Television anchor-turned-actress Sri Reddy stirred a hornet’s nest recently by alleging rampant sexual exploitation in the Telugu film industry, accusing a top producer’s son of sexually exploiting her for years. She went to the extent of stripping in public to highlight the issue, but her protests were summarily dismissed in Tollywood and she was boycotted by the industry. Speaking to Giridhar Jha, the 34-year-old actress underlines her resolve to continue her fight, despite all odds, to ensure justice for all the victims of the casting couch in Tollywood. Excerpts.
What has happened since you staged protests to allege sexual exploitation by the son of a big producer from the Telugu film industry?
I am in a very bad situation. I’m even facing threats from the big people in Hyderabad. I stay alone in the city and anybody can attack me anywhere because I have taken on mighty people and the city police have not provided any protection to me. Even my murder can be planned so that all the issues I have raised come to an end.
But I’m not scared. Unfortunately, the state government is not doing anything. The film industry is, after all, a huge source for funds for political parties. And elections are coming.
The Telugu film industry has not risen in your support. But how has the common man responded? And the intelligentsia, members of civil society...
I have been able to take my protest forward because of the unstinting support from women, youth and the common people. In fact, housewives come out of their homes to kiss my forehead and express solidarity with me. But most people from the film industry, the media, also politicians, have chosen to look the other way.
How did actresses from the film industry react?
As of now, 15 artistes have supported my cause. See, the industry is in the grip of four big producers who control the entire distribution too. They have 1,800 theatres under their absolute control. They can make or mar the career of any star, howsoever big. That’s the reason why no big actor or actress has dared to speak out. They know that if they do, it will be at the risk of their careers. I, for one, know the names of those being sexually exploited but I cannot reveal them at the moment. Let alone producers, even their sons, relatives, friends...politicians, financiers, all are abusing actresses.
And yet, nobody came forward to complain against them before you?
Just imagine, it’s like a sex racket being operated from the film studios! Tell me, under such circumstances, where can we go for justice, where will we get a shoulder to cry on? It is akin to a mafia running the film business. They are sending people to us in the guise of victims, to spy on us. Recently, a top filmmaker offered Rs 5 crore to me to keep my mouth shut. A four-movie deal also came my way. I have rejected all such offers.
When did it strike you that you were being used by the producer’s son?
After using me for five years, he told me one fine morning, “Look Sri, do you dream of entering my family as my wife? Do you know your status? I don’t know how many people you have slept with.” He humiliated me in front of many people. I was hurt physically and mentally. I felt as though I was a sex doll. I slipped into depression and had no money to survive. Then I realised that it was time for me to raise my voice, not only for myself but for thousands of other girls in a similar situation. Even if I were to die, I would do it happily for a cause, I thought.
Why did you allow yourself to be exploited for so long?
Look, he was professing love to me all the time. I too had a dream—of being an industry A-lister. But then I saw that no Telugu girl was being offered movies. They were all treated as sex slaves while most of the good roles went to outsiders, who were probably ready to compromise.
How has your family responded to your protest? My family members living in Vijaywada are intimidated and traumatised. They left home for a month after people began harassing them.
Like the #MeToo campaign in Hollywood, do you think that Indian actresses will rise to name and shame those who have sexually abused them?
Yes, I think it will happen someday. In Bollywood, a few big actresses, like Kangana Ranaut, have already spoken about how they were exploited at the outset of their career. They can raise voice against male dominance. But Tollywood remains conservative. We are called bitches if we raise our voices even for a just cause. A canard was recently spread that I have been sleeping around with many people and would die from AIDS. It was also alleged that I have taken huge amounts of money to level unfounded allegations against some industry people.
What are you going to do next?
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has suo motu taken up the matter and asked the Telangana government to submit a report. But I have no trust in this government, which can submit a wrong report. I will soon move the National Commission of Women to seek justice and, if needed, will go to any international forum to highlight the issue. See, the number of people being sexual harassed in the film industry is huge and they all need justice like me. I am also fighting on their behalf. I want to change the system and take my fight to a logical conclusion.