US prostitution ring case shines light on sexual exploitation in southern India’s film industry

Mattha Busby
An Indian woman rests in front of Bengali movie posters. Bengali cinema, nicknamed Tollywood, is a portmanteau of the words Tollygunge and Hollywood, which origins dating back to 1932: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

An Indian couple have arrested by authorities in the US for allegedly running a prostitution ring.

At least five actresses associated with southern India’s Telugu-language film industry known as "Tollywood", travelled to the US under the pretence of attending cultural events.

But they were then prostituted by Kishan and Chandra Modugumudi, according to recently disclosed federal charges.

Mr Modugumudi first arrived in Chicago in April 2015 after submitting a visa application where he said he was “involved in the Telugu film industry".

Suspicions were raised when an actress, whose visit to the US had allegedly been arranged by Mr Modugumudi, was questioned by US immigration officers.

They discovered that she had not been invited to the event she purported to have attended, the charges state.

Investigators then found apparent “fake visa letters” and what they believed to be a detailed “ledger of prostitution” at the Modugumudi’s home.

The couple have yet to enter a plea or make any public statement, but the case has garnered widespread attention on Telugu news channels in India which have run the story every day and used it to highlight the harassment and abuse of women in the southern Indian state’s film industry.

"Women who come to the industry to build a career are lured by men with the offers of foreign trips," Gautam Kashyap, a scriptwriter, told BBC Telugu. "Though this has been happening for a long time, no-one wants to speak up because they fear that they will lose opportunities."

Telugu actors have been increasingly speaking out against sexual abuse, and a casting couch culture, in the rapidly growing regional film industry which often produces films rivalling Bollywood's most popular at the box office.

"Telugu actresses have come to be seen as sexual objects. I want the world to know," Sri Reddy, an upcoming actress, told BBC Telugu. "I did nude calls and nude chats - I sent nude photos. They used me and still didn't cast me in a film."

Reddy recently stripped down to her underwear at a film company to protest against the sexual exploitation of women in the industry.

Another young actress recently criticised filmmakers for their obsession with women’s navels but was forced to clarify her remarks days after following criticism.

"The director who launched me is known to show the sensuality of a woman by showing the midriff and throwing fruits and flowers on the midriff,” said Taapsee Pannu in an interview. “My turn came, and maybe because I was not prepared as I told you, they threw a coconut at me! I don't know what's sensuous about a coconut hitting my midriff."

However, she later felt compelled to apologise.

In a video message, she said: "I didn't intend to hurt anyone. I wanted to make fun of myself and how my debut film happened to me. It took me a little while to understand that what I said was wrong. So I really want to apologise, if I hurt anyone's sentiment. But trust me, I didn't intend to and just wanted to make fun of myself."