This weekend, TV presenter turned actress Sri Reddy sat in front of Hyderabad’s Telugu Chamber of Commerce building, the headquarters of the Movie Artistes’ Association (MAA), in a state of semi-undress to protest rampant sexual harassment in the film industry. The drastic move came weeks after her interview to Mahaa News about “male predators” in the industry offering her parts in exchange for sexual favours. “Not just me, there are several other girls who’ve been taken for a ride and I want to speak up on behalf of all of them,” she had said in the interview. On Saturday, as Sri sat with her hands folded across her bare chest TV cameras immediately rushed to cover the spectacle. In no time the images had flooded the internet. “This is the only way I could get people to listen. I’ve been speaking about it for several days now and no one’s paying heed,” explained the actress.
Sri has been in the entertainment industry for a while. She started her as a TV presenter for Sakshi TV in 2013 but soon quit that to pursue acting. She starred in three films; her most well-known role is that of an actress in the horror flick Aravind 2. In the #MeToo Movement in Hollywood, a question that women who spoke up against their perpetrators were asked was ‘why now?’. Sri too has been asked the same. Why did she take five years to speak out? “I was in love with a film producer who made several promises. I stuck along only in the hope of marriage. But a day came when he reduced me to a nobody and made me feel very small for being part of the entertainment world and asked me how I was even expecting something like that from him. The reality hit me hard and I realised it was time to take matters in hand,” she told us in a phone interview. “I decided it was time to take it to the next level and felt that whatever it takes, I am going to fight it out to make life better for my sisters in the industry,” she added.
But has Sri truly managed to start a serious conversation about sexual harassment? Many have dismissed her nude protest as an attention seeking gimmick. The MAA wasted no time in banning Sri from the organisation for “insulting the media and industry with her cheap gimmicks”. It hasn’t helped that she also requested for membership to the MAA and that Telugu girls get more roles – which sort of sidetracks the larger issue of harassment. “Sri has been voicing her issues for many days now and with no response whatsoever, she was forced to take an extreme step, which was her last and desperate measure. A young woman stripping herself on the road and protesting over the existence of casting couch in 2018 or a bunch of old ladies protesting naked against Assam Rifles for raping Manorama brutally in 2004, speaks volumes about how women are treated in our country. Just because there’s only a single voice to address an issue, it doesn’t mean it is non-existent,” says child and women’s rights activist Varsha Bhargavi.
Sri Reddy has been voicing her issues for many days now and with no response whatsoever, she was forced to take an extreme step, which was her last and desperate measure – child and women’s rights activist, Varsha Bhargavi
Over the years, there have been actresses who have publicly called out the rampant sexual misconduct in the Telugu film industry. Actress Radhika Apte has been vocal about having a terrible experience working in Telugu films. Recently on the TV show Vogue BFFs she told host Neha Dhupia about an actor who inappropriately tickled her feet during a shot. “He was a big actor. I was told he is powerful. But I got up and I snapped at him in front of everybody – the whole crew, the junior artistes, everybody. I looked at him and said, ‘Don’t ever, ever do that to me.’ He was so shocked because he didn’t expect that,” she said. Other than the Raktha Charitra series, Radhika has worked in only two Telugu films, Legend and Lion, both of which starred Balakrishna.
Archana, who has appeared in films like Nenu, Sriramadasu and Khaleja has spoken about similar experiences. “I was doing a film with a popular actor and since it was a good opportunity for me to gain visibility, the hero asked ‘Naakenti?’ (What’s in this for me?). I didn’t give in and as a result, my role was chopped off from the film,” says the actress whose appearances in films have been quite few and far in between. She was last seen as a contestant on the reality show Bigg Boss.
Maadhavi Latha, who was once considered a promising new face in Tollywood, hasn’t been seen in a film for a while now. “Just like you pay a bribe to get work, you offer yourself as a bribe to gain an opportunity. If you are lucky and you succeed, to keep up the success, you’ve got to keep repeating the process. You have to act like you enjoy it. No one wants to talk about it, and when someone like me does, I become an outcast,” she says.
“If we observe the trend over the last one year, at least three people, including Sri Reddy have spoken up about the casting couch. And so, even if Sri might be doing all this for publicity, mustn’t there be some truth to it,” questions filmmaker and activist Mahesh Kathi.
“If we observe the trend over the last one year, at least three people, including Sri Reddy have spoken up about the casting couch. And so, even if Sri might be doing all this for publicity, mustn’t there be some truth to it,” questions filmmaker and activist Mahesh Kathi. He adds that instead of probing the matter, the authorities have punished Sri for having the courage to speak up. “The MAA has not only barred her from ever being a part of it but has also banned any of its members from employing her. How can you deprive an artiste of their livelihood for speaking up? Maybe her way of doing it wasn’t right, but how does that mean they sideline the actual issue at hand and concentrate on penalising her instead? It seems like a message to say if you are the whistleblower, you could bear the brunt,” adds Kathi.
So far all claims of harassment by women have either been totally ignored or discredited. There have been no attempts to investigate the validity of their narratives or even consider that there may be truth in their stories. In a series of Facebook posts, Sri threatened to “unveil the real faces” of several industry bigwigs. In fact, she openly named directors Maruthi and Sekhar Kammula. The Fidaa filmmaker was not available for a response but his angry FB post conveyed his sentiments on the issue.
“He may claim anything but I know the truth. I am not making any false claims. I know I am fighting a battle against people who have fame and money but somewhere I hope to succeed. Because if I do, it will be a game changer for many aspiring artistes,” says Sri.
So could this be the start of a #MeToo movement in the Telugu film industry? In Hollywood, careers of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Paul Haggis, Tavis Smiley came to a grinding halt almost overnight after claims of sexual misconduct emerged. It’s probably time the Telugu film industry too to create an environment where women can address sexual harassment freely.
Bhargavi and her organisation are taking steps to ensure that more women are encouraged to speak out without the fear of losing out on work. On Monday afternoon, several women’s organisations in the city came together to discuss a proposal to be put forward to ensure security and prevention of sexual harassment for women in the film industry. “The film industry doesn’t have an Internal Complaints Committee and that’s quite sad because without a reporting mechanism, how can women speak up against any kind of atrocity? We are going to ensure an enquiry is initiated by the police in this case. Meanwhile, Sekhar Kammula threatening a civil action against Sri speaks volumes about male privilege and victim blaming without any inquiry into the actual scenario.”