On Sri Reddy's protest, and the need for 'bad behaviour' which exposes how women are treated in cinema

Gita Aravamudan

Apr 13, 2018 16:30:39 IST

What would drive a young film actress in her 20s to strip in the middle of a busy area and squat in protest on the pavement with TV cameras whirring busily all around her? Why would she publicly announce this planned protest on a TV channel in advance? Why did the TV channel in question egg her on for days to speak about the casting couch and the ill-treatment she was allegedly subjected to by members of the Telugu film industry? Was it a TRP-garnering exercise by the TV channel? Or was she just trying to attract attention because no film roles were coming her way?

Was it a well thought out move? Or an act of desperation? Had the toxic sexism in the male-dominated industry finally driven her into a corner where her own public shaming no longer mattered? Did she not realise that she might never get a role in the Telugu film industry again?

Sri Reddy has acted in three films. Before that, she worked as an anchor on TV. According to one of the interviews she gave to the TV channel, which has been constantly featuring her over the last couple of weeks, when she decided to become a film actress, she worked really hard to get into shape. She desperately wanted to fit into the required mould which would, she hoped, get her roles. She even underwent expensive Botox treatment, had her body sculpted and did whatever else was needed to project herself as a woman who could do 'glamourous' roles in Telugu films.

Glamour in the context of the South Indian film industry is a synonym for hot and sexy. It is used as a label to describe a woman who is willing to bare her curves on screen and do seductive roles, like for instance, a night club dancer. However, 'glamourous' roles are not always roles unto themselves. Even top heroines often have a 'glamour' component incorporated into their roles.

On Sri Reddys protest, and the need for bad behaviour which exposes how women are treated in cinema

Several people have spoken up about the casting couch in the Telugu film industry. But because Sri Reddy has nothing left to lose, she became very vocal

One thing she spoke about was her observation that fair-skinned North Indian actresses were getting all the big roles in Telugu cinema, even though they did not know the language. This, she said, was not just because of their skin colour but because they were also willing to bare their bodies and take up parts which needed them to show off their bodies. But the most stinging indictment she made was that they were also willing to give 'commitments' to the men in power, in order to land those roles.

'Commitment', apparently in the Telugu film industry, is the term used for having sex with someone in exchange for roles. In the Tamil film industry, the word used is 'compromise'. She also said that many struggling actresses agreed to 'compromise' and 'commitments'. But when they reached a more stable place in their careers, they totally denied they had used this means to get to where they were.

In what was probably a desperate attempt to show how she too is as capable of doing 'glamourous' roles, Sri Reddy filled her social media accounts with her own sexy pictures and videos, which received a lot of lewd comments from her growing number of admirers.

But, the roles still didn’t come her way. In an interview to a TV channel, she said that young actresses are asked to do the most inappropriate things by top producers and directors. “They ask us to send inappropriate pictures and videos. Are we girls or things to be played with?” she asked.

Sometimes, they were asked to send pictures of their naked breasts or other private parts. But, she said, many of them did not get an opportunity even if they did all they were asked to. At some point, the situation began to get desperate for her, and the casting couch seemed to have loomed in front of her eyes as the only option available if she wanted her big break in Telugu cinema.
Other actors, both male and female, have spoken about the casting couch before her, but rarely has any of them spoken so graphically about what happens. They have opened up about being ogled at. They have also spoken about being propositioned in veiled terms. Some have spoken about it in the third person, as if it happened to someone else. But Sri Reddy, perhaps because she had nothing left to lose, became very vocal. She said she had sent nude pictures of herself to various people in the film industry, who had demanded to see them before considering her for a part. She also said she had slept with some of them, and yet, she had received no offers.

Sri Reddy spoke especially about the son of a leading Telugu film producer who had promised her a part, but had instead raped her in a film studio. Film studios, she claimed in another interview, are like brothels, because they are large and anything can happen inside them without the outside world knowing. This she said is where many young women are forced onto the casting couch.
By Wednesday, 11 April, leaked private pictures of her and the son in question were splashed all over social media networks as well as the mainstream media. She also uploaded screen shots of sexually explicit conversations she had with a winner of the show Indian Idol, who is now a popular playback singer.

A few days before this, she had been refused membership of the Telugu Movie Artistes’ Association (MAA), whose members chided her for her ‘shameful’ behavior to garner ‘cheap publicity’, to bolster her ailing acting career. MAA President Sivaji Raja also added that none of the 800 members of the association would work with her. He claimed that if she was given the membership, it would set a bad example for others, because, “Tomorrow, others will also strip demanding MAA membership. We can’t allow this.”

The knee-jerk reaction of the Telugu film industry's bigwigs tried to take away the focus away from the troubling central issue which Sri Reddy was shouting from the roof tops — the crude and toxic quid pro quo system which existed in all film industries. Instead, it ended up highlighting another issue which was the root cause of the problem. The predators who she was talking about were the same ones who wield power. To them, the prey in question was just a product to be judged, used and cast away, if she was not found satisfactory. The male dominated MAA, instead of offering to look into the issues raised by her, condemned her for her “bad behavior”.

And so, on Wednesday, a group of activists from 15 women’s groups in Hyderabad came out in her support. They met Talasani Srinivas, the Telangana minister of cinematography, and demanded that he set up a high-level committee to investigate the problems faced by women in the industry. They also asked the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce (TFCC) to institute an internal complaints committee, to enable women to register complaints against sexual harassment. They wanted the TFCC to prepare and display posters educating women on how to report abuse, at places like auditions and shoots.

The activists pointed out the fact that big stars and producers had condemned rather than supported Sri Reddy, and this showed that they were complicit in this kind of exploitation of women.

On Thursday, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the government of Telangana and the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting over the reported sexual exploitation of women in the Telugu film industry and the lack of a grievance redressal mechanism.

These are encouraging steps which could hopefully lead to some attitudinal change. How effective will they be is a whole other question.

The casting couch is as old as the film industry itself. Sexually exploitative behavior has, over generations, become the norm partly because of a lack of professionalism within the industry, and partly because women have been threatened, blackmailed and pressurised into becoming sexually subservient.

When factories and offices do not have sexual harassment redressal mechanisms, even though they are mandated by law to put them in place, what hope is there for the film industry? Production units are large, amorphous entities which come together for a short while and disband once the film is over. Can the government mandate that every such unit should have a committee to look into sexual harassment? Will it work? Yet, leaving it to the male-dominated Film Chamber of Commerce alone may not have the desired effect. Maybe a women in cinema collective, like the one formed recently in Kerala after the rape of a leading actress, could also play an effective role.

Will women in cinema now get the help they need, thanks to Sri Reddy’s daring act? Has she unwittingly unleashed a movement which will give them the strength to say enough is enough? Only time will tell.

Updated Date: Apr 13, 2018 18:50:15 IST