asked if I was a genuine transgender person and I told him that I had even undergone gender-affirming surgery. The disgusting director then made me undress and show the same to him,” transgender artist Sona Rathod said as she broke down on the stage.
Allegations about the 'casting couch' culture and its prevalence in Tollywood by actor Sri Reddy and her protest outside the office of the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce on April 7 had set wheels in motion for this discourse. Over the last week, several other artists from the industry came forward to speak, some going as far as naming the alleged perpetrators on live TV. For the uninitiated, ‘casting couch’ is a euphemism for the sexually predatory behaviour and sexual exploitation by those in positions of power within the entertainment industry, in return for promises to provide opportunities in films or TV shows.
To take the discussion forward, a roundtable on “Sexual and financial exploitation in Telugu film Industry” facilitated by joint action committee of women’s rights organisations was held in Hyderabad, with women and transgender artists taking centrestage. Social activist K Sajaya, Sandhya (Progressive Organization of Women), Sujatha Surepally (Bahujana Prathighatana Vedika), cultural activist Devi, Tejaswini Madabhushi (Hyderabad for Feminism), Satyavati Kondaveeti (Bhumika collective), advocate Vasudha Nagaraj, retired professor Padmaja Shaw and several others expressed their solidarity with the movement and assured support to the exploited artists.
From calling out the big stars of Tollywood for their continued silence on the issue of sexual exploitation and violence to discussing the need for unionization, doing away with the middlemen, better pay, body-shaming, addressing disproportionate masculinity in movies to demanding better amenities such as drinking water and toilets in the workspaces, the artists had several demands lined-up. They stressed on the fact that despite the numerous kinds of grievances that the artists face, there is no agency or body where they could take them up for redressal.
Why aren’t the seniors speaking up?
"Behind all the glitz of the movie world and the makeup, there is a lot of distress, suffering, and sexual exploitation. Despite my attempts to address the issues since over a month, there hasn't been any response from the elders of this industry. Instead, attempts were made to gag dissent and it backfired with so many of us coming forward to speak about our sufferings," Sri Reddy said amidst cheers from the fellow artists.
"An issue which has garnered the attention of even the international media still sees no response from the local politicians or the heroes of this industry. Every hero who doesn’t come forward to talk on this is a zero," Sri said.
The opinion that the lead male actors of the industry should act responsibly and at least discuss the issue found widespread approval. The comment by Pawan Kalyan asking the women to approach police instead of media houses didn’t go down well with the protesting artists.
“Our heroes are a very obvious display of problematic hypermasculinity and heroism on screen. Let’s talk about the utter lack of humanity. Every person who hasn’t spoken about this is either committing the crime or abetting the crime. Every person who has the privilege and is not speaking out is responsible,” said Meera Sanghamitra, national convener of National Alliance of People's Movements.
“Where are the heroes of our industry who are shown as beating up hundreds of thugs to protect the sisters? Why are all these brotherly figures absent when the women are publicly speaking against the atrocities? Come and sit with us and do justice. We are going to fight relentlessly till the same is achieved,” said transgender artist Chandramukhi Muvvala.
Chandramukhi also criticised those calling the semi-nude protest by Sri Reddy problematic. “Those who are shaming Sri Reddy are the same people who have ogled at scantily clad actors like Silk Smitha, Jaya Malini and Jyothi Lakshmi, and made the movies run for 100 days. If that was not semi-nude, neither is her protest which was the result of pent-up frustration.”
The need for a union
While allegations about sexual exploitation formed a major part of the discussions, artists and activists also spoke about the need for the unionization of the artists.
“We are probably the only workers without a union. If we are united, the roles would come on their own. We lack unity and when some people from among us join as coordinators, they start exploiting the weaker ones. They act as brokers and coerce the women artists into giving sexual favours and the artists find themselves having nowhere to go. This discussion shouldn’t end here and we should form a union,” said a former artist Sri Vani.
The activists too stressed on the formation of a union.
Numerous comments body-shaming the protesting women and calling them “not beautiful enough” to be a part of the industry can be found on the social media. “Stop body shaming and stop ridiculing the complexion of the Telugu women” was the message that the artists had for them.
Susie Tharu, professor, writer and women’s rights activist said “The marginalisation and the dismissal of people because they are considered less than beautiful is a very important issue. All over the world, for several years, only white people were considered beautiful. This situation has changed because of the movements of black people who call themselves black very proudly. We will have to take it up at such a level too.”
Those who do cross the countless barriers on their way to get even a blink-and-miss role complain of financial exploitation by the middlemen. One of the major demands of the artists was to rid the industry of the middlemen called coordinators.
"Whatever roles I find is from my friends or the coordinators. However, the coordinators take a large percentage of our earnings, which is very wrong and exploitative," said artist Shobhita.
“I have come in front of the media to speak about all the disgusting details. Not everyone can do this. They have families and children about who they have to think about before coming out in open,” says artist Shruti.
Back in her seat after speaking about the financial exploitation in the industry, Shruti turns around to share her fear with the people around her, “As such, there were only a few roles for us. Now that we have spoken, I am concerned we might not get any roles at all.”