Do Bollywood Brothels Exist?

Why a series of Indian actresses have been arrested for prostitution.

The ultimate Indian male fantasy involves horizontal gymnastics with an actress from Bollywood or the smaller regional film industries such as Tollywood, in the state of Andra Pradesh, or Kollywood, in the state of Tamil Nadu. The fact that Indian actresses also participate in Miss Universe pageants, strutting the stage in bikinis, only heightens their desirability. The recent arrest of two Indian actresses for prostitution, or what the Indian media calls the “flesh business,” however, raises the question of whether this fantasy may actually be within reach for men with enough money.

The actresses concerned, who work in Tollywood, were arrested on Aug. 23 in an early-morning raid that took place after a police tip-off in Hyderabad, the polished, squeaky-clean hub of India’s booming software industry. Saira Banu, who has played in Telugufilms, and Jyoti, an actress who plays supporting roles, were arrested along with women from Uzbekistan and their customers. The arrests took place in the up-market Kundan Bagh neighborhood, a high-security area inhabited by government ministers, bureaucrats, and high-flying IT executives.

This is not the first time Indian actresses have been arrested for prostitution. In 2009, the Tollywood actress Seema was arrested—along with her mother—during a raid in Hyderabad’s Tarnaka area. Apart from working as a prostitute, the doe-eyed 27-year-old was also employing other sex workers from Mumbai at a cost of 30,000 rupees (around $650) each per week—higher than what most local executives earn—to run a brothel there.

Demand for sex with actresses is very high in India, for a number of reasons. Indian actresses personify sexual liberation in a socially conservative country that places a high value on modesty and chastity. The gap between female sexuality and behavior on the Indian silver screen and in society is colossal. While in Indian films women are shown scantily dressed and gyrating to catchy pop numbers, their female counterparts in the audience wear modest salwar kameez—long tunics with baggy pajama bottoms—or matronly saris.

Over the years, family-friendly Indian cinema has found many ways to pique the interest of male audiences without being deemed offensive by censors. This is a fine balancing act. For many years, on-screen kisses were a taboo. Actors would dance, frolic, and hold hands, but just as they tilted their heads for a kiss—eyelids gently closing—CUT, to the next shot. In exchange for this compromise, men got “wet sari” scenes, the infamous dance scenes which involve torrential monsoon rain and light-colored saris. Recently though, many of these quaint conventions have been dropped. Indian cinema is racing ahead to include explicit love scenes and more flesh, further increasing the sexuality gap between actresses and the rest of Indian women.

Because of the sexualized roles they play, and the fact that many are in scandalous “live-in relationships”— meaning they move in with boyfriends before marriage—the blanket assumption is that all actresses are available for a price. This is obviously false, but it’s an illusion that has been exploited by savvy pimps who have created a market for B-list and C-list “starlets”—often unsuccessful actresses from questionable backgrounds—for men who want to have what’s sold as a glamorous sexual experience.

These pimps were able to get a foot into the film industry in the first place because of the historical links between the cinema and the criminal underworld. An embodiment of this connection is the underworld don Abu Salem, who was convicted for masterminding the 1993 Mumbai bombings that killed 250 people. Before he branched out into terrorism, Salem regularly extorted money from Bollywood personalities and forcibly took over film productions for money laundering and other criminal purposes. Salem threatened to kill an established film director for refusing to give his then-girlfriend, Monica Bedi, a role in his films, despite her miserable lack of talent. The director, Rajiv Rai, ended up giving her a role, but only narrowly escaped a later attempt on his life by Salem’s gang. Many, like the Bollywood producer and music baron Gulshan Kumar—who was killed in broad daylight—weren’t as lucky.

Until Salem’s arrest in 2002 in Lisbon at the behest of Interpol, Bollywood was deeply plagued by murky ties to organized criminal gangs with international networks. One veteran Indian film director, Jag Mundhra, remembers how many lesser-known Bollywood actresses got caught in the underworld after gangsters took a fancy to them. “There was a time when Bollywood actresses would just disappear off the scene only to re-emerge later in Dubai’s dance bars,” he said in an interview.

While some small-time actresses have become prostitutes, Mundhra, who used to make erotic thrillers in the United States, says that most of the “Bollywood prostitutes” are actually fake actresses. “A very old trick is that a pimp will approach you with a catalogue of famous Bollywood actresses and their prices. After the customer picks the actress he wants, the pimp will call at a very short notice and say the A-list actress of his choice is stuck in a shoot and will suggest an ‘upcoming actress,’ who is actually a prostitute, as a replacement.” Those men then go away believing they actually could have slept with a famous actress, and this perpetuates the Bollywood brothel myth.

The myth is further propped up by prostitutes and their pimps who pay for spurious advertisements of upcoming film releases, in which a certain “actress” is advertised as playing a lead role. The ads for these fake films are then actually printed in film trade magazines. “These films never get made, but the press clippings help elevate the prostitute to the level of an actress, at which point she can charge double,” says Mundhra.

The fate of the latest actresses to be caught in between these two intertwined worlds is still unknown. In an industry that encourages endless re-invention, this will likely not be the last we hear of them. Followers of Indian film news may recall how the tides turned for Bhuvaneswari, a Kollywood actress who was arrested twice (in 2002 and 2009) for prostitution. After the first arrest, she managed to convince her fans of her innocence and so continued acting until she was arrested for prostitution a second time. Instead of adopting a lower profile after the arrest, the actress surprised many by accepting a position within the All-India Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam (MMK), a political party whose leadership she was close to.

To the dismay of many, the feisty actress also decided that if her past was going to be exposed, she was going to drag others into the mud, too. She drew up a long list of fellow actresses she claimed were also selling sex, although the veracity of her claims was disputed. Bhuvaneswari also told the media that she was working on an autobiography, expected to blow the lid off the shady dealings of the film industry. Whether the details prove true or not, her story will no doubt only further fuel the fantasies.

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Correction, Sept. 8, 2010: This article originally contained a photograph of longtime Bollywood actress Saira Banu, who has no connection to the arrest of a younger Tollywood actress of the same name. The photograph has been removed.