The director and producer of ALT Balaji's Gandii Baat: Urban Stories from Rural India, Sachin Mohite, once received an e-mail from a married couple, "They wrote telling me watching the show revived their sex life." I wondered who this couple was – which city or which village, which income bracket, white collar or blue collar? Who is the audience of this show?
Turns out, it might be everyone.
Senior level managers at prestigious MNCs have also messaged Mohite about how they leave work at 4 PM to go watch the show at home. Everybody is his audience, he tells me – the autowallah to the South Bombay snob. It is just that the former don't mind discussing it, and the latter shrug it into silence.
The first season of Gandii Baat premiered in May 2018. It began trending the moment it dropped. Almost a year and a half since the first season, Gandii Baat just launched their fourth season. Clearly, there is a solid demand for the show, churning out episodes wholesale, in batches.
The choreographed acrobatics of militant lips that look odd, jarring even, (teaching an entire generation of ALT Balaji subscribers how not to kiss) is often perched on a social message.
The first season has 4 episodes- all concerning sex (the 'urban story') in rural areas. Each episode tackles a new story, shot with bizarre, self-aware tackiness. Everything from an orgasm to a dialogue is amplified. But it isn't quite out of place in the immensely popular ALT Balaji universe (25+ million subscribers, the app itself has 10+ million downloads), where almost everything goes. You can have an episode about the cult of a snake god ('rural'), and sex ('urban') being made and viewed across the income and geographic spectrum.
Ekta Kapoor, who helms the platform, her empire of shameless, irreverent sexuality, and hardcore escapsism, has often, and admirably so, spoken about how she wants to encourage sex in her streaming productions, without encouraging misogyny. She has no issue with exhibitionism, which is what Gandii Baat is a puddle of.
The very first episode of the first season is titled 'Threesome', one of the most common sexual fantasies according to a variety of surveys. A husband unable to pleasure his wife (he's gay) recruits his neigbour to have sex with her while he jumps in mid-way to pleasure himself. This threesome idea is revisited in an episode in the fourth season titled 'Betaab Dil Ki Tamanna', about how a husband wears a mask of his wife's lover to make love to her. In the end, the two men, the woman's lover and the woman's husband both get married to her. These stories unfold around the frequent and questionable sex scenes. (These stories are based on rumours heard, and mythologies traveled)
As a nation, and perhaps as a civilization, we have this uneasy relationship with sex; something we dismiss as easily as we crave, indulge in, and fantasize about. Increasingly graphic cinema, web shows, and porn galleries are part of this uneasy relationship. But increased and democratised access to porn makes me wonder: why is soft-porn still popular?
At the India Film Project last year, Mohite was at a panel discussion called, 'Pushing the Boundary: How much sex is too much sex?'. Here he explained how he shoots a sex scene. He said he is extremely clear on how he wants the scene to look, the lighting and the movement, so much so that he never lets the actors see what is being shot, and neither does he give free reign to them while acting out such scenes.
When the scene rolls, he gives a running commentary from behind the camera, telling them exactly what to do. "Abhi thoda neeche, upper lip pe jaao, kiss, keep kissing," he said.
"Titillating gives more satisfaction than going all-out," Mohite explains.
Every sex scene is lit and shot differently. There is a focus on the face because Mohite believes that sex is all in the expressions; the body parts come later. (Though of course, in all the scenes, there is a very zoomed gaze onto the flesh)
"If there is no expression on the face, what will the body part do? So the face needs to be lit up well."
However raunchy the scenes might be, there is no nudity. (Though Garima Jain, a cast member in Season 4 did mention in an interview that she rejected frontal and side nudity when asked to perform.) Mohite is clear that he will never go beyond the soft porn genre. "Titillating gives more satisfaction than going all-out," he explains. But comments on the show's YouTube trailer have fans asking for nudity and more graphic sex scenes.
Each season of Gandii Baat has about 4-5 episodes, with an average duration of about 40 minutes. The choreographed acrobatics of militant lips that look odd, jarring even, (teaching an entire generation of ALT Balaji subscribers how not to kiss) is often perched on a social message.
There is an episode where the lack of sex education makes a woman who is about to marry anxious about having sex for the first time, almost a phobia. (The penis is called "chetak", the pain felt is described as "meetha meetha pyaara pyaara", and at one point the narrator moans "Uski jawani uski dhoti se jhalak rahi thi") The episode ends with her taking a class on condom usage.
But sometimes it is hard to find that message; you have to look for it. Take for example an episode in the first season, 'Vasu Nag', where women in a village allege that they are being sexually-violated by a snake whom they go on to worship as lovers, rejecting their husbands. In the end we find out it is a ruse for them to be able to live together with their lovers without inviting the scorn of a woman who pursues an extra-marital affair. I am sure you can find some feminist messaging in here, but it is obvious that the message is built around the sex scenes as opposed to the sex being built around the message; not that any of this matters.
The only data-point we have on Gandii Baat is the trending of the show on IMDb, for two straight years. It's always on the charts, and when a trailer or poster is dropped, goes back to its number 1 slot. (This is solely based on how many people clicked the Gandii Baat IMDb page, not an indication of how many people actually watched it) Perhaps, the fact that ALT Balaji is willing to put money into more seasons is indicative of its success.
The top comment on YouTube for the season 4 trailer was "Socha tha 2020 me kuch ganda nahi dekhunga."
But then, I come back to the question I started with. In an age of omnipresent data (except when the government takes it away, wholesale from cities) porn is widely accessible. What then is the allure of Gandii Baat?
My hypothesis is the following: People consume the show because they get to watch almost-porn without the guilt of having watched porn; the sense of typing into the address bar, urls to shady websites, searching for odd images on google. This guilt is part of our legacy of sex-shaming, that we may have internalized. (The top comment on YouTube for the season 4 trailer was "Socha tha 2020 me kuch ganda nahi dekhunga.")
Perhaps having it packaged as a web-show gives it social sanction. Either ways, it is testament to the universal postulate: sex sells, even the bad kinds.