The first time I viewed the trailer of Alt Balaji's 2018 show - Gandii Baat, I was astonished by the bold depiction of sexuality in the show. An anthology of rural stories all revolving around sex, one of the biggest taboo in India, Gandii Baat is part of a new epoch in the Indian entertainment industry. An epoch where India is creating relatable and resonant local erotic content for the masses.
The show, Gandii Baat which is currently in its fourth season explores a different facet of sex in every episode. For instance, in its pilot episode, it showcased a story of a man who discovers his wife in bed with their neighbor. Initially, he is infuriated and threatens them with a handgun, however, in a strange change of events, he relents and decides to join them in bed, leading to a threesome. Certainly, we can all admit that depicting a threesome is a huge jump from using flowers to symbolize a kiss onscreen.
Usually, in Indian TV shows, portraying nudity and eroticism has been a strict no-no mainly because television is viewed by all audiences including children. However, television has turned ancient now and its more attractive alternative has taken the center stage - streaming platforms.
Much like a smartphone, every other person has a video streaming service account and usually, benevolently shares it with friends and family. While the more affluent cities are subscribed to Netflix, Prime Video, and Hotstar, tier 2 and tier 3 cities have Voot, ALTBalaji, MX player, and Zee5 to fulfill the entertainment void with relatively cheaper viewing plans.
More people are switching to OTT platforms and discovering the genre of erotica
The streaming service, ALTBalaji believes that more smalltown users are bound to switch to Over-the-top media platforms as they are the future of entertainment.
“Audiences that hadn’t discovered OTT viewing are coming on to these platforms, especially from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities,” Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO, ALTBalaji, and Group COO, Balaji Telefilms, tells Indian Express. “I think the lack of other entertainment options necessitated that they explore these [OTT platforms], so we’re getting a lot of first time sampling.”
While most industries such as the restaurant business are barely keeping afloat during the pandemic, the streaming industry has experienced a boom in viewership. People stuck at home are investing in a streaming platform to keep themselves occupied and the affordable subscription fee has made these services even more alluring.
Pantvaidya says the volume of users from smaller towns has dramatically increased during the pandemic. “Before the pandemic started, about 70 percent of our audiences would come from the top eight cities of India", said Pantvaidya. But in April, he added, that split has moved to 40-60, with 60 percent of users coming from outside the top eight cities.
ALTBalaji has seen a nearly 150 percent rise in the consumption time of each subscriber in the month of April. In fact, the streaming OTT platform is adding around 10,000 to 17,000 users per day that translates to a 70 percent increase. The OTT platform has over 1.7 million active direct subscribers and roughly 8.5 million monthly active users as reported by Indian Express.
Gandii Baat’s success paved the way for a whole new genre across platforms, as a result of which other popular OTTs like Zee5, launched Virgin Bhaskar about a virgin porn writer, and MX Player created Mona Home Delivery, a show which revolves around the life of an escort named Mona and so on.
One of the reasons behind the success of streaming platforms is the absence of any moral policing on content. As you may have viewed in Sacred Games and Mirzapur, original content is no more restricted by any boundaries in terms of sex and violence. With censorship no more a hindrance, OTT platforms are creating more risque content with titillating scenes to engage Indian audiences.
Why is no one talking about the erotic content?
Despite a dedicated genre of erotic and uncensored content on online streaming platforms, there has been a reluctancy to speak about it. How is it that when the Netflix India original, Lust Stories was released, conversations surrounded it but nobody has anything to say about the shows - Gandii Baat, Kavita Bhabhi, and Virgin Bhaskar. One possible reason could be the class divide in terms of the audiences that watch these shows and the other could be the show’s production value.
Pritesh Kumar Srivastava, the founder of the OTT platform Rapcheek, tells Vice that homegrown erotica content is categorized into premium, mid-budget, and low-budget shows. Lust Stories was spoken about due to its place in the premium position in Netflix and its elite audience.
Whereas low-budget content offers relatively less intricate plots and production value, making them more of a taboo as they closely resemble softcore pornography. However, this type of content has a huge demand, especially after the nationwide porn ban in 2018 and according to the creators, they are only giving people what they want.
A director of one such erotic show, Sachin Mohite, believes that the series, Gandii Baat found a dedicated audience because it openly talks about topics we feel embarrassed to discuss.
“We pass them off as ‘gandi baat’ (obscene talk),” he says. In an interview with Vice, he recounts the story of a friend dealing with insecurities about her body. He thinks that a show that deals with these troubling aspects of sexuality can help people become comfortable with sharing their own insecurities.
“She feared her boyfriend would lose interest in sex because she was flat-chested but couldn’t discuss it with anyone,” Mohite reveals that he used this as a subplot in one of the episodes of the series. “These are the kind of stories we tell without being preachy.”
However, while shooting such intimate and demanding scenes, the director needed to ensure that actors felt at ease during the shoot. Mohite says he cast his actor friends for the first season to generate trust between the cast and crew and a comfort level for the intimate scenes.
Erotic shows are undoubtedly met with hesitancy in the public sphere, however, even actors working with these risque scripts are often a little uncomfortable putting themselves out like that.
How comfortable are the actors working in these erotic series?
Anveshi Jain, a renowned name now, managed to have a successful launch as an actor due to her tantalizing role in the series Gandii Baat. However, she never intended to make it to the screen this way. She tells Vice India how she experienced cold-feet and a break down at the shoot since he was unsure of making her debut in a bra for an erotic show. Eventually, she acceded as it was her chance of gaining visibility and recognition in the industry and ended up opening the second season of Gandii Baat in January 2019 with an episode titled "Bai-sexuality".
Even though she hasn't bagged a huge role since then, her social media following has exponentially increased. She has 2.5 million followers on Instagram and 3.2 million followers on Facebook, a big achievement for a TV star in India. Additionally, she was among India's most Googled people in 2019. The budding actor has decided to monetize her fan following with her own paid mobile app, which gained 2,500 subscribers during the lockdown.
Jain candidly admits that her physical appeal is what made her so popular. The earlier coy and sexually timid actress says that she has now embraced her sexuality and become comfortable in her skin.
“I know why I have such a huge following," she tells VICE India. "It’s because of my physical traits because I am heavily bosomed. It took me a long time to get used to this idea but I am not going to lie to myself anymore."
Jain's success is proof that Indian audiences are appreciating the genre of erotica more than predicted. But according to the actress, this might not necessarily mean we're becoming more sexually progressive. Rather, she believes the genre is thriving on the hypocrisy of Indian culture.
“I was one of those who judged girls that took ‘shortcuts’. But who am I to say anything today?” she remarks. Overtly, people still condemn erotica or the depiction of sex in shows. She recounts her father's experience as evidence of people's double standards regarding the same.
“My family didn’t know about my acting aspirations or this series. I didn’t think it would reach them either because they don’t have any OTT subscriptions. But when the series premiered, my father’s friends surrounded him, showed him the scenes I was part of, and humiliated him. My parents didn’t speak to me for over a year. All those people were clearly consuming the content they shamed my father for.”
However, she feels secure with using her sexuality to make a living and says that her parents have accepted her as well. “People tell me men are on my app only to masturbate,” she says. “I don’t care anymore. Everything on my app comes at a cost. If they want to do that, they will have to pay.”
Actors are hesitant but work in erotica to gain money and recognition
Director-producer Pritesh Kumar Srivastava says that most actors agree to risque roles in hopes of gaining exposure and money.
“Big names charge up to Rs 1 lakh ($1,300 approx) a day and their fan following on social media shoots up overnight. Even the new girls in the low-budget shows make Rs 15,000-20,000 ($200-260) per day for the shoot. But this category, which is being produced for newer platforms like KooKu and Hotshots, requires part nudity and is often just a step away from porn,” he says.
“They neither invest in the writing nor production; the casting is also focussed on looks; bad performances are covered up in post-production with dubbing. The idea is to make content at low budgets and sell widely since most of these apps are subscription-based,” Srivastava continues.
With hundreds of new Indian web series' coming up every month, erotica is emerging as a genre offering substantial work opportunities to struggling actors. But owing to the awkwardness around erotica, actor Shantanu Monga says casting directors are very allusive when hiring an actor for an erotic series.
“They try to call you for the audition where they will convince you about nudity for decent monies. Women earn double the amount than their male colleagues but they also have the tough job of tackling the casting couch.” The most that a casting call does is mention the word 'bold' and leaves the rest to the actor's interpretation. For example, a casting call for an Indian web series on Talent Track says:
"Required fresher and experienced female actor for web series. Adult Content with Bold & Kissing Scene, Must be good looking, Must have good acting skills, Budget 10000 per day."
Monga points out that most actors wouldn't mind appearing in bold scenes if the handling was better. He says, “Internationally, shows like Sex Education use choreographers for sex scenes and nude suits that help actors shed inhibitions during intimate scenes. That, and of course the scope for performance. This is why actors don’t mind getting intimate for renowned directors.”
Directors say homegrown erotica is often subjected to the hypocrisy of Indian culture
As Avneshi Jain had suggested, homegrown erotica is often fuelled by the hypocrisy of Indian culture. Even the premium budgeted shows such as Gandii Baat or Mastram are rarely spoken about when discussing pop culture.
These shows have high production standards and known faces appearing in them, akin to Netflix or Prime Video original shows. For instance, Swara Bhasker stars in recent Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video, Anshuman Jha plays the lead in Mastram, Anupriya Goenka in Ullu’s Panchali and Minissha Lamba was the face of their latest series Kasak. The rest of the cast either employs freshers or moderately popular TV actors.
Director of Gandii Baat, Sachin Mohite, feels that people have a bias against smaller erotica productions. “People lauded Lust Stories but no one told Karan Johar he made erotica,” explains Mohite.
Vibhu Agarwal, the founder, and CEO of Ullu adds, “Be it Mirzapur or Sacred Games, it was the heady mix of sex and crime that made them a success. The makers can deny it but that is how Indians in smaller towns remember these shows.”
In India, we have a situation where people publicly shame each other for discussing sexual acts but choose to view them privately.
A researcher on B and C-grade Hindi Cinema from the 1980s and 90s, Aseem Chandaver says, “Erotica relies on the propagation of certain notions that small-town India has about urban India. For instance, the idea that city girls are sexual at work or open to cheating on partners. The homegrown erotica thrives on pushing these stereotypes. And then there are ideas like homophobia and forced sex in shows like Kavita Bhabhi.”
What separates erotic web series from soft pornography?
Some people may assume that erotica is just another way of promoting softcore pornography to audiences. However, is there more to homegrown erotica than just the steamy scenes?
It's no doubt that the erotica genre has flourished in India, producer-director Pritesh Kumar strongly believes so especially after observing the popularity of the 50 shades of Grey series. He says in an interview with Vice India that there is a reason why homegrown erotica is so successful and why it's different from low-production soft pornography.
“Homegrown soft porn content is available on YouTube but OTT platforms are able to string it together in a story and package it as premium products,” he explains.
He presents the example of OTT Ullu’s Charmsukh, a series of short episodes about unsatisfied partners. He says, “If a wife in a long-distance relationship is exploring phone sex then the erotic content is woven in with the story. What happens next is what keeps the viewer from skipping from one erotic scene to the next.”
Homegrown erotica employs hints of crime and comedy to increase its appeal
Also, homegrown erotica shows usually add elements of other genres such as crime and comedy to add depth to the show. Some examples of this are Ishq Kills and #MeToo: Wolf of Bollywood on Ullu, Compromise on Kooku, and Pimp on Prime Flix.
Writers of Gandii Baat, Rajesh, and Chital Tripathi say that crime helps in engaging the viewer and maintaining thrill in the stories. But they avoid going overboard with it, “Too much crime will make it look like Savdhaan India,” warns Rajesh.
Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO, ALTBalaji, and Group COO, Balaji Telefilms tells the Indian Express that his platform is focusing on is massy thrillers such as Apharan and Fixer as they resonate with male audiences. “There isn’t too much storytelling for men on television, especially for the masses and we cater to that too,” he said.
Despite coming from a different genre, Savdhaan India and Crime Patrol have probably laid the foundation of creating low-budget TV shows that hold mass appeal, something which Indian erotica is aspiring towards. To strike a balance between budget and content quality, Pritesh Srivastava says creators of non-premium episodes usually keep the length of an episode to 20 minutes.
Vibhu Agarwal, the founder, and CEO of Ullu believes that a short length not only saves on the budget but also benefits viewership.
“Most people watch OTT content on their mobile phones, which they either hold in their hand or place against a pillow," he says. "According to studies, we tend to change our position every 20 minutes. We try to fit each episode within that span.”
Not everyone agrees with this logic, the director of Gandii Baat, Chital Tripathi is of the view that the duration isn't enough to narrate a meaningful story.
She says, “We get calls from producers who want us to write 15-minute episodes with sex scenes worth seven minutes. Such demands are a cue for us to turn them down.” It seems their main focus still lies in the plot rather than the titillating aspects of the show.
Will homegrown erotica remain free of censorship?
Our current homegrown erotica is free from the shackles of censorship at the moment, however, an adjudicatory body, Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC), was set up by the government in February this year. In March, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry gave the booming industry the chance to set up a self-governing code-of-content. The platforms haven't released any updates yet.
Albeit free from censorship, it isn't immune to controversies and viewer complaints. The head of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Prasoon Joshi had tweeted about his disapproval for the offensive content in Swara Bhasker's Rasbhari; this triggered a discussion on the lewdness of emerging original shows on streaming platforms.
ALTBalaji's XXX Season 2 had even faced legal repercussions when an FIR was filed against the creators for "insulting the Indian army". The complaint was based on an episode that depicted a lonely wife of an army personnel cheating on her husband while he was away. Eventually, the streaming platform decided to delete the contentious scene from the episode.
Apart from small hiccups, one can say homegrown erotica has strategically created its niche in streaming platforms and is here to stay. It may seem like erotic content creators are taking a risk by creating sexually explicit content but they're only fulfilling the latent desires of Indian viewers. While creators have gladly accepted this reality, viewers from small towns and cities are still tight-lipped about their affinity towards homegrown erotica.