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Hot Ashiq, the stars and secrets of India’s digital soft porn industry

The sun has set on the once profitable soft porn video film industry of the web, with its ten-minute low-budget films shot in rented farmhouses and airless flats.

entertainment Updated: Jul 21, 2018 09:41 IST
Danish Raza
Danish Raza
Hindustan Times
soft core porn,entertainment,soft porn
When the digital soft porn industry was flourishing in India, Manish Agrawal was one of its most sought after actors.(Anushree Fadnavis/HT PHOTO)

Manish Agrawal shot his first soft porn film in a single take. “Mil gaya (got it),” shouted the director, after capturing 10 minutes of kissing, cuddling and panting on a Handycam in an airless room with a pungent smell and sky-blue walls.

The 10-minutes movie, titled Hot Ashiq, was meant to garner hits on YouTube --“Hot” to push the film up in Internet search; and “Ashiq” to denote a love angle.

A visibly uneasy Manish, in his body-hugging grey T-shirt and rugged jeans, looked away from the girl, and hurriedly left the room.

That day, Hot Ashiq was one of the 10 soft porn videos shot inside a farmhouse in Najafgarh, outer Delhi.

Most of the available content in this segment was created between 2008 (when YouTube launched in India) and mid-2016. After that, the platform introduced changes in its monetization policy, which directly impacted such films: they stopped being profitable and new ones stopped being made.

But back in November 2012, when Hot Ashiq was made, digital soft porn was a flourishing business. The mushrooming of smartphones, cheaper data packs, the absence of a certification body for online content, and an abundance of aspiring actors triggered a wave of digital erotic films in Hindi and other regional languages.

After signing an agreement, anyone between 18 and 40 years could act in this new genre of short films, which -- quite distinct from hardcore porn -- were called “single X” or “hot films”.

Apart from cleavage shots or “glamour” as industry wallahs describe it, these films were low budget, shot indoors, had titillating titles and were not story-driven.

By the time Manish did his first film, more than 500 soft porn channels were up and running on YouTube. Thousands of men and women were getting absorbed in the industry, each vying to get noticed in the profusion of digital content. For most of them, including Manish, it was a ladder to the mainstream cinema where they hoped to do some “achha kaam” (dignified work). Many vanished before even making their presence felt in the digital industry. But that day in November, Manish, 32, well-built, fair, left an impression on everyone. “I became a star with my very first film. It was viewed more than a million times over within a week,” claims Manish. Word about his performance spread in the industry. His dates for the next three months were blocked. People in the business gave him multiple titles including ‘Playboy’ and ‘The Amitabh Bachchan of Hot Films.’ He was so busy he couldn’t even take calls from his family in Shimbhaoli town, 70 km east of Delhi, or attend to his job as a conductor with Uttar Pradesh Roadways or make sense of his newly-acquired success. For a newcomer, it was a fantastic start.

One of Manish’s bus-driver friends had introduced him to a coordinator named Guddu, who had pictures of more than 200 aspiring ‘models’ on his phone.

When a ‘model’ increased his fees the night before the Hot Ashiq shoot, Guddu suggested Manish’s name to the director. “I was not like those lecherous boys who get excited seeing girls in skimpy outfits. I was a professional. That’s what Guddu ji said,” Manish tells me, as he works out in an upmarket gym in Noida, where he has been living in a one-room flat for more than a decade.

By February 2013, Manish says, he had acted in more than 1,000 soft porn movies shot in Delhi, NCR and Uttar Pradesh. He would have featured in Nepali X-rated films too had he not rejected the offer because of lack of dates. “Manish, you have arrived and how. That’s what I used to tell myself,” Manish recalls his response to the unexpected success.

CHEAT SHOTS
Shimbhaoli town in western Uttar Pradesh, where Manish was born and spent his early years, shares its name with one of India’s largest sugar refineries. The refinery is to Shimbhaoli what the Taj Mahal is to Agra. Most of the town’s employable men would have migrated if it were not for the enterprises dependent on the refinery—transport, telecom, eateries, hotels, and construction. Shimbhaoli is where a shopping mall came up five years ago, where getting a college degree means moving up the social ladder, and where everyone knows the handful of girls who drove two-wheelers.

While in school, Manish and his elder brother used to accompany their father as he hopped weekly markets, setting up makeshift clothes shops, after a family feud left him in penury. “We were just surviving,” says Manish. When he turned 21 and his parents got him married, he realised that if he had to take charge of his life, he had to leave Shimbhaoli.

Bhagwan Chand
Actor, Director, Producer
Rajat Kumar
Actor
Manish Agrawal
Actor
Pari Tomar
Actor

He was 25 when he left for Ghaziabad to work as a sales executive in a furniture store. One of his three room-mates told him about the recruitment drive to hire conductors for Uttar Pradesh Roadways. He laughed at them, he thought it was below his dignity. Eventually, he was the only one among them to get that job.

For Manish, the stint with the roadways and his previous jobs, were but halts on his journey to stardom. From when he was in school, he used to imitate Amitabh Bachchan. All his life, people told him that he was born to act and that the film industry would be poorer without him. “Why are you wasting your time here? Go to Mumbai,” passengers on the Noida- Haldwani route often told him.

But people gave him disapproving looks when he visited Shimbhaoli the first time after joining the soft porn industry. Everyone had watched his films. At least, that was the impression they gave him. “What kinds of films are these, Manish ji? You didn’t feel ashamed doing this?” people asked him. To them, as well as to his family members—parents and wife—Manish’s response was that those were cheat shots. “Haven’t you seen Seeta Aur Geeta? You think there were two heroines in that film? It is technology,” he would explain, referring to the 1972 Hindi comedy starring Hema Malini in a double role.

RIP MORNING SHOW
Manish’ story is intertwined with technological advancements in the entertainment sector that began around two decades ago.

By mid-2000, digital technology replaced film prints in theatres, which proved to be the death knell for morning shows (read adult films.

It coincided with the rise of the CD films’ industry across India. These were low-budget films with a rustic flavour that were not released in cinema halls but distributed in the market as CDs worth Rs 25 to Rs 40.

Many actors and technicians of the C-grade film industry, as well as outsiders such as Manish, found work in this sector.

Manish was fascinated with the popularity of one such CD film called Dhaakad Chhora. “Looking at the hero in that film, I thought if this guy can act, I certainly have a future in the industry,” says Manish. He paid a film producer Rs 10,000 to cast him in a CD film, Dobara Gadar. It released when Manish had already begun working in soft porn films.

By late 2000, piracy phased out of CD players; and along with the proliferation of budget phones, marked the end of the sector.

The huge workforce of the paralysed CD film industry and almost defunct morning shows now shifted to the web. Small-time producers and owners of regional music companies identified the money-making potential of the video streaming platform and started churning out short, digital versions of morning shows, to keep the cash flowing.

Before cheap mobile phones and affordable data packs shifted viewers to the web, cinema halls like Imperial (Mumbai) used to attract viewers of B-Grade and regional films. (AFP/Getty Images)

Softcore porn was part of the content put out on YouTube with the purpose of clocking hits and making money.

Subrat Kar, co-founder and CEO of video intelligence company Vidooly, says, “Advertisers just wanted to join the digital bandwagon. They were mass targeting and didn’t care about the web channels on which their ads were displayed.”

Sub-standard acting, poor production quality and wafer-thin plots became the hallmarks of these films. It became a cottage industry of sorts, with films being shot in rented as well as private flats, residences, bungalows, and farmhouses.

THE FALLOUT
The films did different things to different people. “Thousands of youngsters, who did not mind working in a film as long as they were in front of the camera, were welcomed here. A battery of technicians found a new avenue of employment. Bills got paid,” says Guddu.

“On the other hand, families were broken, boyfriends of actresses faced humiliation, and actors could not roam around freely in their neighbourhood as people could identify them,” he adds.

Not everyone was impressed with making quick money in this manner. Noida-based Ravi Kasana, director of regional films, recalls being offered Rs 2 lakh for directing 15 soft porn films. “I was in debt and badly needed money but I refused the offer because I didn’t want to be stereotyped. I wanted to be a film director. Not that guy who made those kind of films for YouYube,” says Kasana. He closely tracked the career trajectory of young men and women who joined the industry. “Many girls who started off with these films could change orbit as they got work in B-grade full-length feature films. A lot of these films have bold scenes, for which these girls are called. There are cameos as well as more prominent roles. But the men didn’t get these films. They struggled to come out of the YouTube circuit,” says Kasana.

THE DOWNTURN
In early 2016, Manish found himself stuck in that loop. He began questioning his choices. “There was no way they would consider me for any movie meant for family viewing. I knew the image I was carrying but I didn’t know that I would be ostracised,” he says. “Sunny Leone and Emraan Hashmi have both acted in extremely bold films. Still, people click selfies with them. But people look at us differently despite the fact that there is far less skin show in our films,” he says.

Manish was also fed up with what he called an “overdose” of erotic films. Boredom started seeping in. He didn’t have anything new to offer. He was done with all the kissing, caressing and heaving. Around that time, YouTube’s policies regarding broadcast and content monetisation were getting refined; dumping volumes of softcore porn online was no longer as profitable as it originally was.

“Initially, our requirement for enabling ads for a given channel was purely viewership based, where a channel had to reach 10,000 aggregate views to become eligible to monetise,” says a YouTube spokesperson. In April 2017, YouTube introduced its new monetisation policy, enabling creators to monetise only after they hit 10,000 lifetime views on their channel.

The advent of cheap CDs, between Rs 20 and Rs 50, affected the business of cinema halls. (Praveen Kumar/HT PHOTO)

The policy was updated in January 2018. “As per the new policy, creators monetizing on YouTube will need to have accrued 4,000 hours of watch-time within the past 12 months and have 1,000 subscribers to be eligible to earn revenue from their channels,” says the YouTube spokesperson.

Users could flag content—including nudity or sexual content—that YouTube would then take down for violation of community guidelines.

Copyright infringements were becoming increasingly high. “Within minutes of putting out original content on your channel, others would post it on their channels without your knowledge and permission. It affected our ability to monetise,” says Subrat Kar of Vidooly.

Brands became conscious about where their ads were displayed. “They didn’t want to put their ad on unhygienic content,” Kar adds.

Effectively, it meant diminishing returns on investment. The new arrangement did not suit small-time players. They got weeded out from the industry. Today, the game belongs to big production houses and studios that have been producing films and TV serials. They have the required wherewithal to control the medium, fight piracy, and publicise their content in an organised manner. Alt Balaji’s web series Ragini MMS Returns, encashing the success of 2011 sex-horror flick, is a case in point.

IMAGE MAKEOVER
Fast forward to mid-April 2018. Manish is back in the Najafgarh farmhouse. This time, it is part of an image makeover process.

He has stopped doing sleazy films. “I am happy to have come out of that world,” he says.

He has had miss-and-blink appearances in Salman Khan’s blockbuster Tiger Zinda Hai, the Manoj Bajpayee starrer Aiyaary, and Veerey Ki Wedding, starring Pulkit Samrat and Kriti Kharbanda.

Manish runs two YouTube channels which broadcast double-meaning comedies and crime shows, apart from directing films in these genres on a freelance basis.

At the farmhouse today, he has to direct 10 short comedies. Only one film has been canned and a power cut brings the shoot to a halt, leaving Manish annoyed.

Just then, a debutant female artiste on the set nervously approaches him for a selfie. Manish stretches his neck to calm himself, combs his hair, takes the girl’s phone and gracefully poses for the picture, displaying the V sign.

He then flips through scripts, finds one that requires an outdoor shoot and instructs the crew to rush to the lawn. He shouts out for a vegetable cart as a prop. Actors rehearse the lines. After 10 minutes, right when they are about to begin shooting, a plane breaches through the sunny sky, making them wait. “This place is good only for bed scenes. I can do nothing else here,” says Manish, cursing.

PARI TOMAR: THE GIRL FROM MORENA, THE QUEEN OF EROTICA

Pari Tomar has featured in more than 1,000 softcore porn films for the web. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

By 2 pm on a May afternoon, Pari Tomar has finished shooting for eight short comedy films—two to five minutes each—in a one BHK apartment in West Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar area.

Apologising for coming late to the interview, she settles down on a white couch during a 10 minute break from the shoot that will continue through the day. “I am flawless in front of the camera. Ask anyone in the industry. But all the supporting actors here are new. They take eternity to give one shot,” she says with a grin, ruffling her colored hair.

The last time Tomar, 26, worked in an erotic film was in November 2016. Since then, she has regularly featured in short comedy clips and modelled for true crime Hindi magazines.

She is willing to talk about her stint in soft porn flicks that made her a ‘star’. But she does not want us to judge her. She scans her mobile phone gallery to find the black and white picture published by a regional newspaper in Morena, her home town, in Madhya Pradesh in 2008 “I scored 90 per cent in my second year of graduation. I got a lot of coverage.”

Next moment, she suggests that our lensman shoot her in a revealing dress. “It will go well with your story,” she says. “I will still work in hot films if I am offered one. I don’t understand the fuss about them. It is a job just like any other. I am a professional,” she says.

After completing college, Tomar kept changing her mind about what she wanted to do. One day she wanted to become a fashion designer; the next day, a lawyer or a teacher. Then one day, on the spur of the moment, she decided to leave Morena to relocate with her aunt in outer Delhi’s Mangopluri. In January 2012, Tomar boarded the Bhopal Express from Morena to Delhi, hoping for a new life. She left behind the small town, the prospect of getting married earlier than she wanted, and her old, confused self.

Within a month of shifting to Delhi, she enrolled for a six-month diploma at an acting school in south Delhi. Soon after, she started acting in two distinctive genres, both in Bhojpuri: devotional albums and item songs aired on regional cable channels and the Internet. “I became a sensation in Bihar. I don’t do that work anymore but DJs over there still play my songs on Chhath pooja,” she says.

Tomar was doing fine but wanted more from life. Work was coming her way but there was always a gap of a week or two between assignments. “I wanted to work non-stop,” she says.

In the summer of 2014, one phone call did exactly that for her. “There is this film for which the artist needs to expose a little. Do you want to give it a try? Since you have done item songs, I thought I should ask you,” a director with whom Tomar had previously worked, asked her over the phone.

“Mujhe scene karne mein koi aapatti nahi hai (I have no issues with such scenes),” she told the director.

One of her most popular films titled Cash Nahi toh Aish Nahin is pegged on demonetisation. She plays the neighbor of a bank official and asks him to get her old notes exchanged. The man hints at taking sexual favours from her.

Between 2014 and 2016, Tomar featured in more than 1,000 B-grade films. Roughly 10 to 15 films were shot in a day, and Tomar charged Rs 15,ooo per day. She used the earnings for her daily expenses and to pay rent for her room in Noida. She was still left with enough money to send back home.

Tomar insists that the nature of her job did not have any adverse impact on her relationship with her family. If anything, it has made her ‘popular’ back home. “I have the blessings of people. The last time I visited home, I was invited as a chief guest to inaugurate a school,” she boasts about her fame.

She is glad to have been getting obscure roles in small-budget films.

She plays a cop in the film 30 Minutes; in Rangeen Ruby she is a woman who kills her husband for another man; she is personal secretary to a don in the film Anchhuyee.

Early this year, Tomar started her house production house. “I have struggled a lot. Now I am at a stage where I can help people. I thought I should do it professionally,” she says.

RAJAT KUMAR: FROM ACTING ON STAGE TO ‘EXPOSING’ FOR SLEAZY FLICKS

Rajat Kumar initially did theatre in Delhi and cameos in true-crime TV series. He stopped getting those projects once he appeared in softporn films. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

It is 8.30 pm at Delhi’s Mandi House on a windy night. The wide pavement outside the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts is deserted except for a group of budding theatre artists rehearsing a street play.

Sitting on a wooden wheel-cart, puffing his last cigarette from the pack, 35-year-old Rajat Kumar, former theatre artist, watches them from a distance. “They remind me of my old days. I did lot of plays. It never gave me money. But it was a brilliant way to channelise frustration,” he says.

Around a decade ago, Kumar switched to acting in true-crime based shows on TV channels. The screen time he got was too brief for him to be noticed. But he was happy to get regular work. More importantly, work that translated into a regular income and just enough money for him to take care of his wife and two-year-old son.

In early 2015, a chance meeting with Atul Sharma, a casting director, made him enter the world of soft porn films. Atul told Kumar that they were ‘different’ kind of films. “What you mean by different?” Kumar inquired. “You will get to remove your shirt and kiss the girl, too,” said Sharma. This was music to Kumar’s ears. He maintained a stoic face before Atul as he visualised multiple intimate scenes. “To work with different girls was my desire from the days when I used to perform in Ramleela,” says Kumar, recalling his meeting with Atul that got him his first assignment.

On first day of the shoot in a stuffy apartment in East Delhi, Kumar realised that he was wrong to think that these films would help him showcase his acting ability, which in turn would help him get substantial roles in mainstream films. “I had done theatre. I was looking for every possible opportunity to prove my acting calibre. But that was not a priority of the producer or director. They just wanted me and other artists to expose as much as possible,” he says.

Before starting shooting for each video, Kumar would nonchalantly sign a contract giving his consent for the video to be put online. “Who was going to watch it anyway,” he thought. Within a week of shooting the films, he wondered if there was anyone who didn’t watch them. “I knew those films were meant for YouTube but the content going viral took me by surprise,” he says.

The viral nature of those videos affected Kumar in ways he hadn’t imagined. At one point, Kumar began to believe that every mobile phone that ever existed was showing his videos. And each mobile phone user around him was watching them -- in metro trains, in the privacy of their homes, crossing the street, at bus stops, in hostels. “It was all in my head. I was not able to face people, especially in public places. I started taking auto rickshaws instead of the metro. I avoided family functions,” says Kumar.

He couldn’t help working in those films because of the money. He reached a stage where stagnation replaced enthusiasm. Every time he would sign a contract with a new producer, Kumar was asked if he would like to work with a particular female artist. “I never chose the girl. I would have even worked with a 70-year-old woman. I couldn’t care less,” he says.

Kumar didn’t foresee the downside. The casting director of one of the TV crime shows told Kumar over the phone: “Everyone has seen your videos. I’m afraid I cannot cast you anymore. Our shows are watched by families.”

It was the third show Kumar had lost because of working in digital erotic films. While he was content with the money he was getting by working in soft porn web films, one of the fallouts was that he got typecast, and was not considered for roles in other genres.

“Before I knew it, people had black-listed me. I didn’t see it coming. By the time I realised the damage those films did to my image, it was too late,” he says.

The other consequence was the backlash he faced from people close to him. His friends started calling him the male Sunny Leone. Then, one day, Kumar’s elder brother sat him down and told him that his work had the potential to defame their family. Kumar told him that he was doing it in a professional manner. Moreover, he got work in this industry when all his attempts at getting other jobs had failed. “He did not nag me again,” he says.

First Published: Jul 20, 2018 21:22 IST