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The Mastram effect: Erotica comes of age in India cinema

As Indian audiences gear up for Mastram, we take a look at how erotica in our films is slowly coming of age

With sex and sexuality being hush-hush topics in India, any film with some amount of skin show generates curiosity, which, often transcends into ‘healthy’ (pun intended) good opening collections at the ticket windows. After all, nothing sells like sex.


Bengali actress Paoli Dam shed her inhibitions in Hate Story

People still remember Mandakini’s shower act in Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Rekha’s bathing sequence in Girish Karnad’s sensuously crafted Utsav and Zeenat Aman’s cleavage show in Satyam Shivam Sundaram. In recent times, films such as Jism 2, Murder and B.A. Pass created waves online as well as in theatres.


Akhilesh Jaiswal’s upcoming film Mastram is about a a reluctant pornographic writer who aspires to be a litterateur

The latest film to explore the theme of erotica is Akhilesh Jaiswal’s Mastram. A biopic of legendary Hindi porn writer, Mastram whose books were read by young men across India in the ’80s, the film tries to explore the writer’s conflict with his creative aspirations and society. The idea is novel with the trailer evoking interest among the Internet savvy audience.


Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman in the 1978 film Satyam Shivam Sundaram

When fact meets fiction
Out in the open Akhilesh Jaiswal, the director of Mastram says, “Like many young North Indian men, I too grew up reading Mastram’s books. I used to wonder how this guy would be like and what would he be telling people about his profession. It was just a thought that later formed the base for my film. We did a lot of research but could not find any links to the ‘actual’ Mastram. Most of the old bookstalls that sold his stuff had shut shop or the owners had died, so I could not establish any contact.”


Shadab Kamal and Shilpa Shukla in B.A. Pass, which released last year, becoming India’s first erotica thriller to hit the marquee

Working on a film based on the life of a porn writer would not have appealed to many Bollywood heroes but Jaiswal says that the initial reaction wasn’t that negative either.


Girish Karnad’s 1984 Rekha-starrer Utsav combined love, politics, erotica and comedy

“I did not approach any big star but 90 per cent of those I asked were kicked about the script. When Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) heard it, he loved it and so did Rajkummar Rao. Unfortunately, they could not be a part of the film due to other commitments.


Mandakini took a shower under the waterfall in a transparent white saree in Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985)

Adult topics are slowly finding their way into Indian cinema, be it the theme of sperm donation in Vicky Donor or live-in relationships in Shuddh Desi Romance. Vivek Agnihotri, whose film Hate Story had some steamy sequences featuring Bengali actress Paoli Dam opines, “The media has played a huge role in opening up people’s minds towards bold subjects. And it’s not just about sex.

Topics such as gay relationships, premarital sex, abuse, etc are being talked about in open forums. This has made it easier for the middle class to accept such films.” Ajay Bahl, who made the critical and commercial hit B.A. Pass also feels the same, “Indian society is rapidly evolving and people are exposed to foreign content, this has brought about a change in perceptions.”

Beyond titillation
With news of a heroine wearing a bikini still making for great PR material, the maturity of the industry when it comes to erotica is highly debatable. The young generation of filmmakers seems to have a common view — sex without content in a film is not going to hold the audiences attention. Bahl states, “In my opinion, only visually erotic content does not guarantee a good opening at the box office. The vibe of a film is very important.

Filmmakers now hopefully know that mere titillation will get them nowhere. The idea is to tell a great story and if it falls under ‘erotica’ then so be it. Audiences have been accepting indirect sensual content for a long time in the form of songs and even TVCs.”

The logic seems to hold true. With porn being available at the click of a button, the idea of enduring a trashy film for three hours just for some hot scenes is just fading away. “The world watches porn for gratification and once it’s achieved they shut it off. It’s simply because porn does not have the story or dramatic content to hold their attention.

Films are all about drama, it works if the drama works, erotic or not,” says Bahl. The modern audience wants to see all genres of films. And erotica is catching up, especially after the success of books like CL James’ 50 Shades Of Grey, both in the print and online version. A lot of erotic content is available in e-books and lapped up by both the sexes.

Agnihotri says, “I made a suspense film (Chocolate) and a sports drama, (Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal) and I wanted to test my audience with Hate Story. I don’t come from a camp that makes such films or own a erotic thriller franchise, it was an independent effort.”

Pushing limits
While big budget erotic thrillers do get marketed well, smaller films find it tougher. B.A. Pass, which earned R4.30 crore in the first weekend had to be released by Bahl himself. “It was not easy to sell the film as no corporate wanted to touch it. In fact, we never sold B.A. Pass. I released it myself with help from Bharat Shah’s distribution company.

Making an erotic film just for profitability is in the domain of ‘B’ and ‘C’ grade category. I don’t think any good filmmaker approaches the genre in this fashion.” Dealing with the Censor Board is another hassle. “I feel they live in an archaic world. The members are totally out of sync with what is preferred by the modern adult audience. The board should be done away with.” However, things seem to be in a transition mode. Director Ashim Ahluwalia who never expected his film Miss Lovely to get a release in India was glad when the Board passed it with only four cuts earlier this year. In 2013, they had asked Ahluwalia for 157 cuts. In India, the Censor doesn’t allow frontal nudity, hardcore lovemaking scenes or graphic content, so as a veteran director opines, “What we see is not really erotica!”

Actors’ take
While Mallika Sherawat’s act in Murder classified her as ‘hot’, Shilpa Shukla wowed the audience and critics alike with her sexy Machiavellian act in B.A.Pass. Agnihotri explains, “Shooting an intimate scene is not challenging. Actors hardly have any dialogues in such sequences. It’s more about playing with the lighting, camera angles and art direction.” Such films have given a boost to many new starlets and revived flagging fortunes.

Bahl says, “My actors were exceptional performers who were mature enough to realise what the film’s actual message was. Thematically, B.A.Pass was based on the premise that society feeds on its own weak and that is the film we made. I don’t think any good actor in their right mind would want to do a (s)exploitation flick. However, if they find material, which digs deeper on an intellectual and emotional plane and a story, which moves them, then today’s actors are brave enough to go further.”

Bollywood's most erotic films 
1. Kamasutra:
Exotic sets, softcore lovemaking scenes and raw sensuality made this Mira Nair film a much talked about one.
2. Utsav: This 1984 film was based on the play Mrcchakatika and produced by Shashi Kapoor.
3. Satyam Shivam Sundaram: Zeenat Aman’s skimpy outfits and smooching scenes with Shashi Kapoor created quite a furore.
4. Ram Teri Ganga Maili: Besides the shower act, Mandakini also did a very sensuous bedroom scene with Rajiv Kapoor.
5. Anubhav: Post Utsav, Shekhar Suman again did intimate scenes with co-star Richa Sharma in this film that also had Padmini Kolhapure

Meenakshi Shedde is India consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals, an award-winning critic, and curator to festivals worldwide. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com

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