By Tanushree Bhasin
“This tharki season, the booster of the sexually frustrated is coming in the form of a feature film,” declares the newly released trailer of the upcoming film Mastram. Directed by Akhilesh Jaiswal, who wrote Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur, Mastram traces the life of a famous writer of erotica who wrote the pulpy paperbacks using the pseudonym 'Mastram'. For much of the '80s and '90s, Mastram's books were the only sex education most boys in North India got.
“We tried very hard to find the real Mastram or people who published his writing, but couldn’t find anything," said Jaiswal. "That’s when we decided to make a fictionalised biography of his.” Jaiswal describes his film as “the story of a budding writer, whose circumstances force him to become a writer of erotica — something he doesn’t really want to do”.
Whether Jaiswal is right about Mastram’s motivations and circumstances, we can't tell since Mastram's real identity is shrouded in mystery. But the popularity of his books and his reluctance to reveal himself inevitably led to other publishers finding their own Mastrams. “The real Mastram used to weave his sentences together beautifully," said Jaiswal. "He was an artist and a master storyteller. When these books became popular, other publishers also started publishing Mastram novels, getting other writers to write them. That’s when art was replaced by vulgar, cheap sleaze. Mastram is still available at railway stations and book markets. We picked up several copies in Delhi and even found a few in Dhanbad while shooting for Gangs of Wasseypur.”
Considering our exploding population, it doesn't take too much of an imagination to figure out that that India's got one helluva libido. However, running parallel to this sexual drive is a conservatism about sex and sexuality. These are topics that are rarely discussed, but filmmakers found ways to make their point. Look as far back as you want into Indian cinema and you'll find directors have found different ways of depicting passion and sexual chemistry on screen. Back in 1933, Devika Rani kissed her co-star and husband Himanshu Rai for a good four minutes in Karma. In the 1950s, the feisty Nadira added nuances to the roles of vamps and seductresses without ever downplaying their sexual appeal. Mumtaz redefined the sari when she turned it into a figure-hugging, navel-bearing dress that you'd expect to see on Beyoncé, rather than in Bollywood. In the 1970s, Zeenat Aman strutted her stuff in a wet sari that left nothing to the imagination.
At the same time, with each passing decade, the government-appointed censors became increasingly strict and prudish. As a result, the mouth-to-mouth kiss disappeared from Hindi cinema for decades, but filmmakers found other ways to keep popular cinema sex-plicit. By the '80s and '90s, when Mastram began writing, the erotic is omnipresent in these films, but — like our mysterious writer — it’s hidden away.
If you're looking for it, sex is everywhere in the films of those decades — in the flowers that rub against each other instead of the lead pair; in the sudden camera pans towards logs burning in the fireplace; in the shots of waterfalls accessorised with heroines wearing white saris; and in awkward hugs that give the huggers mini-orgasms. Listen to the lyrics of vintage Bollywood songs and whether poetically or crudely, the words make the romantic pair's sexual intent unmistakable, even if its camouflaged by quivering dahlias and other such tropes that secured the ‘family film’ tag. It was at this time that Mastram took upon himself the incredible responsibility of writing about sex explicitly.
Talking about sex and sexuality hasn’t served too many films well. Films such as Fire, Maya Memsaab, Utsav, and Kamasutra had to bear the brunt of conservative India's ‘hurt sentiments’ and accusations of ‘moral degradation’ were levelled against them. However, they did collectively paved the way for films such as Mastram and past releases like BA Pass and The Dirty Picture, which attack the silence and shame around sex with their provocative subjects.
Though he’s careful to point out that the film isn’t about sex and that the genre of Mastram's writing is “incidental,” Jaiswal admits that he doesn't think he could have made this film two decades ago. “New filmmakers are now being allowed to make different kinds of films and the audience too has grown up in the sense that they accept stories about sex,” he said.
Jaiswal, like many others, grew up reading Mastram and has no qualms in admitting that he’s a fan. “In those days there was no internet, or easy television access. For young boys, already curious about sex, reading Mastram’s books was the only form of entertainment available. Since then I have been fascinated by him. I would sit and wonder what his life must have been like. What must he have told his wife and children about his profession? How did he deal with being a writer of erotica?”
The trailer of Jaiswal's film tells the viewer that the film Mastram is nothing short of the secret folder, hidden away in the deepest recesses of your computer, to be viewed only in the safety of the night. Many turned up for Mastram’s screening at last year's Mumbai Film Festival, thinking it would be pornographic. No doubt some were disappointed that it wasn't, but most came out at the end of the screening pleasantly surprised. In many ways, the story of Mastram's devolution shows an intriguing likeness to Indian cinema’s ambivalent relationship with the erotic.
Mastram is omnipresent — at railway platforms, carefully hidden in secret compartments and buried under piles of clothes in cupboards — but never quite properly acknowledged, much like the erotic in our popular cinema.
Tanushree Bhasin is a Delhi based journalist with a background in film-making and history.