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Sri Reddy’s protest; strip the truth by baring the body

On March 2, a couple of days before 90th Academy Awards, a golden statue of Harvey Weinstein - in a bathrobe and seated on a couch with an Oscar in hand - appeared on the temporary sidewalk near the Dolby Theatre. The golden statue was a supportive gesture from artists Plastic Jesus and Joshua “Ginger” Monroe towards the #MeToo movement that shook Hollywood and made it introspect about the prevailing gender disparity and sexual exploitation.

On April 7, actor Sri Reddy shook the South Indian film industry with a protest in front of the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce against casting couch and sexual harassment prevailing in the Telugu film industry.  But, this time, the medium of protest was not a statue, but the very body of the actor, which is the focal point of alleged bargains, exploitations, threats, and harassments of female actors around the world.

Many actors have spoken against the casting couch before in indirect ways and words. But, Sri Reddy’s strip protest in front of TV cameras and mobile phones was an entirely different move and, knowingly or unknowingly, opened a new vista of body politics by placing the body at the centre of the controversy. The graphical nature of the protest sent shock waves through the social media within a short time.

According to various inputs from a number of interviews and biographies, Sri Reddy has acted in three films and was also a TV anchor. She worked really hard to rise in the ladder of stardom and has a considerable fan following on her social media handles. However, things took a turn for the worse when she had been denied a Telugu Movie Artistes’ Association (MAA) membership under dubious circumstances.

Without the membership, it is virtually impossible for her to land roles. Moreover, reports suggest that the Association named her act of coming out with accusations of sexual exploitation and casting couch as “bad behavior” to earn “cheap publicity.” Apart from the exploitation, her accusations also included the prioritisation of fair-skinned female actors, which help them to earn more jobs.

For some actors, the casting couch becomes an obvious option to keep their heads above the water. This whole sequence of events reveals a dirty pattern of power - especially masculine - and some dangerous equations involving predators and prey lurking in the film industry. Sri Reddy’s move was divisive and sparked heated arguments on the social media platforms. But, the way she positioned her protest pushes forward the body politics of the issue of casting couch in a way that we can’t pretend it is not there anymore.

For years, the identity of the female actors has been defined by the body, with every part of it carrying sexual undertones. The long-standing tradition of emphasising a female actor’s belly button in song sequences is a quick example of the embodiment of female sexuality and trading them as an object of desire. When Sri Reddy came forward by baring the body in front of the society and asking questions about its importance as a sexual object in defining her identity as a professional actor, it’s a slap on the face of the sexual predators in cinema.

The impact of the act was so hefty that the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the government of Telangana and the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting about the alleged sexual exploitation of women in the film industry. The notice prompted the Movie Artists' Association (MAA) to lift the ban on Sri Reddy and set up of a Committee Against Sexual Harassment.

Even though there are very few supportive voices heard in and out of the film industry, Sri Reddy’s daring move calls to mind the historical #MeToo movement which kicked off on October 15, 2017. In response to sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”  Alyssa Milano’s words sum it up precisely - Sri Reddy’s voice should not be a lonely one.

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