Relatable language, believable bodies: What underpins the popularity of adult content on Indian OTT platforms
Beginning with ALTBalaji’s Gandii Baat (2018) to Kavita Bhabhi (2020) on Ullu, erotic content on homegrown OTT platform deserves attention for its sensibilities.
Last July, a report indicated that streaming services in India had seen a significant surge in viewership, mainly through consumption of adult/explicit content, amid the coronavirus crisis and nationwide lockdown. A subsequent Inc42 survey that looked at the performance of Indian OTT platforms offering erotic content — The Cinema Dosti, Feneo Movies, Fliz Movies, GupChup, PrimeFlix, Hotshots and KooKu, among others — found these websites witnessed increased traffic from March 2020 onwards, in some cases by as much as 80 percent. App downloads for these platforms numbered between 100,000 and 1 million on Google Play Store. These reports were a succinct addendum to a VICE India story that predated them by some days, whose headline asked: “Why Are Local Indian Streaming Platforms So Full of Erotic Content?”
The story, however, is one that goes beyond numbers and lockdown-induced lust. Beginning with ALTBalaji’s Gandii Baat (2018) to Kavita Bhabhi (2020) on Ullu, erotic content on homegrown OTT platform deserves attention for its sensibilities too.
Ullu’s Kavita Bhabhi — portraying the life of a call-girl — brings to mind the similarly named 2008 pornographic web comic Savita Bhabhi. Savita Bhabhi was a trendsetter, for its protagonist (a married Indian woman unapologetic about indulging her sexual desires) and its aesthetic, but Kavita Bhabhi goes a critical step further: its language is Hindi, unlike the English of its predecessor. Kavita Bhabhi has, according to Ullu’s CEO Vibhu Agarwal, registered 600 million downloads globally since its release last January. “We started out by targeting tier-3 and tier-4 cities. It is where the majority of our viewers come from. But slowly, we have started to attract audience from metros as well,” Agarwal says.
The content that has led to Ullu’s popularity is intriguing on several levels. While it follows the common tropes of ‘imported’ porn, it does a few things that are fairly unique to the Indian milieu: It has believable bodies, for one, and language that is relatable to a demographic that most urban-focused streaming platforms would consider irrelevant. On Ullu’s shows, people use the vernacular they ordinarily would. Kavita Bhabhi, for instance, regularly uses words like ‘kholna’, ‘dalna’ etc. Its other shows like Charmsukh, Le De Ke Bol and Wanna Have a Good Time also merge hyperlocal sensibilities and language. Apart from the suggestive nudity, it is perhaps this vocabulary that underpins the app’s popularity in small-town India — as well as that of the other players in the sector.
In a PrimeFlix show, a woman employed as a domestic worker has a promiscuous and fulfilling sex life. In KooKu’s The Story of My Wife, a woman with a cheating husband revitalises her own unacknowledged desires, albeit not necessarily through conventional means. Another KooKu show, Saheli, casually touches on homosexuality, perhaps normalising it for the audience. In Dosti’s Hai Daiya, a bride openly discusses her sex life with her mother.
It goes without saying that not all this content passes the outrage check; it is still stemming from the male gaze, although it is — for a change — also giving women across ages, body types and backgrounds sexual agency. And affordability is a major factor in accounting for these platforms’ popularity; there are a range of viewership packages (based on number of videos downloaded or monthly or annual subscriptions) available, beginning as low as Rs 36 and going up to Rs 399.
Ullu and the other platforms in this segment offer content across regional languages, including in Bhojpuri, Marathi, Tamil etc. For instance, The Cinema Dosti is expanding its roster on the back of its success during the lockdown months. Ayushraj Pandey, the managing director of Cine Prime World, the company that owns The Cinema Dosti, told Inc42, “We have a lot of content in Bhojpuri which sells well in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But we are also planning to create Bengali content, as there is a huge market for the ‘erotic’ genre in Kolkata, where a lot of these production houses are also based.”
The Indian soft porn industry faces some unique challenges: It evidently has a viewership, and in normalising sexual liberation, a progressive outlook for a section of the audience whose needs may not have been addressed quite so directly. But it doesn’t have quite as many vocal supporters. In a recent report for Moneycontrol that investigates how Meerut has become the hub for shooting much of the erotic content that populates these homegrown apps, the writer Shantanu Guha Ray observes: “What is interesting is that many film critics write about high-class Indian content on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+Hotstar, but there is … silence about the growing popularity and consumption of Indian homegrown erotica and apps dedicated to the genre.” In November, the Cyber Cell of the Maharashtra Police booked seven OTT platforms for allegedly “transmitting sexually explicit and obscene content online”.
“I find it strange that a country obsessed with sex is so hypocritical about viewing such content. They watch it, but won’t publicly admit that they are watching it,” Ullu’s Vibhu Agarwal notes. It might be illuminating to see how we perceive a Hugh Hefner vis-à-vis an Agarwal; it’s a comparison that might also underscore how sex is viewed through the prism of race and privilege. “There was a time when, at gatherings, people around me tried to avoid talking about my work,” Agarwal says. “I knew they were watching [it], because even to treat me with some contempt, they had to have. The situation has improved to an extent, but I still have some critique coming my way.”
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