It was the 1990s, and the impact of economic liberalisation was just being felt in India. Films like Rangeela shook the nation and songs on MTV swayed our senses. Coca-Cola ruled the roost, and A.R. Rahman crooned the classics. Sachin Tendulkar batted his way into our hearts, and whenever we had a break, we had a Kit Kat. Small things could thrill us— like the stick-on tattoos that came free with cheap Japanese bubble gums. Our sartorial fantasies were dictated by the fashion in Friends, which was more aspirational than a career as a nuclear scientist (as though we would ever be allowed to strut around in a mini-skirt). Pizza Hut and McDonalds made junk food look like haute cuisine. And then there was the onscreen sex…. Yeah right, you wish!
Of course, there was no onscreen sex. Censorship took care of most of it, and our parents took care of the rest. If the hero so much as loosened his tie, the folks at home would immediately change the channel. But there were hints, of course…. Little clues about what came on after the tie came off. Not that there was any hardcore action. In most movies, just as the hero was about to kiss her, the heroine would daintily turn her face away. Her shyness was our buzz-kill. When she ran away, we were all forced to collectively exit the scene, because our love lives were pretty much pegged on the heroine’s libido, or the lack of it.
“Baywatch was definitely an ‘officially’ risqué show for many during my childhood,” says film critic Rahul Desai. “It is the only one I remember watching for the swimsuits and the skin, like most other repressed and red-blooded kids in the country. We were happy to watch the sketching scene in Titanic over and over again. Sex was an aspirational and forbidden thing compared with now.”
And then OTT came into the scene… and boom. Sex was on the table (and on the carpet, and against the wall) once again. With the lack of censorship on OTT, sex exploded onscreen. “OTT has allowed filmmakers to tell stories more authentically,” says Aastha Khanna, India’s first certified intimacy coordinator. “After all, intimacy is as much a part of the human experience as eating and drinking. It is also bringing about a change in society, where sex is being destigmatised. Viewers are consuming it potentially authentically as opposed to watching porn. Because there is no censorship, we can now tell a variety of stories and take up themes like sexual abuse and domestic violence. Outside of OTT, most of the content on films and TV are sterilised to a very great extent. Theatre-goers are just not happy with what is coming out.”
OTT is also bringing more realism into the portrayal of sex, she says, citing how she watched her first kiss in the film, Murder. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘It can’t look this beautiful all the time.’ For the first time in my life when I kissed somebody, I thought it would be that perfect. But it was not.”
There are all kinds of sex on OTT today. There is the sanitised version, like in shows like House of Cards, where coital bliss seems to be the last thing on the minds of the participants. There is voyeuristic sex, like in Bridgerton. Then there is sex for subjugation, like in Game of Thrones, which former cast member Ian McShane aptly described as a show of “tits and dragons”. Occasionally, there is sex that is primarily to advance the craft of storytelling, like in Sacred Games or Mirzapur. “Why do we have to show so much? There are actresses who are fighting to keep the sheet up. Why can’t that be ok? We grasp that sex is happening, but we don’t have to bare it all. Sex is still a sacred thing,” says Jenny Miller, a former actor, film expert and co-author of Age of Atheria.
“Sex sells” has almost become a truism—a cheap slogan that mediocre filmmakers resort to when they don’t have a solid story to tell. Stats back this fact. In a survey which analysed the content rating of Netflix’s top 10 charts across five countries, including India, it was found that the average share of R-rated content was 54 per cent. Then there are, of course, OTT platforms that specifically cater to audiences looking for such content, like Fliz Movies, Ullu and Kooku. Fliz, for example, has over one million downloads on the Google Play Store.
But sex is not going to sell like today in future, says Gautam Chintamani, film critic and author of Pink—The Inside Story. Viewers are getting so desensitised to it, that unless the film or series offers something more, they are not going to be satisfied. “Today, for every Inside Edge, there is a Panchayat or Gullak, where the sex is minimal, and the focus is on the story,” he says. “In the early days of television, you were happy to watch anything because it was liberating. Today, sex is so rampant on OTT that it is no longer the hook. I am not saying that sex will reduce drastically, but it is going to lose its ‘aha’ moment.”
He says that the iconic “shampoo scene” in Out of Africa, where Robert Redford washes Meryl Streep’s hair, does more for him than much of the action on OTT. “A classical scene is far bolder than a graphic one,” he says.