(Jaison Meisner, Chicago Tribune)
The young Indian actress arrived at O’Hare International Airport last Christmas Eve on a flight from Abu Dhabi.
Carrying a temporary visa, she told customs agents she had come to the U.S. to attend an Indian association event at the behest of her manager and would be staying only a couple weeks.
But federal prosecutors say that story was a ruse concocted by the actress’ manager. And he wasn’t helping her with her film career — he was her pimp.
Recently unsealed federal charges accuse a Chicago couple of Indian descent of running a high-end prostitution ring to lure actresses from Tollywood — a nickname for the lively Telugu-language film scene in southern India — to the U.S. and advertise them for sex at Indian conferences and cultural events across the country.
The ring charged clients up to $3,000 for each sexual encounter, according to a 42-page criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
While here on temporary visas, at least five actresses were sometimes forced to stay in a dingy, two-story apartment building in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood waiting for their next “date,” the charges alleged. They also met clients in hotels at conferences in Dallas, New Jersey and Washington.
The prostitution scheme was allegedly masterminded by Kishan Modugumudi, 34, an Indian businessman who rose to become a player in the Tollywood movie industry and co-produced several hit films.
The complaint alleged that Modugumudi threatened the life of one of the actresses and her family if she told law enforcement the truth about what she did while in the country.
Modugumudi told the woman, identified in the charges only as Victim A, that “it would be nothing for him to harm her if she talked to the police about him because she is small and unknown, not a big actress,” the complaint alleged. “(He) further stated he had a copy of her passport with her family’s name and address in it.”
Also charged was Modugumudi’s wife, Chandra, 31, who allegedly kept detailed ledgers of the sex acts performed by each girl, including where they occurred and how much they collected.
Federal agents discovered the ledgers when they searched the Modugumudis’ apartment in the 5700 block of West Belden Avenue in February, according to the complaint. They also found more than 70 condoms divided up into “multiple Ziplock bags.”
Agents later obtained a search warrant for Kishan Modugumudi’s email accounts and discovered a note written by Victim A in December begging him to stop harassing and threatening her, according to the complaint.
“Please do not call me and don’t try to contact me,” the woman allegedly wrote. “It was very unpleasant doing business with you and I don’t want to do any business with you now or in future. If you try contacting me again, I’ll have to make formal complaint.”
Modugumudi and his wife have been in federal custody since agents arrested them in late April in suburban Washington, D.C., on a warrant, records show.
At a detention hearing last week in federal court in Chicago, the couple, dressed in jail clothes, listened to the proceedings through a Telugu interpreter.
Attorney Molly Armour, who represents Kishan Modugumudi, told the judge she had been trying to find a place for the couple to live so they could be freed on bail but that so far she had been unsuccessful. U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez ordered them to remain in custody for the time being. The couple’s two school-age children, meanwhile, are in the custody of child welfare officials in Virginia.
Armour declined to comment on the case. Attorney Keri Ambrosio, who represents Chandra Modugumudi did not immediately return calls for comment.
Founded in the silent-film era in the early 1900s, the Telugu film industry is one of the oldest and busiest in India. Its commercial hub, Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, holds the Guinness World Record as the largest film studio complex in the world with 47 sound stages.
But Tollywood also has been criticized as a haven for traffickers who use promises of stardom to trap aspiring young actresses in the sex trade. An estimated 200,000 women and children in India are forced into prostitution every year, many lured by opportunities to model or act in films, according to Reuters.
According to a 2010 story on Slate.com, “savvy pimps” also play off the sexual imagery in Tollywood films to “create 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.”
Meanwhile, Tollywood announced earlier this year it was producing a series of short anti-trafficking films aimed at dissuading young men from buying sex, according to Reuters. The six short dramas were made by some of Tollywood’s biggest production houses as part of an initiative by an anti-trafficking charity and the U.S. Consulate General in Hyderabad, Reuters reported.
Rumors of the investigation into Modugumudi’s alleged prostitution ring have been reported in several English-language web sites that cover the Telugu cinema.
The criminal complaint filed against Modugumudi and his wife was unusual because sex crimes charged in federal court typically involve child victims or women sold into sexual slavery, not traditional prostitution.
In this case, some of the alleged victims of the scheme appeared less than cooperative when questioned by U.S. authorities — including Victim A, who claimed that she never actually had sex with clients but just spent time with them and “asked for help.”
A client interviewed as part of the investigation also tried to mislead agents by saying he’d had conversations with Modugumudi’s wife — whom he knew as “Vebha Jayam” — about “the price to have sex with actresses” but never actually went through with the proposition, according to the complaint.
That client, identified as Individual G, later acknowledged meeting Chandra Modugumudi in the lobby of the Comfort Suites at O’Hare in 2016 and paying her $1,110 in cash to have sex with an actress who was staying in one of the rooms there, according to the complaint.
In addition to emails discussing the scheme, authorities uncovered dozens of text messages from Chandra’s phone in which she appeared to haggle with clients over which girls were available and the prices for each, according to the complaint. Often, she would send photos of an actress available for a date while negotiating.
One text conversation from December 2016 showed that after Chandra sent photos of one girl to a potential client, he responded, “For me?” with a smiley face emoticon, according to the complaint.
In another conversation, an actress working for the prostitution ring, identified as Victim D, texted to Chandra that she had just finished performing oral sex on a client.
“He is very happy,” Victim D wrote, according to the complaint.
“Ok,” Chandra replied, adding a “thumbs up” emoji.
*Banner picture: The apartment building in the 5700 block of West Belden Avenue in Chicago, where Telugu co-producer Kishen and his wife lived and ran the prostitution ring.)
(The report first appeared in Chicago Tribune on June 14, 2018)