When Anveshi Jain, one of India’s most Googled people, is informed that her net worth is around Rs 4-5 crores, there’s a pause, followed by a delighted laugh, and a “fuck, really?” In 2019, Jain had about Rs 70,000 in her bank account, and two years before that, when she’d run away from her hometown of Khajuraho to come to Mumbai, she had Rs 4,800 to her name. What changed in one year? Her starring role in ALTBalaji’s hit series, Gandii Baat 2.

Jain states that despite having faced rejections, she was finalized for the second season of Gandii Baat because of her audition, and “of course, the body type they were looking for”. “When I was finalized, they told me if I knew that what I had signed up for had bold content. I asked them what bold content meant, according to them. They asked me to check out the first season and when I did, I was shocked. This is what I had signed up for? Shit. But then I thought, I have to take a chance and make the best of it,” she says.

Jain featured in Bai-sexual, which also stars actress Flora Saini. The two have a love affair in the episode, which is shown in complete gritty detail — there’s no soft lighting, mood music, or Gustav Machaty-esque thrill of intimacy involved. Sachin Mohite, the brain behind the series, says that this was a conscious decision, not just in this episode, but throughout the five seasons.

“We’ve seen erotica before, but woh erotica humne sheher ke dekhe hai. You have a swimming pool, bikini-clad women, a champagne bottle, and muscular men. Nobody had seen erotica of real India. So, I thought why not make something for Bharat, instead of India,” he says.

Mohite states that taboo topics like homosexuality, and a woman wanting bigger breasts, are always thought to be an issue for those living in India’s cosmopolitan cities. His aim, through Gandii Baat, has been to show that these are issues that those living in rural India also face. “There’s no compromising on the reality of it. Having said that, I don’t believe in nudity, I believe in titillation. The difference between Gandii Baat and the apps that have cropped up that follow this format, is that you will never find somebody naked in our show,” he adds.

Gandii Baat Anveshi Jain Flora Saini
Flora Saini and Anveshi Jain in a still from ‘Gandii Baat’

The apps and VOD services that Mohite is referring to are popular but hidden in the crevices of the internet. There’s HotShots, Primeflix, Nueflix aka Flizmov, Gup Chup, and many more. Unlike apps like ALTBalaji and Ullu, these apps and websites feature graphic sex scenes and often, total nudity. Take Pimp on Primeflix, for example. The series features actor Gaurav Bajaj, a TV soap actor, and is about a man who lives a dull life, and then and then gets embroiled in a murky profession. Tanveer Alam, the scriptwriter for the series says, quite confusingly, that the story is “not sexual content, it is based on sexual content”. This format is a money-maker, definitely. Launched in December 2018, Ullu is notorious for its erotic content. During the first two months of the lockdown, Ullu saw a growth of over 250 per cent.

“When the subscriptions increase, so does the revenue. We have shifted our headquarters from Uttar Pradesh to Brisbane. We are now coming up with new ventures. There are going to be around two more digital platforms under the Ullu banner that will go on air in the next six to eight months. From October 17, we’re also launching Ullu 2.0, which will have a premium segment. The valuation of this premium content is Rs 5 to 10 crore,” says Vibhu Agarwal, CEO, and Founder of Ullu.

But ask Agarwal what the most popular show on his app is, and he laughs and says: “Kavita Bhabhi”.

Kavita Bhabhi Ullu Gandii Baat
A still from ‘Kavita Bhabhi’

Desi-erotica shows on OTT platforms aren’t just beneficial for the Ekta Kapoors and Vibhu Agarwals, they also catapult the actors starring in them to heights of social media fame. Rahul Jaitly, another Gandii Baat favourite, started out as a theatre artiste in 2013. After roles in Saavdhan India and Crime Patrol and in advertisements, he broke into the scene with Gandii Baat Season 2, and Dubey Ji and the Boys on ALTBalaji and Ullu respectively. “I had not done any intimate scenes back then, but one thing I knew for sure was that I was doing it for ALTBalaji. It’s a brand in itself,” he says. So successful was his work in the show that when he got a call from ALTBalaji again, he couldn’t take up the opportunity because he already had commitments.

Nishant Pandey was already an established actor of sorts when he got a call for Ullu’s Kavita Bhabhi. Pandey plays all the male characters in the show. “The director, Faisal Saif, asked me if I was sure about doing a character that is controversial for an Indian audience, which is still trying to digest what bold content and erotic cinema is. There are misconceptions about this whole genre. When I was approached, I knew one thing: I’m an actor, I have to do justice to the character even if it is the role of a gay husband, which is one of the roles in Kavita Bhabhi,” he says.

Dubeyji And The Boys Gandii Baat
The poster of ‘Dubeyji And The Boys’

Pandey believes that viewers will still take some time to digest this genre of desi erotica, but he states that there is an audience that has grown up with Angelina Jolie’s Original Sin, and are open to shows like Kavita Bhabhi.

While they may not say it publicly, Agarwal says that he has been approached by some of the biggest names in the film industry who want to be associated with his platform. Actors like Vivan Bhatena, Hiten Tejwani, Rithvik Dhanjani, Ashmit Patel, and Anupriya Goenka have already dipped their feet into the pool. “I was aware of the edgy and bold content that Ullu does, and that was a major concern for me. Peshawar (another Ullu original) is still to be released, so The Bull of Dalal Street turned out to be my OTT debut. The Bull of Dalal Street does have a few lovemaking scenes, but they’re not forced. The screenplay justified it, so it wasn’t like it was forced in there to grab eyeballs,” says Patel.

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“When it comes to intimate scenes, I’ve never done any nudity. In that sense, I’m still a little bit conservative, and I was offered a show by a very popular platform a couple of years ago, but I had to say no as it required frontal nudity. But, you never know, there might be an offer I can’t refuse,” he adds.

Ashmit Patel Ullu Bull of Dalal Street
A still from Ullu’s ‘The Bull of Dalal Street’

However, as the desi erotica space on OTT platforms is growing, actors and those managing them are still not completely on board. “We don’t usually recommend an Ullu or a Hotshots because right now, the soft porn or the intimacy that you see in these shows is moving upwards, but at some point, that model will die down, and you don’t want it to haunt you in the future. Now, ALTBalaji, irrespective of shows like Gandii Baat, still has shows of substance. You would do an ALTBalaji to build a relationship with Ekta (Kapoor) for future work opportunities,” says Sanjeevini Singh, a Mumbai-based talent manager who has worked with Rajkummar Rao and Swara Bhasker.

Rohan Mehra recently made his debut with Eros Now’s critically acclaimed show, Flesh, says that he was approached by ALTBalaji, and the first thing the casting agent asked him was if he was open to sex scenes. “The ALTBalaji casting agent was upfront with me but I have heard tales where the casting agents have been shady. I know of a female actor who was a part of a show on one of these platforms, and the makers were advertising it on porn sites. She was taken aback but of course, no one did anything about it,” he says.

Even Mohite, whose Gandii Baat model first started it all, is worried about the state of the desi erotica space in India. Mohite personally doesn’t allow anyone near the monitor when he’s shooting intimate scenes, a fact that Flora Saini confirms. “I’m a little scared with the kind of apps that are coming in. There are people now who make an erotica in 20 days, and put it on air. I’m scared about the kind of content coming up because these will cause issues with censorship later. Although people are lapping up this kind of content now, it is spoiling the main intent that one started with — to tell stories that are taboo,” he says.