When Palak Singh, the actor who shot to fame with Alt Balaji’s erotic show Gandii Baat, got an offer to star in season 2 of that franchise, she turned it down. The thought of performing sexually explicit scenes on screen made her squirm. The show, which is credited with popularising erotica on Indian OTT platforms, went on to be wildly successful, and Palak changed her mind.
“I am an outsider and a woman with no background in acting or theatre. It’s only through these shows that I can build my contacts in the (film) industry. I wear out my slippers trying to get a good film; why should I say no to a show because it has kissing or undressing or humping (scenes)?” Palak reasons.
She took on a short cameo role in Fuh Se Fantasy, a show for the over-the-top (OTT) platform Voot, to test the waters. It took her four hours, three takes, and multiple moans to wrap the filming of one sex scene. “There’s so much technicality and choreography involved in such intimate scenes,” she says.
When the offer to play the character Laxmi in season 3 of Gandii Baat came along, Palak agreed, and there’s been no looking back for her since.
Public opinion considers erotic shows exploitative, particularly of the female actors, but Palak and several of her peers actually feel empowered. With substantial pay and a plethora of roles to choose from, these actors feel this space is more accepting of them than mainstream cinema.
‘Yes, I feel empowered’
Palak Singh first arrived in Mumbai in 2013 in the hopes of becoming an actor. She participated in the dance reality show, Dance India Dance, but had to return to her home state of Gujarat soon after to pursue her degree. It was only her second visit to Mumbai in 2016 that kick-started her acting career, with opportunities to play small roles in television shows.
However, Palak realised early on that television serials were not where her interest lay. “I didn’t want to stick to a single type of character. I wanted variety in the roles that I played. I felt the emergence of web series and OTT would give me that,” she says.
She slowly started to work in shows by OTT giants like Hotstar, Zee5, and AltBalaji, establishing a solid portfolio of work before Gandii Baat catapulted her to fame. She has since gone on to star in a variety of web series, like Taxi and Mastram 2.
The number of OTT platforms has increased exponentially in the last two years; a market trend that Palak was expecting. This has meant more shows and more opportunities for her.
Palak points out that there is a difference in pay between doing a mainstream show and one with erotic scenes. She charges around ₹15,000 per day for a regular show and around ₹25,000 to ₹30,000 for acting in erotica. It also depends on each actor’s experience, she says. “The rate is not universal. Suppose there’s a fresher and it’s not a big-budget project, then the production might give only ₹10,000 for the same kind of scene. I’m not a fresher, so I quote ₹50,000.”
This growth has not just been witnessed by Palak, but also by a number of other female actors who were previously struggling to establish themselves in the Hindi entertainment industry.
Twinkle Tshering, an actor from Himachal Pradesh, has been a part of popular shows like Ragini MMS, where she played a “bold” lesbian character, and XXX: Uncensored. “People used to tell me that I am a ‘ch*nky’ looking girl; that my face is not fit for serials and I should just try modelling for advertisements,” she says. Being part of these erotic shows has given Twinkle confidence as an actor.
“What’s wrong in performing a sexual scene for a show? If I feel comfortable and the story demands such a scene, I am okay with it,” Twinkle says. “These are just the steps that I am climbing in order to get a feature film role. As an actor, you need to keep on polishing your acting skills and also establish yourself. An outsider like me can’t just come to Mumbai, give a few auditions, and land roles in major shows and films. No Karan Johar would take me,” she adds, referring to the popular Hindi filmmaker who has come under fire for not casting outsiders.
Many OTT stars struggle initially. Nehal Vadoliya, another Gandii Baat star, started working as an actor in 2015. Before that, she was a ground staff member for Qatar Airways in Ahmedabad. “My family’s economic background is not great. So, to sustain myself, I have to earn by doing any job I get. I am the eldest of two siblings and my family is very supportive of my work,” she says. It costs her at least ₹30,000 a month to live in Mumbai and initially, she had to join a paid group that charged around ₹200 for leads to auditions.
Nehal started her career by playing small roles in television shows like Vighnaharta Shree Ganesha (Sony) and Tarak Mehta Ka Oolta Chasma, and a few Gujarati films. “Until Gandii Baat season 3, I only got daily soap auditions, so I had to do that. Then, web series gained popularity and I started doing them instead,” she says.
In Gandii Baat, Nehal played the role of a housewife, Vimla, and the explicit scenes earned her popularity and more work. Nehal has also worked with other OTT platforms like Ullu, Hotshot, Neoflix and MX Player. When speaking of her roles in erotic shows, she remembers the lessons that she learnt from a theatre workshop in Ahmedabad. “We are artists and for us, the story and the character are important. So, there is no difference between performing a bold scene and a non-bold scene.”
Another actor who has embraced the concept of erotica is Kavita Radheshyam, who created and produced a show called Kavita Bhabhi on the OTT platform Ullu. “I am extremely proud of the work I have done so far. Kavita Bhabhi is my baby,” she says. The series, she explains, is based on a true story about a phone sex worker who was arrested in 2009.
Kavita feels OTT platforms are churning out some great shows lately, like Four More Shots, Lust Stories, Mastramn and Gandii Baat, which show contemporary women taking charge of their sex lives. These shows, according to her, do not demean or degrade female sexuality but rather normalise it.
Kavita started her career in 2012 with Vikram Bhatt’s TV series, Uljhan. In 2019, she was seen in the Kannada film Ragini IPS as Savithri (“a desperate housewife”) and then in the Tamil film Comali. She believes it was South Indian cinema that gave her the ‘bold’ image.
The actors use the word ‘bold’ to talk about comfort with exposing skin in front of the camera. Palak defines a sliding scale of boldness. “For some, showing cleavage is bold, for others, showing everything else except nipple is (bold),” she says.
Kavita believes women actors get to play two types of roles in general. “Either you are a girl-next-door with beauty or you play the woman who possesses all the powers, which includes boldness and beauty. I chose the second option,” she says.
In Front of the Lens
Shooting sexual and intimate scenes can be quite challenging. Most actors believe that the way these sexually explicit scenes turn out on screen depends on the rapport that they share with their co-stars and the atmosphere on the sets.
Twinkle Tshering recounts her experience while shooting for season 2 of XXX with co-star Ishan Dhawan, who was uncomfortable doing intimate scenes.
“The director kept saying that there was no spark. Dhawan was trying, but the scene was not coming through,” she says. To help ease the discomfort, the director suggested that the two actors spend time and get to know each other. “It took us three hours to complete that scene. Normally, if both the actors are comfortable, it only takes 30 to 45 minutes.”
Mohit Duseja, who played one of the leads in Ragini MMS 2, adds that shooting sexual scenes can be very difficult for men. With male actors being required to take charge and lead the scene, he says, “I don’t want something to go wrong and make my co-actor feel uncomfortable.”
With the director and crew briefing them beforehand, actors are generally mentally prepared when they come to the sets. “I don’t think any actor should be shy in front of the camera. While going to the set, you need to prepare your mind for the scene,” Twinkle says.
Big-budget shows like MX Player’s Mastram hire intimacy coordinators to help ease the discomfort. Similarly, during the shooting of Alt Balaji’s Ragini MMS 2, workshops were conducted to guide the actors and discuss the technicality of shooting the show’s intimate scenes. Comparing the shooting of an erotic scene to choreography, Palak Singh says, “The directors tell you the scene and the movement- ‘you will go up and down, do three or four humps’… We are very technical in our approach.”
Shows also use props and clothing – stick-on bra pads, skinny thongs, and caps (for men) – to help create the illusion of characters being naked.
Beyond the measures that OTT platforms take while shooting these portions, the actors set boundaries for themselves too. For instance, Palak makes sure that her stylist understands that she needs silicon, cover-ups, and bathrobes. She also prefers it if another woman is there during the shoot.
For Kavita Radheshyam, her role as Kavita Bhabhi’s producer and creator comes in handy. “I am the creator and producer for all my shows, and I very well know how to call the shots,” she says.
The actors all agree that they choose platforms they personally feel comfortable with. “If you see the exploration of sexuality, many platforms use it really well within the context of storytelling, while some others have sex scenes for 20 minutes straight with no story to tell,” says Palak Singh.
Tara Alisha Berry, one of the lead actors in Mastram, says, “In the erotic genre, there is an expectation from the audience for intimate scenes and some level of nudity and sexuality. How this is done depends on whether the director and scriptwriter want to add them purely to titillate or because the story requires it.”
Rishika Nag, who played Aaradhana in Ragini MMS 2, concurs and adds that even though the storyline does not demand it, erotic scenes are often added just to grab eyeballs. “To be honest, there are times when you do feel that maybe this intimate scene was not required… but when we look at it from the audience’s point of view, I guess it’s what they are looking for.” Rishika also feels that having women creators does not make much of a difference in this regard.
However, Kavita, who earlier came under the scanner for her anti-LGBTQIA+ remarks on social media in the wake of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, believes that having women directors and writers is actually counterproductive for erotica.
“The difference is that a woman, while writing, will look for ways to make the character more humane. If a character is a nymphomaniac, it has to be that. A woman writer may go overboard while justifying the character by giving them a backstory,” she says.
Every OTT platform’s idea of erotic content differs. Platforms like Alt Balaji, Ullu, and CinemaDosti Gold have come up with women-centric shows that focus on women’s sexuality and sexual needs. But how well they handle such content remains the question.
For instance, Alt Balaji’s period drama Paurashpur follows the story of women rising up and getting their rights in a patriarchal kingdom ruled by an evil king. The show’s stated intention is to depict female empowerment but its content is nothing more than soft porn.
Alisha (name changed), a journalist who used to watch Alt Balaji shows regularly, says, “I stopped watching when it started getting overly sexualized. Women in their shows are just objects of sex and have no other purpose in life. There is no storyline.”
Similarly, the trailer of Ullu’s new show Aate Ki Chakki shows a newly married woman using a flour machine’s vibrations to satisfy herself. Before long, other members of her family discover her secret. Though it starts by showing a woman unapologetically embracing her sexuality (albeit in a bizarre way), it quickly follows the classic pornographic trope of women getting caught and engaging in incestuous relationships.
“I don’t find anything wrong with the fact that erotic shows exist. It’s just that the content is more framed for the viewing pleasure of men, which then contributes to the patriarchy in our country. You already have a culture that reduces women to objects and it’s just doubling down on the same thing,” says Tarana Reddy, a writer and producer with Stray Factory Productions and a narrative designer for Games24x7. She recently co-produced the independent Tamil short film B. Selvi & Daughters, which was shot with a crew that was 90% women.
Tarana feels that if the majority of content is made by male filmmakers, then simple concepts like a woman pleasuring herself also become part of the male gaze.
“Just having a female director might not help eliminate the male gaze from the story,” says Jyoti Nisha, assistant director of Geeli Puchi, which is part of the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans. “Women often look at themselves through the eyes of a man; that is also male gaze,” she adds.
“It will definitely make a difference if a woman tells a woman’s story. Whether it is sexuality or gender, it depends on their understanding of the issue that they are dealing with. These spaces are personal but also very political. The creator needs to consciously avoid confining the content to male gaze,” she notes.
Director Malini Jeevarathnam, who is known for her documentary Ladies and Gentlewomen, disagrees with the argument that women write erotica poorly. She believes this is a stereotypical notion and adds that hiring more women writers will give stories a better chance of being more authentic and less cliché. She asserts that people across the gender spectrum should be allowed to tell their stories authentically. “It is only ethical since it is their story to tell,” she says.
Checking the credentials of the director or creator of the show is something actors across the board do when choosing a script. It becomes especially important when it comes to erotic shows as one needs to be careful about which platform is going to release the show.
As empowered as Palak, Twinkle, Nehal, and Kavita feel being part of erotic content, sources say things are not hunky-dory when it comes to selecting which shows, or OTT platforms, they want to be a part of.
Several of the actors we spoke to mention trying to actively avoid platforms that host primarily pornographic content. The language in which a casting call is written is equally important, they say, to judge whether it is a fake audition or not.
That’s why Twinkle makes sure to double-check the information with the organisation mentioned in the casting call.
The actors also recommend asking questions of the creative or casting director in-charge. “Don’t get too excited when you land a show. Ask the person-in-charge all your doubts about the intimate scenes, details about costumes, and check the legal papers before signing,” cautions Mohit.
A step further
For many actors, new contracts have come to a complete standstill due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With most aiming to venture into mainstream cinema after gaining recognition on OTT platforms, this period has been especially difficult.
“Ragini MMS ended in January 2020. After that, I haven’t got many job opportunities due to the lockdown,” says Rishika.
Some others, like Twinkle, have been fortunate to find work during these times. She has bagged her dream role of an assassin in the upcoming Applause Entertainment web series, Virker vs The Anti-Social Network.
Most actors want to stick with working on OTT platforms until the entertainment market changes or another medium’s popularity increases. Actors like Kavita are happy to remain a part of these erotic shows, while some, like Nehal, are exploring other genres.
Since they are established names now, it is easier to find work and a steady income, they all acknowledge.
Palak is clear that her ultimate aim is to be in the world of cinema. The presence of erotica is just a consequence of her choice of projects, she says.
“Even if an erotic scene consumes between three to five minutes of screen time, I have the other 25 minutes to act and showcase my skills. For me, this is important,” she says.
It has been five years since Palak entered the industry without any contacts. Today, she has a thriving social media following.
She does paid promotions through her Instagram account, which has more than 79,000 followers, and is eventually looking to start a website. She has worked for major OTT platforms and is also hoping to get an opportunity to work with media giant Netflix.