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The rise of porn in India

Beginning to hit the mainstream.

A typical Bollywood sex scene. Photograph, Getty Images.
A typical Bollywood sex scene. Photograph, Getty Images.

Bollywood films are hardly known for their explicit sex scenes. Although modern films are getting more suggestive, the classic trope is a couple about to kiss, before the camera cuts away to show a lotus flowering or a full moon.

This coyness is in keeping with India’s censorious attitude to sexuality. It is a conservative society where, in general, both men and women must wear modest clothing, and sex or relationships before marriage are prohibited. Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda described it as a “sexually repressed society” after the reaction to sex scenes in one of his films.

While images depicting sexual intercourse may be as old as civilisation (think cave paintings and the Kama Sutra), the modern porn industry with its financial interests, flashy stars, and increasingly extreme scenes, is certainly not something you would associate with India. But the country does have a long history of home grown porn, and thanks to the internet, it is beginning to hit the mainstream.

In February, three ministers in the state of Karnataka were forced to resign after they were caught watching porn on a mobile phone in the precincts of the Legislative Assembly. Although they denied it, with one claiming they were watching the rape of a girl at a “rave party” to prepare for an assembly discussion about the dangers of such parties, the incident caused widespread outrage. It also prompted a mainstream discussion of pornography, which despite its popular appeal, is frequently swept under the carpet.

In India, it is legal to access pornographic material privately, but illegal to distribute or produce it. Because of this, the production of so-called “blue films” – generally softcore – is not openly discussed. That has not stopped the industry, traditionally based in southern states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala where censorship is more relaxed, from being worth an estimated one billion dollars. It is thought that the slang “blue film” originates from the use of blue sets and lighting to conceal the identities of the actors and ensure that they are safeguarded from social stigma. Indeed, public opinion about porn stars is very negative: they tend to be viewed as sex workers rather than actors, a serious slur in a culture which attaches such shame to sexuality.

However, there are signs that these attitudes may be changing. In 2011, Canadian-born Indian porn star Sunny Leone appeared on Bigg Boss, the equivalent to Big Brother. At that point, she’d been involved in the adult industry – including hardcore porn – for ten years. She initially refused to divulge her past, telling a housemate that she was a model and TV star in America. But outside, it was common knowledge. She gained 8,000 new followers on Twitter in two days, and complaints were lodged that the channel was promoting pornography by allowing her to appear. Leone has certainly benefitted financially: she says 80 per cent of her web traffic and 60 per cent of her "high six figures" revenue now comes from India. She has also defied expectations by making the transition to mainstream stardom. She has already appeared (with her clothes on) in a Bollywood film, with more in the pipeline.

While there are signs that women in the adult industry are increasingly willing to talk about what they do, there is, for the most part, a big stigma attached. Polite society in the west may frown on the adult industry but it is nothing on the total social exclusion and inability to live life that goes with dishonour or immorality in India. Leone did not grow up in India, instead arriving from America, already a big star. However, some truly home grown porn stars are emerging. Delhi-born Anjali Kara is a hardcore porn actress, now primarily based in Bangkok, who has spoken openly about her profession. In an interview, she said she will not return to India permanently: “Indians do not and will never understand what I am doing. In their eyes I am a prostitute and I should be ashamed of myself”. Although she said she is proud of what she does, she stressed that it is just acting: “I don’t drink, nor smoke and do not sleep around in my personal life. For me, sex is acting.” She added that “no Indian man will be able to accept me”. Finding a husband is of paramount importance in this society; it is notable that Kara has essentially chosen to exile herself from the country of her birth. She insists that she is happy with her choice, but it is not a choice that is compatible with living a happy life in India.

The illegality of making porn means that it is necessarily shrouded in secrecy. As with other hidden industries, it is sometimes funded by “black money” (like Bollywood before it) and tax evasion is rife. In certain areas, there are indeed close ties to prostitution. But the internet is changing the way that porn is consumed in India, bringing it to a mass market and making it more affordable and acceptable. Although internet searches are required by government to censor pornographic results, these blocks are easily circumvented by a tech-savvy populace.

According to India Today, Google Trends shows that searches for the word “porn” doubled between 2010 and 2012. And there is other evidence of its growing appeal too:

One out of five mobile users in India wants adult content on his 3G-enabled phone, according to an 2011 IMRB Survey. Over 47 per cent students discuss porn every day, says a public school survey by Max Hospital in Delhi. Porn tops the list of cyber crimes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

Increased web connectivity has had the same impact on porn as it has in the west – a proliferation of amateur videos. While this is still a relatively new phenomenon in India, it is inevitably hitting profits in the blue film industry. Yet the potential for profit amongst such a huge population is huge - as some American porn companies recognised, when they urged the Indian government to change the law to allow them to open up offices there. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been no response.

After the three Karnataka ministers resigned, there was much hand-wringing about the negative impact of internet porn on society, but also some accusations that those willing to consume porn themselves but condemn it in other people were hypocritical. That conflicted attitude is evident in the words of Kara: she says she loves what she does but equally, cannot settle in the country where she is famous and has been disowned by her family.

Leone takes credit for the mainstreamising of porn, saying: "My presence on Bigg Boss has empowered a lot of people to be open about their sexuality.” She may have jumped the gun: this is clearly still a process in motion, and there is a debate to be had about whether porn is the best model for sexual liberation at all. Regardless of your views on that, it is clear that the Indian porn industry is resilient, spreading, and will not be stamped out by the censorship laws it is well used to resisting.