The Tamil film industry recently clashed with the media over allegations of prostitution. But what’s the truth behind the fracas, asks PC Vinoj Kumar
A FEW WEEKS ago, the Tamil film industry and the Chennai media locked horns over a report in the Tamil daily Dinamalar. The report claimed that television actress Bhuvaneswari, arrested by the Chennai police’s anti-vice squad on October 2 on charges of running a brothel, had named other actresses as being involved in prostitution. Those named — some of them yesteryear heroines — denied the charge. An incensed film industry cried foul about its image being unduly sullied. Dinamalar’s News Editor B Lenin was arrested under the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 1998, for publishing a false report. But the question remains: Is the Tamil film industry really squeaky clean?
At Koyambedu, Chennai’s main terminal for outstation buses, starry-eyed young girls arrive daily from distant small towns and villages with hopes of becoming movie stars. They come from all over Tamil Nadu and from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. Their destination is 6 km away at Kodambak – kam, the hub of Tamil cinema and also known as Kollywood. This is where popular studios such as AVM and Prasad are located and several actors, directors, and producers reside.
To cinema hopefuls, Kodambakkam is a dreamland that has made superstars of ordinary men and divas of village belles. It is at these studios that one Shivaji Rao, a bus conductor from Bengaluru, arrived in Chennai in the 1970s with a dream of acting in films and was transformed into the superstar Rajnikanth. It is here that former state chief ministers MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa spent most of their early years under the arc lights before entering politics. Their stories are part of the Kodambakkam folklore and add to its mythical aura.
However, the untold, inside story of Kodambakkam is the plight of hundreds of women who failed to get their big break and settled for petty roles as extras – or junior artistes, in Kollywood parlance. Theirs is a wretched life, one that remains forever on the fringes of glamour and luxury. As the camera zooms in on the hero and the heroine, they are the blurred faces in the background – the vegetable vendor with his pushcart or the silent spectator in a fight scene.
Hot disclosure Bhuvaneswari, charged with running a brothel, named other actresses as prostitutes
TEHELKA spoke to some of these faceless women of the Tamil film industry, who work for meagre daily wages and engage in sex work to supplement their income. The women were glad for some media coverage and happy for its small dignity. They did have one request, though: “Please do not reveal our identities. We would lose our membership in the South Indian Film Artistes’ Association (SIFAA) if it becomes known that we have given interviews.” (All names have been changed to protect identities.) They told TEHELKA that they engaged in sex work since their income from films was too meagre to run their families. Till 2001, their daily wage was as low as Rs 100. “They increased our wages to Rs 150 in 2004. Now we get up to Rs 250-300,” says Rekha, who has been in the field for over a decade.
The women said that most fall into their male colleagues’ ‘sex-trap’ in order to get regular work. “Having to work mostly with male counterparts, we put up with the groping hands of make-up men and costumers. Their hands feel every imaginable part of our body. Freshers need to please them first if they want to get regular work. The only good thing in all this is that there is no free sex in the industry. Even your coworker pays for your service,” says Vani, a senior artiste.
GRADUALLY, MOST women shed their inhibitions and graduate to ‘servicing’ people from outside the cine field. “I have slept with assistant directors and some well-known actors, but nothing has been for fun. It’s always been for the money,” says Vani. All other extras TEHELKA spoke to said the same thing – we have no feelings; sex for us is a source of income.
Film historian Randor Guy says brothels have existed in and around Kodambakkam for ages. “A writer once commented about the Madras film industry back in the 1940s as a collection of pimps, prostitutes and perverts. Many of the juniors involved in the flesh trade come from Andhra Pradesh. At one time, agents used to stand in Chennai Central Railway Station waiting for women coming from Andhra seeking a chance in films,” he says.
They changed in front of the people, stripped to their bones with just their meagre underwear, valiantly trying to protect their modesty, constantly trying to avoid the probing hands of costumers who wished to ‘measure’ their bust size by running both arms around their bust line. Some hands stayed put at the waistline on the pretext that they were measuring the size of their ample, overflowing waist just so the ghagra would fit them
From Star Dust, byRoopa Swaminathan (Penguin, 2004) describing a Chennai shooting spot with Kollywood group dancers
THESE AGENTS, the junior artistes say, have snared many an innocent women from poor families into the flesh trade. Police sources acknowledge that several pimps operate in Kodambakkam. Kannada Prasad, a notorious pimp arrested in 2007, wrote his life story from jail for the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran. Revealing his links with powerful people in the state, Prasad claimed he had supplied leading actresses to many bigwigs, including an IPS officer and a political leader. In November 2008, Chennai suburban police arrested another pimp, Sona Lakshmi. “She said she used to deal with actresses many years ago, but claimed she had no contact with the film industry now,” says S Jeyakumar, Assistant Commissioner of Police.
A Chennai sexologist who wished to remain anonymous admits that people from the film and television industry consult him when they need to make difficult choices involving sexual compromises at work, but refuses to elaborate. Actress Revathi says the industry has to strongly address the issue of alleged sexual harassment of junior artistes. “There should be a counselling cell for women to register their complaints,” she says.
SIFAA president Sarath Kumar politely declines comment on the matter. He says, “The matter is subjudice,” pointing to the case filed in the Madras High Court by a journalist association, demanding action against certain actors who used derogatory language against journalists at a SIFAA meeting in the wake of the Dinamalar story. One only hopes this recent fracas compels some soul-searching in Kollywood on how it treats its professional women.