Pheroze L. Vincent
New Delhi, Sept 11: Pictures of Bollywood and Telugu film stars, cut out of newspapers, adorn his walls at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Sabarmati hostel. He has been a waiter at Sania Mirza’s engagement.
If that sounds unusual for a Marxist student leader at a bastion of Left politics, here’s more: he admires mainstream filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli as much as he respects Lenin. And he remembers the revolutionary poems of Srirangam Srinivasa Rao better than the lines of The Communist Manifesto.
“I’m not interested in electoral politics. I love my literature, Telugu literature, and my activism,” says Duggirala Srikrishna, 27, newly elected general secretary of the JNU students’ union.
The actors’ pictures can be easily explained: Srikrishna had worked four years in the Telugu film industry as a makeup artist for actresses. Not the typical background for someone in his post?
“Every day of my life has been a struggle, so I’m most qualified for this job,” the SFI leader from a Dalit family insists.
The Left Unity – an alliance of the CPIML Liberation-backed All India Students Association, CPM student arm SFI and its breakaway faction, the Democratic Students Federation – won all four posts in the campus polls last weekend.
Srikrishna – popular for his role in getting 24-hour reading rooms established in the store rooms of the School of International Studies, and mini-gardens in its open spaces – won the highest votes: 2,042 out of 4,620.
As celebrations rolled on through Saturday night, Srikrishna told a fellow SFI leader at 4am that he wanted to go to bed.
“Come to my room at 8am; we must discuss plans for the union,” Srikrishna said.
Just four hours’ sleep after all-night celebrations? “I was speechless,” the fellow SFI leader told this newspaper.
Srikrishna, a self-confessed “workaholic”, knows how to rough it: he had held 17 jobs before joining JNU in 2013, often working two jobs at a time – one in the day and the other in the night – while studying for a degree too.
His longest stint was in the Hyderabad film industry, where he was a makeup artist from 2007 to 2011.
“After I enrolled in (Hyderabad’s) Nizam College for a BSc in biotechnology, I saw a film shoot one day and was fascinated. I began hanging around near Ramanaidu Studios. After three days, an unknown man offered me work,” he said.
“I needed a job as I hadn’t got hostel accommodation and couldn’t borrow money from my father, a day labourer in Lingampally (Hyderabad).”
After working as a spot boy for several television serials and films, he eventually settled down in the makeup department, learning on the job and mastering it.
Before he left, he had worked for Telugu stars Anushka Shetty, Kajal Aggarwal, Priya Anand and Hariprriya in such box-office hits as Magadheera, Leader and Thakita Thakita.
Srikrishna idolises directors Rajamouli and Sekhar Kammula, and actress Anushka.
“Rajamouli is a workaholic like me. He doesn’t care about what he wears…. Sekhar has extraordinary imagination…. My aim is to write scripts like Leader‘s (a film about politics, corruption and idealism), which can change society,” he told this newspaper.
“Anushka is the person I admire the most. In an industry where work is uncertain and many are rude, she gives the same respect to the spot boy and the producer and speaks very politely. At Ramoji Film City, I would go to watch her shoot during breaks.”
During his time under the arc lights, Srikrishna dropped out of college and got a degree from B.R. Ambedkar Open University.
“While working for films, I also worked on a daily wage for one of Taj Krishna hotel’s contractors. On some days I would be a parking valet and on others, I would be doing flower decorations,” he said.
“It was during this period (2008-10) that I was a waiter at Sania Mirza’s first engagement (with Sohrab Mirza).”
In the six years spent working in Hyderabad, he never visited his home because he couldn’t get time off work. But he kept in touch with the SFI members who had introduced him to activism at Nizam College.
Srikrishna’s communist beliefs grew stronger by the day.
“There were all kinds of exploitation of women in the industry. I was the makeup boy for female artistes. I knew what went on and could not stand it. A heroine had to arrive on the sets at 9am but a hero could amble in at 11,” Srikrishna said.
“Wherever I went – films or the press or catering – there was oppression. There was so much food at Sania’s engagement but a lot of it was wasted. We had to usher her out through the back gate to avoid the media. Such extravagance, but sadly the engagement did not last.”
He added: “The hotel contractor received Rs 500 for each hired hand but paid us just Rs 200. In the film industry, I’ve been sacked several times – on the spot – for demanding fair wages.”
He later set up an agency with 50 other students, catering to hotels across Hyderabad – his way of “making a dent in the contractor cartel” by paying fair wages. But the thing he wanted most was “to bring about change by becoming a public servant”.
“So, I enrolled for civil services coaching, for which the fee was Rs 50,000. I worked a 12-hour night shift at the Halftone press for Rs 5,000 a month, while doing some other jobs too and somehow managed to save the money.”
This was in 2012-13, after quitting the movie industry. In 2013, he got a job with the engineering department at South Central Railway’s Vikarabad Junction. Two months later, he was offered admission to the MA course in international relations at JNU.
“A colleague told me, ‘Do you know how difficult getting a seat there is?’ I left the railways for JNU as I wanted a degree from a prestigious university,” Srikrishna said.
“My parents don’t understand what a university or a general secretary is. I was brought up in Prakasam district by my uncle Raghavaiah, who is a village sarpanch and is currently with the YSR Congress. His only advice to me was to do something that benefited society.”
Srikrishna remembers how he spent his schooldays in the hostels of the social welfare department on a monthly allowance of Rs20: “The Rs5,000 scholarship I now receive at JNU is a luxury.”
“Here, I am king,” he says. “I’m treated as an equal irrespective of my caste or background. I wrote the entrance in Telugu and struggled because of the language barrier.”
His hostel room has a stack of old Hindi newspapers – evidence of Srikrishna’s dogged efforts to pick up the language.
He says the SFI “encouraged” him a lot. “I can fight for the marginalised within and outside the party. A nobody like me was elected a convener of the students’ union at the School of International Studies.”
Srikrishna’s immediate plans relate to the “decrease of 900 research seats” at JNU, an outcome of the university accepting the regulator’s restrictions on the number of research scholars a teacher can guide at a time.
“It’s the most painful blow – to the Constitution and democracy – as it means that people like me can never get in here anymore,” the PhD scholar in Inner Asian Studies said.
“It’s now my duty to find a way to restore the lost seats.”—Courtesy The Indian Telegraph