Inside India's softcore porn industry

Bollywood reflects on what these racy and ubiquitous films from the pre-Internet era say about the nation's culture

Published September 7, 2011 6:01PM (EDT)

NEW DELHI, India -- On a hand-painted poster for a 1990s' grade-B Indian film "Qatil Jawani" ("Murderous Nymphette"), a plump and naked actress sits astride a shirtless man, her head thrown back in apparent ecstasy as the man's hands paw at her chest.

Once ubiquitous in so-called "morning shows" at theaters across the country, softcore films like "Biwi Anadi Sali Khiladi" ("Innocent Wife, Cheating Sister-in-Law") and "Kaam Tantra" ("Principles of Sex") have slowly disappeared from the big screen in India with the increasing availability of hardcore pornography on the internet.

But now, as mainstream cinema sheds its former reticence about sex and female sexuality, Indians are beginning to take a second look at softcore porn, this time for what it says about Indian culture.

This December, television soap magnate Ekta Kapoor will release "The Dirty Picture," a mainstream Bollywood biopic about Silk Smitha -- a skin-show specialist from the '80s who crossed over to perform sensuous so-called "cabaret" numbers in mainstream films.

More subtly, in this year's "Tees Maar Khan," a Hindi action comedy film, imported British-Indian bombshell Katrina Kaif made waves with the song, "Sheila Ki Jawani," or "Young Sheila." The song was an homage to the Hindi title of one of Silk Smitha's softcore flicks, "Reshma Ki Jawani," or "Nubile Reshma."

And in New Delhi this week, Wieden+ Kennedy (W+K) ad agency is presenting an exhibition of softcore porn posters as, well, art.

"School kids, college students and even grown up men used to go to these movie halls just to see a glimpse of a woman bathing or a random love-making scene," said W+K executive creative director V. Sunil, whose personal poster collection is on display in the exhibition called "Morning Show."

Before the globalization of sexuality that came with the internet, India's porn stars were big -- literally.

Silk Smitha herself was no waif. Looking especially buxom packed into skimpy clothes, she knocked down evil thugs like bowling pins – highlighting a peculiar facet of India's softcore porn.

The Indian films that were once labeled pornography were less about nudity and graphic sex than they were about female sexuality, according to Meena T. Pillai, a cultural critic at the University of Kerala -- the state where the softcore porn industry was centered, due to its relatively liberal censor.

Apart from voluptuous stars and voluminous cleavage shots, the only real distinguishing factor of pornographic films was that they centered on a sexually aggressive woman, in contrast to the demure domestic ideal.

"You'd be shocked if you actually saw a Malayalam [language] softcore porn movie. [The camera] basically stops at the thigh. It doesn't ride further up than that," said Pillai. "But the moment you show women's desire, that movie would automatically be labeled porn."

I.V. Sasi's 1978 "Avalude Ravukal" ("Her Nights"), for example, was labeled softcore porn simply because it dramatized the story of a prostitute and depicted the heroine -- played by Sasi's wife, Seema -- exercising her power over men by offering and denying them sexual favors.

Similarly, the titillating 1989 film "Layanam" -- starring Silk Smitha -- depicted three adult women seducing a young man.

Other softcore hits, like "Air Hostess Girls," apparently stuck to more tried-and-true scenarios.

To make up for any lack of skin, theater owners and distributors illegally spliced in random sequences from foreign films -- splashes of nudity or even hardcore porn.

The practice was so common that in Kerala it earned its own classification as "bit cinema," and occasionally found its way onto theater promos like the one for a film called "Honey, I Love You," where a white woman in a bikini is embossed with the tag line: "THE GOOD PARTS. THE SEXY PARTS. THE BODY PARTS."

Following Silk Smitha, the hottest heroine in the Malayalam porn business was a buxom young actress named Shakeela who just kept getting bigger as she got bigger -- appearing in more than 50 movies.

"In Kerala, in the south, we like slightly bulky women," explains Sunil. "Anyone with big boobs is a big thing."


By Jason Overdorf

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