From XXX to Gandii Baat, Indian erotica gets an upgrade on digital platforms
Indian erotica, once derided for its poor production values, has made a comeback on the Internet not just with more compelling stories, but mainstream actors, directors and producers willing to put the money where their mouth is
On the Internet, sex is not taboo. Neither does it discriminate. There is something for heterosexuals and even more, if you aren't. In this rabbit hole, where risqué content is always about pushing the envelope, that two sari-clad women - their oomph factor being their low-cut blouses - locking lips in an extended scene, without shedding even a piece of clothing, have suddenly become a super-hit fantasy, might seem surprising. But that's how 2019 opened on the web, at least in India.
Where moviegoers were going gaga about Vicky Kaushal's patriotic drama Uri, giving it stiff competition, on a smaller screen and sans the buzz of promotions, was OTT platform ALTBalaji's erotica-themed web series Gandii Baat, which was in its second season. In January, the show was trending on IMDb at number 2. A month on, despite a string of big-budget releases, including Kangana Ranaut's historical drama Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Gandii Baat continues to stay relevant, finding a berth in the top 5.
A scene from Bai-Sexual, the first episode of Gandii Baat 2, in which actor Anveshi Jain plays a housewife Neeta, who is wooed by her maid Sajeeli. The lovers later plot to kill Neeta's mother-in-law, who harasses her for dowry. Pic Courtesy/ALTBalaji
If the numbers are anything to go by, people are lapping up this newest avatar of softcore porn, which was once infamously typecast as B- and C-grade because of its poor production quality. Unlike porn, which is driven by explicit imagery, in softcore the idea is suggested by music, images or focussing on certain parts of the female body. With A-list producers like Ekta Kapoor backing the new web projects, bringing in everything from moolah and stars, what remains to be seen is whether Indian erotica is surely, even if slowly, coming of age.
Ekta Kapoor: Founder of ALTBalaji, which has launched erotic content like Gandii Baat and XXX: Uncensored
A new home for erotica
A few weeks into the release of Gandii Baat Season 2, social media was already in a tizzy. The success of the show had piqued the interest of many. One such cinephile, 28-year-old Noopur Raval, who is doing her PhD research at the University of California Irvine, where she is studying the social impact of technology in daily work, had posted about ALTBalaji's new "soft porn" content on Twitter. "As someone who spent a few years studying B- and C-grade cinema, I can safely say there's something interesting happening genre wise," she wrote.
Sachin Mohite: Director of Gandii Baat, which is currently trending on IMDb
In a telephonic chat, Raval now talks about Gandii Baat's first episode Bai-Sexual, in which Stree actor Flora Saini plays Sajeeli, a maid, who is the mistress of the house and traps every member of the family in her love-net. "It has a very camp aesthetic. It's cheesy, corny and funny - there's a lot of moaning, sighing and massaging. You might find it hard to take it seriously.
But, the episode also shows patriarchy and misogyny. The mother-in-law discusses with the son how the daughter-in-law should be burnt because she hasn't got enough dowry. Then the wife and the bai [maid] tie the husband up, smash the mother-in-law's face with a hammer, and treat the husband as a sex slave, asking him to fetch hot rotis. The sex is thrown in just at the right time to ensure that the audience keeps going," says Raval, adding, "So, it's not just one thing happening. It's not either empowering or exploitative. Much like how B-grade cinema operates differently, inconsistently at the level of aesthetic and politics, this show cannot be easily read as progressive or regressive."
Vinod Tharani: One of the writers of Gandii Baat, who has also acted in the show
Sachin Mohite, the director of Gandii Baat, attributes the show's success to its content. Mohite, who formerly helmed the popular crime show Savdhaan India, says his stories and characters are inspired from the rural heartland. "Erotica is usually about fantasies. But this is very real, this has happened, and the characters also seem within your reach. For me, it was about capturing the reality in our bedrooms," he says. "We wanted to make something for the common man - someone with a 9-to-5 job or your regular rickshawallah."
Though Kapoor's ALTBalaji has managed to win a good chunk of subscribers - in its last Q2 results, it had 8.9mn subscribers - with its interesting roster of saas-bahu shows, comedy and erotica dramas like Gandii Baat, XXX Uncensored and Ragini MMS Returns, it isn't alone.
Flora Saini: The Stree actor played Sajeeli, a domestic help, in Bai-Sexual, the first episode of Gandii Baat Season 2
That the web world is outside the purview of Indian censors, means OTT platforms and video-sharing websites can embrace titillating material, without fear or favour. Vikram Bhatt's VB On The Web app, which has around 5,000 subscribers, runs the popular web series Maaya: The Slave of her Desires, which is already two seasons down, and explores bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM). Not known to many, filmmaker and inceptor of the Sunburn festival, Shailendra Singh, also runs a very popular YouTube channel Long Story Short Films, which has earned a total of 140 million views for its six shorts, including Techsex, Sexaholic and Consensual Sex?, making the channel "the third largest original content viewed in India," says Singh. "There is more market for erotica in India than normal porn. It definitely has a lot of money," says writer and cinephile Aseem Chandaver, who runs a comedy collective called Tadpatri Talkies, while explaining why A-listers are moving into this genre.
Vikram Bhatt: Started VB On The Web, which has shows like Maaya: The Slave of her Desires that explores BDSM
But Singh, who produced and directed the six films on his channel, says he never intended to make money out of the short films. "I didn't commercialise my movies. I just wanted to start a dialogue around sex education. But young people don't want social messages unnecessarily; you need to entertain them, too. I must, however, say that not all my movies are about sex. In Techsex, Kubbra Sait's first film, she just kisses a guy once. I didn't exhibit at all. There is a thin line between sex and glamour; I come from the glamour side, so I understand that difference."
While the big players enjoy the freedom that comes with running their own OTT platforms, for small fries, YouTube is still the space where they can dump their experiments in soft porn. "There is a thriving cottage industry on the web. ALTBalaji has brought big money to it on the production end, but on YouTube there are entire Indian channels dedicated to it," says Nandan Kini, a documentary researcher and cinephile.
Harinam Singh: Known most for B-grade horror-sex film Khooni Dracula, he moved to digital a few years ago
One channel, Dehati India N Masti, has nearly 8 lakh subscribers, where "bhabhiji", a popular sub-culture of this genre, keeps recurring in most scenes. Crime Patrol Dehati, which has over 15 lakh subscribers and 215 videos, is another sleazy spin-off on the popular crime show.
Kini, however, says that YouTube's policy on sexual content is rigid, making it impossible for filmmakers to cross the line. "Except for people getting hot and heavy, there is nothing to report. You will be hard-pressed to find something to take offence to," says Kini, also a founder member of Tadpatri Talkies.
Shailendra Singh: Runs the popular YouTube channel Long Story Short Films, which has six films directed by him
A Google spokesperson said YouTube has guidelines prohibiting sexually explicit content or gratuitous violence. "We review all videos flagged by our users against our Community Guidelines. When videos are flagged we review them on a case by case basis, removing them if they violate our guidelines, and age-restricting those that may be unsuitable for users under the age of 18."
Before the Kapoors and Bhatts
Hindi film industry's tryst with soft-porn goes back to the late '70s and early '80s, with the coming in of the Ramsay brothers, who combined horror with sleaze, says Vibhushan Subba, a research scholar with Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Kanti Shah and Sapna: The badshah and queen of B-grade films have made a web-series, but are yet to release it
But it was down south, where actors like Silk Smitha and later Shakeela, who became synonymous with the genre. "The emergence of soft porn as a parallel industry to the mainstream Malayalam cinema happened in the 1990s when strikes organised by exhibitors and distributors over profit-shares brought the film industry to a standstill," says Darshana S Mini, PhD candidate, cinema and media Studies, at the School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California. "Coming amidst the financial slowdown, soft porn films offered work to several lower-rung artistes, technicians, below-the-line workers, distributors and exhibitors in the face of impending unemployment and debt. The story-lines of these films often involved sexually charged moments and were marketed with distribution deals that allowed exhibitors and agents to have a fair share of the profits. These films worked through the power of suggestion via visual and aural tropes, distinct from the hard-core pornography. The industrial pattern that these films gave way to was localised to regional cinema, even though they were screened in different parts of India as well," she adds.
Darshana S Mini, PhD candidate, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California
In all of this, Mumbai-based filmmaker Kanti Shah, who has made over 140 films across genres and is known as the badshah of B- and C-grade, accidentally came to acquire cult status, after his much-forgotten 1998 film, Gunda, starring Mithun Chakraborty, began circulating in IIT campuses, nearly five years after its release.
"In the '90s, if you were to be caught with a Kanti Shah film, you would be ridiculed. But with Gunda's popularity, there was a spurt in communities across Facebook that started celebrating and valorising such films. The audience constitution also changed," says Subba, adding that it was no longer the working class, migrant labourers and construction workers, who were watching B-grade films, but also advertising heads, academics and engineers, many of whom were women. The rise of the B-movie cinephilia led to a complete reassessment of the taste in films. "It suddenly became fashionable to be trashy," says Subba.
Nandan Kini, Documentary researcher
But, the influx of the digital format, closure of theatres in the B circuit that sustained these films and the increasing availability of access to the Internet proved to be a death knell for the soft porn film industry, says Mini. It's around this time that many soft porn filmmakers, including D-grade director Harinam Singh, most known for his nonsensical horror-sex movie Khooni Dracula (1992), started exploring the online space. They were able to make money through the monetisation policy on the video-sharing platforms.
Shah, whose last full-length feature released in 2016, is also planning to make the switch to digital. "I have already completed a web series called Madam, and it's turned out well, but I have not found a big platform like Ekta Kapoor to showcase it yet. I am still working on that. Honestly, there is no use of making movies anymore, as there are no takers for it. If you can access the same thing on your phone and without any cuts by the censors, it's definitely the place to be." Shah's golden girl, Sapna, who stars in most of his films, also shares the same opinion. "There was a time, when all the saas-bahu producers were calling us out for making sexy content, and now they have zero inhibitions in exposing. It's time Kanti joins the bandwagon, because he has his own following. He is the baap of this style, after all."
Drawing the line
Actor Vinod Tharani, who has also written Gandii Baat, says it wouldn't be fair to compare the show with B-grade films or porn. "In porn, the focus has never been on emotions, but our show, despite being an erotica, is a mirror of what is happening in the society. One needs a certain skill to present it aesthetically," he says.
Here, Mohite recalls how their third episode in Season 2, titled Gibraltar, which spoke of the anxieties of a woman with small breasts, resonated with a lot of women. "A girl from Delhi wrote to me, saying her dad was worried about her 'flat chest' and wanted her to go under the knife," says Mohite.
Saini says that Mohite was always mindful about how they shot the intimate scenes. It always took place in a closed room, with just the DOP and in the presence of a few women. "I never felt uncomfortable doing any scene, and the fact that I trusted my director to present it classily on screen, also gave me the confidence to take up the role. What is also important is the platform or production house, which you are working with. I know the kind of viewership and credibility ALTBalaji has, so I didn't have to think twice. Playing Sajeeli [the domestic help in Bai-Sexual] only helped me explore something more challenging."
A 22-year-old city-based web developer, who is an avid follower of Gandii Baat, says he enjoyed the storyline. "I see all kinds of stuff on YouTube, but I am paying for this content [Rs 100 for three months] so I know that I am going to see something beyond the usual. We should celebrate good content."
Not everyone is, however, impressed. A 31-year-old Mumbai-based female academic, who got interested in erotica and softcore porn after watching Bernardo Bertolucci's 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, feels that despite the money coming in, Indian filmmakers are yet to capture erotica in its truest form. "I got interested in soft porn ive years ago, when I realised I wasn't enjoying all the porn that was available on the Internet.
It's then that I started thinking about the idea of pleasure, and how one can experience it, without seeing a sex scene," she says, on condition of anonymity. "There are some interesting filmmakers abroad like Dane Jones and Erica Lust, who are making amazing content. And, they know how to make movies of high aesthetic value. Sometimes, it's just a short video with drops of water on a woman's body, or a lady running her tongue over her lips. I feel we lack the finesse. It's still crude and rough. We need to understand what real pleasure is."
With inputs by Gitanjali Chandrasekharan
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