Creator, Producer: Almighty Motion Pictures
Writer: Aryan Sunil
Cast: Anshuman Jha, Jagat Singh Rawat, Tara Alisha Berry
Streaming Platform: Mx Player
In Mastram lingo, this is a story of Shakespeare who ends up becoming Sexspeare. To be betrothed to Madhu (Tara Alisha Berry), a prude, Mastram (the pen name Rajaram uses, played by Anshuman Jha) now wonders what will happen to his secret life as an erotic writer, one who is being widely read by the who’s who of society from politicians, and barbers, to actresses, and watchmen.
Here’s the thing. Mastram actually exists/existed. No one knows who she or he really is. Initially known for the poetic nature of the book’s erotic content, over time, many other writers wrote under the same pen-name, blurring if not completely destroying the line between erotica and pornography. (Akhilesh Jaiswal, dialogue writer of Gangs Of Wasseypur had made a film about this mythical man similarly titled Mastram, in 2013) The Mastram brand was vexed by an identity crisis.
This crisis seems to have leaked into this insufferably boring web-series. It strives to be an exciting pornographic tale but ends up as this middling erotica barely propped on a limp love story. Every thirty minute episode has about two ten-minute sex-scenes, choregraphed with a vigour that is the sorry love-child of Gandii Baat and an 80s love-song, like chaste boredom attempting to be a naughty adolescent. It doesn’t work. (Gandii Baat did an interesting thing by making its series an anthology, with each episode disconnected from the previous one, so skipping ahead, or leaving the unexciting ones does nothing narratively speaking.)
But what’s worse is beyond the erotic scenes. Mastram is an orphan and his relationship with his desperate widower uncle, that begins with a sorry sweetness, ends up becoming irredeemable. The lusting old man is not an issue; if Badhai Ho normalized anything, it is adult lust. But here, it veers between the annoying and the criminal; his non-consensual grabbing of a woman’s breast is treated with impunity.
Even Mastram’s relationship with Madhu is cloyingly virginal. This contrasted with the untamed immediacy of the sex scenes could have made for an interesting cinematic oscillation, but the whole series plays out in slow motion uncomfortable pecks and over-zealous heaves to a voiceover brimming with metaphors comparing women to Calcutta’s succulent sweets and men to Delhi’s rock-hard lollipops. The shock-value dissipates within an episode, and the rest is just lifeless storytelling. Scenes- both kind- don’t have a build-up, or a let down. They just play out in a singular tone.
The erotic stories leak out of Mastram’s life, and the interactions he has had. Sometimes you wonder if the stories he is concocting actually happened or if they are his mere imagination, like the biology teacher who wears low cut blouses, inviting him to her house for extra classes, and seducing him into submission. It’s an interesting writing conceit where the writer and his characters begin to feel interchangeable. But this conceit is dropped mid-way, the stories becoming separate entities and his life becoming another, having nothing to do with each other. In the hands of a capable writer, this might have been engrossing, perhaps even gritty and theatrical.
At one point, an actress tells Mastram that obscenity is an art form in itself. She says this after having read Mastram’s work. That a woman too could get pleasure from this male gaze is an interesting but odd idea. Odd because this show’s audience doesn’t feel gender agnostic. The sex-scenes clearly privileged the female body over the male ones. (Gandii Baat interestingly puts both the male abs and the female gasps on an equal footing) The audience I mused was perceptibly straight-male, the raging sound design pushing the moans of the woman way louder than the muted men. Perhaps being only one half of this target audience tired me into finishing this series, exhausted but not in the way this show meant. Just exhausted that I had endured such boredom.