india erotic content on OTT mastram
A still from MX Player's Mastram
Culture

Why Are Local Indian Streaming Platforms So Full of Erotic Content? An Investigation

Indian streaming services putting out content just a step away from porn are a huge success. Yet there is an uncomfortable silence around them.
01 July 2020, 11:59am

She knew what she had signed up for. Yet, when Anveshi Jain reached the set to shoot for Gandii Baat, a web series on Ekta Kapoor’s streaming platform ALTBalaji, she broke down. Even though she was hesitant about making her screen debut in a bra for a show known for its erotic content, Jain ultimately relented. She knew it would give her the visibility she needed, even though she wasn’t the show’s lead. Titled “Bai-sexuality”, the episode opened the second season on ALTBalaji’s app in January 2019.

Jain has hardly been seen on the screen since her debut. But if her social media following is a measure to go by, she has garnered quite a fan base. The actor was among India’s most Googled people in 2019. She has 2.5 million followers on Instagram and her Facebook page has 3.2 million followers. The 28-year-old has her own paid mobile app too which, she says, has seen 2,500 more subscriptions during the lockdown alone. The actor, who admits to have since become confident in her skin, openly attributes her success to her sexuality. “I know why I have such a huge following," she tells VICE India over a phone interview. "It’s because of my physical traits, because I am heavy bosomed. It took me a long time to get used to this idea but I am not going to lie to myself anymore."

1593593269840-FotoJet-2020-07-01T141718565

Actor Anveshi Jain (right) in a still from Gandii Baat

Jain’s success has been instant, unapologetic and unchronicled, and in that, it's the perfect metaphor for the genre she was so reluctant to make a debut with. While reams have been written on how Indian original content on well-known platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar are coming of age, there is uncomfortable silence around the rising popularity and consumption of Indian homegrown erotica and apps dedicated to the genre.

Another on-demand streaming platform, Ullu, made its debut pretty around the same time as Jain. Like her, the OTT platform has achieved notable success, enough for Times Internet’s MX Player to arrive at a syndication with them to stream their originals like Panchali, Khul Ja Sim Sim, and Kavita Bhabhi. Ullu hasn’t made the numbers public but numbers on its promos on YouTube indicate an upwards of two million views per series. The popularity of this content has pushed players like Zee5 and Voot to create their own erotica “originals” and spurred the launch of several copycat apps like KooKu, PrimeFlix and Hotshots. In fact, MX recently launched its own erotica, a fictional biography of Mastram, the famous pulp fiction writer from the 1980s. Dropped on the app during the lockdown, Mastram is rumoured to have scored over 20 million views.

1593593615313-Mastram2

A still from Mastram

Pointing to the popularity of the 50 Shades of Grey series, producer-director Pritesh Kumar Srivastava says he expected the genre to flourish in India but didn’t anticipate such overwhelming success. “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. Ullu’s early production Charmsukh, episodic shorts about stories of unsatisfied partners, is an example of this. “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.”

However, it was ALTBalaji’s Gandii Baat that paved the way for this genre. Sold to the audience as “Urban Stories from Rural India”, it premiered in 2018. The packaging was unmissable—a catchy name, kitschy poster art, and a title track and voice-over in Piyush Mishra’s rustic voice. Each of the four episodes, set in several unnamed small-town India, explored carnal desire from the perspective of women. There was no nudity but enough skin show, oomph and sex to keep the viewer fantasising. The show was a winner.

gandii baat alt balaji

Director Sachin Mohite believes the series found an audience because it talks about all the things we find difficult to openly discuss. “We pass them off as ‘gandi baat’ (obscene talk),” he says. He recounts the story of a friend who was insecure of her body. “She feared her boyfriend would lose interest in sex because she was flat-chested but couldn’t discuss it with anyone.” Mohite used this as a subplot in one of the episodes of the series. “These are the kind of stories we tell without being preachy.” Since it was a bold experiment, Mohite cast his actor friends for the first season to generate trust between the cast and crew and a comfort level for the intimate scenes.

Gandii Baat’s success spawned a whole new genre across platforms, as a result of which other popular OTTs like Zee5, launched Virgin Bhasskar about a virgin porn writer, and Voot launched Fuh Se Fantasy, centred on roleplays. Ullu also features content in Bhojpuri, Marathi and other local Indian languages.

1593593782945-Virgin-Bhasskar

The genre has since acquired its own rules and formulae. The erotica content being produced is categorised into premium, mid-budget and low-budget shows. So a Gandii Baat or Mastram, with a budget of up to Rs 25 lakh ($33,000 approx) per episode, is counted as premium. These have high production standards and at least one known face in their cast. Several mainstream actors are experimenting with erotica. For example, Swara Bhasker stars in recent Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video, Anshuman Jha plays the titular character in Mastram, Anupriya Goenka was the lead actor in Ullu’s Panchali and Minissha Lamba is the face of their latest series Kasak. The rest of the cast usually comprises either new or known faces from television.

Anupriya Goenka Ullu Panchali

Anupriya Goenka in Ullu's Panchali

Srivastava says that most actors are in it for either the exposure or the 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. 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 explains.

Most of the erotic content today across apps is sold through either comedy or crime. So there is Ishq Kills and #MeToo: Wolf of Bollywood on Ullu, Compromise on Kooku, Pimp on Prime Flix, and so on. Rajesh and Chital Tripathi, the couple that has written Gandii Baat, say crime helps hook the viewer and maintain the element of thrill in the stories even though it’s important to maintain a balance. “Too much crime will make it look like Savdhaan India,” warns Rajesh. Many, in fact, say that mainstream television crime shows like Savdhaan India and Crime Patrol set the stage for homegrown erotica. The industry then learnt how to create low-budget content that holds mass appeal. Both Rajesh and Mohite were part of the Savdhaan India production team.

Srivastava, who founded the platform Rapcheek before giving it up to focus on direction, says that usually episodes in the non-premium category are kept under 20 minutes to keep the economics viable. Vibhu Agarwal, the founder and CEO of Ullu, however, says there's another reason behind the length of these episodes. “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.” But Chital feels that the duration isn’t enough to explore a story. “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.”

But despite the notable success of the content, not many are talking about it. Agarwal attributes this to the hypocrisy of the Indian audience. “People lauded Lust Stories but no one told Karan Johar he made erotica,” rues Mohite. Agarwal 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.”

It may not be fair to compare shows like Sacred Games with erotica. Independent writer Aseem Chandaver, who researches B- and C-grade Hindi cinema from the 1980s and 90s, says, “The latter relies on 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,” he argues.

In India, some of this content has thus attracted controversies and in some cases, also legal trouble. Adman, lyricist and head of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Prasoon Joshi, recently tweeted about a scene he found offensive in Swara Bhasker’s Rasbhari, triggering a controversy about the bold content on web platforms. A few weeks ago, ALTBalaji’s XXX Season 2 faced legal repercussions when an FIR was lodged against the makers for “insulting the Indian Army”. An episode had depicted a lonely wife of an army personnel cheating on her husband while he was away on deployment. While Rasbhari’s makers have defended their creation, Kapoor, who heads ALTBalaji, deleted the controversial scene from the episode.

1593594280733-Rasbhari1

Swara Bhasker stars in recent Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video

While OTTs enjoy freedom from India’s stringent censorship rules, 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 burgeoning industry an ultimatum to set up a self-governing code-of-content. However, several platforms have sought time to consider.

With these platforms releasing new content nearly once every week, erotica is emerging as a space that is offering opportunities to people on the fringes of the industry. But instances of exploitation aren’t uncommon. Actor Shantanu Monga says casting directors for erotica are rarely upfront about the nature of content. “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.” Sometimes, the casting call is specific, like this one:

“Requirement Girls
For new app
Bold
Top less look like hotshot
Baget 15k to 20k perday
20% my”

Monga says most actors don’t mind the genre if the handling is better. “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.”

Anveshi Jain, however, believes the genre is thriving on the inherent hypocrisy of Indian culture. “I was one of those who judged girls that took ‘shortcuts’. But who am I to say anything today?” she quips. She recounts her father’s traumatic experience when Gandii Baat released. “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.”

Her relationship with her parents is on a mend. She too is comfortable with her sexuality, happy and willing to make a living off it. “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.”

Follow Dipti on Twitter.