Punished for Speaking up?: Battle against Casting Couch in Telugu Film Industry


Co-Written by Boddu Srujana & Boddu Bhaskar

It’s been a long journey which we often hear about actors coming out on the existence of casting couch in film industries. Just earlier, in the past year did we come across on allegations of sexual harassment against the Hollywood film magnate Harvey Weinstein. Several actresses and artists came upfront in detailing the pain they had to put in and sexual harassment they faced as barter for their career advancement. However, what is welcoming is the inquiry made on Weinstein and investigations that has been taking place in US and UK. But looks like India has not reached this stage yet, especially the Telugu Film Industry. It has been quite a while with allegations on Malaylam movie actor Dileep for his involvement in assault of an actress has come up. Although he was initially expelled from their artist association (AMMA), the latter has initially decided to take back the actor again into its association, for which protest from several artists came in.

Most recent revelations by the movie artists on existence of casting couch and harassment in film industries now include the Tollywood actress, Sri Reddy and lyricist Shreshta. The Telugu Film Industry (TFI) has been on news from the beginning of this year for allegations of presence of casting couch. Just few months back was when the actress, Sri Reddy strip protested before the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce in Hyderabad against the sexual abuse and harassment women are facing in the industry. She has come out on record to reveal several names of actors, producers and directors which also involves the Tollywood biggies. From last couple of months was when the Tollywood’s first woman lyricist has come out to be vocal on the casting couch existence in the industry.

The Telugu Film Industry has never before saw any woman lyricist in any of the cinemas. The first who also is celebrated for her work as lyricist in the recent years has faced harassment from directors and producers who expressed their desires in favor of providing her work projects. Hailing from small town in Telangana, Mancherial, Shreshta has completed her law degree from Osmania University. Her parents had inter-religious marriage. She was mostly grown under care of her grandfather who has influenced her to write devotional songs at first, and later progressed in writing poetry. However gradually, her efforts has led her to write songs as advised by one of the artist in the TFI. That’s how the TFI’s first woman lyricist was born! Since she was not based from the city, Shreshta had to live alone in Hyderabad and started to work on settling down in the movie industry. Her initial stages of career itself were filled with harassment. Back around 2011 was when she started to work in the industry, however after just getting a film or two projects, the movie makers who called her to give an opportunity used to express their desire by asking – what do we get in return for the movie project we are giving you? Her interviews and Facebook videos show the trauma, stress and pressure Shreshta has been going through from several sources in the industry. She recollects, ‘when I tried to give strong warning, there were instances when I used to get abusive calls from random guys or have people before my house threating and harassing me’. These circumstances made her to move away from the city and return to her home town in need of mental peace. She has decided to give a break for her movie career just after working in couple of movies, all due to the harassment she has been facing. There were also no projects ahead for her by any producers and directors.

It was only after two years did she decided to return and decided to make her mark. As she speaks, ‘I wanted to enter the battle field and win. Rather I prove myself and stand as an example for other woman in the industry’. However, continued threats and harassment did not let her to stay in the city often due to which she had to constantly travel between the city and her village. She used public toilets, bus waiting halls and temples to freshen up and rest in between rather than staying back in guest houses offered by the movie makers when the movie discussions lasted long. According to her, the few movies she has done in recent years are those which came to her from ‘genuine’ artists because of her talent, despite of several no’s from top. The recent emotional social media posts done by her however reveal her tiredness in fighting it all and as she tells, “I am not quite sure if I would want to continue this and walk ahead. I cannot lose because others want me to give up but at same time, I am not sure if should take the risk of continuing here in between several obstacles ahead of me”. Despite of writing around 50 song lyrics which included the hits, she is still not finding many opportunities on her way. In a recent interview she had revealed her plans leaving the city and working from her home town in case any opportunity finds her. In a talk with the writer(s), she recollected of doing only one film in the last six months.

The TFI was once well-known to deliver movies on social issues and causes. The celebrated NT Rama Rao who was an actor and former chief minister has worked for social causes as an artist. But now, neither the directors and producers nor the top actors has constructively responded to these revelations. Film fraternity announced to form CASH committee lately but is yet materialize it. The ill-response from TFI shows the feudal and patriarchal mindset it is embedded in, between the power politics playing around. While the issue has reached to the heights of sensation, it still could not even grab the attention from the national media. While the cinema has power and capacity to bring the change in the society, it needs internal reforms which should take place to cleanse and assess itself. Given the larger scenario we witness and voices we hear from various sources in film industries, including the Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut on sexual harassment, it looks we have to march forward to take the lead and rise as a movement. It has been seven years now that the lyricist Shreshta has been fighting against the harassment. The silence of powerful cine-media moguls is disheartening. This is an unprecedented rebellious act in the Telugu Film Industry. But the question remains, can we still expect the state government to rise to the occasion?

Boddu Srujana is a PhD Research Scholar at Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Boddu Bhaskar is a senior journalist based out of Hyderabad. His interest ranges largely within socio-political issues and gender related aspects. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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