This paper looks at the genre of soft pornography in the Malayalam-speaking south Indian state of Kerala and the precarious stardom of its female stars through a close look at the career of Shakeela, an actress who became the emblematic soft-porn star of the 1990s. It interrogates how Shakeela's outsider status and her heavyset body type foregrounded her as the locus of Malayali society's conflicted relationship with sex and desire while also creating a set of parallel film practices that challenged the hierarchies of the mainstream film industry. By 2001 more than 70 percent of the total films produced in Malayalam were soft porn, and a good number of them featured Shakeela. The mainstay of soft-porn productions was the strategic positioning of the female lead as a cultural outsider—a transient figure who is both a threat and a source of exoticized desire. Shakeela's emergence as a “liberated” woman who flaunts her sexuality despite social norms was so strong that it destabilized Kerala's hero-centric mainstream industry for a time, leading to what was popularly called Shakeela tharangam, the “wave of Shakeela.”
“When people are hungry, they need to be fed. There is no point in giving them anything else. My films were just like that.”—Shakeela, 20051
In the mid-1980s, the Indian filmscape saw the emergence of a wave of soft-porn films. Originating in the Malayalam-speaking state of Kerala in southern India, they offered a forceful alternative to Kerala's mainstream film culture, allowing personnel from the lower rungs of the production hierarchy to step out of their usual crew positions and engage in independent production practices.2 This rearrangement of hierarchical relations within the film industry applied not only to technical crew, but also to actors, distributors, and exhibitors who used soft-porn films to remap profit sharing and informal labor practices.3 The soft-porn ecology allowed for the emergence of a new category of stars and starlets, mostly women, who had a lasting impact on the shape of the industry. Nevertheless, the “stardom” of these actors was not the same as that of big-budget mainstream stars. Instead of appearing on advertising billboards and television ads, these actresses became the new pinup girls who fed the fantasies of men in places as varied as B-circuit cinema halls and public toilets as well as film magazine centerfolds. Their on-screen personas became manifestations of forbidden sexual fantasies, counterpoised to the idea of a morally pure, culturally virtuous Malayali woman. Their personal lives and private interactions were perceived as continuations of their filmic roles. In fact, a proliferating genre of pulp fiction focused entirely on their sex lives.4
This, coupled with the moral edicts and compunctions around soft-porn film production, pitched these actresses as precarious performers whose labor and image were divorced from their bodies. Their stardom was figured as a precarious form caught between hypervisibility and invisibility. If the moral impetus of Malayali society was to invisibilize sites of illicit desire, soft porn allowed these actresses to become hypervisible sexual images through its modes of circulation and exchange. There was a conflicted relationship between the actresses' imagistic on-screen power as purveyors of an emerging sexual economy and their complicated, vulnerable position as members of the Malayali public.
Foremost among these new and emerging actresses was Shakeela, whose impact on the industry was so strong that soft-porn films soon came to be known by the moniker “Shakeela films.”5 In this essay I track Shakeela's rise as the beacon of Malayali soft porn across the nation and how her formidable bodily presence exposed the sexual contradictions of Malayali society. I argue that while soft porn's language of sexual excess allowed figures such as Shakeela to speak to diverse constituencies of desire, it fixed their offscreen lives into the image of the sex siren, catching them between the need to question the status quo and their role as the prime movers of an alternative economy that allowed informal relationships to flourish. While the radical choices they made were lauded for veering away from established norms, the gendered expectations that accompanied the film practices did not facilitate their entry as media creators. While most of them disappeared from the industry after a short stint and were heard of no more, for many others, entering soft porn was tantamount to blocking their chances of ever entering the mainstream film industry. Thus, even as the genre of soft porn proved ephemeral, fizzling out in the early 2000s, its effects on the careers and lives of certain actresses were longer lasting.
If according to Michael Curtin, precarity refers to a “set of concerns about relations of production and the quality of social life,” figures such as Shakeela force us to rethink precarity beyond conditions of economic instability.6 While financial insecurity remains part and parcel of soft porn's underground, quasi-legal networks of production, the precarious stardom of Shakeela and other starlets of the Malayalam soft-porn circuit brings us into the arena of gender roles. This kind of precarity comes closer to Richard Dyer's description of the star commodity as something produced “out of their own bodies and psychologies.” If soft-porn actresses such as Shakeela were “part of the way films [were] sold,” the precarity of their stardom was as much a function of the friction between norms of sexuality and the licentiousness of the films.7 We cannot explain this kind of precarious stardom in purely economic terms.
If, following Judith Butler, we can think of precarity in terms of a “fundamental dependency on anonymous others,” soft-porn actresses such as Shakeela were caught between the image of sexual autonomy and the realities of social dependency.8 This precarious stardom was produced at the confluence of infrastructural routes, censorial regimes, and norms of social acceptance and permissiveness. I suggest that reading Shakeela's career arc as a form of precarious stardom offers us insights into the historical formations of gender and sexuality within the film industry and Malayali society at large. By bringing the fields of star studies and precarity studies into conversation, this paper's investigation of Shakeela's peculiar type of stardom offers a preliminary methodology for an ethical reading of marginalized cinematic figures. Although the figure of Shakeela is localized in the specific context of one of India's many regional-language film industries, the lessons of this investigation are further-reaching and foreground the need for discussions on precarious female labor in the context of disparaged genres such as soft porn.
In Kerala, soft-porn films were not the first to use sexually charged imagery; sex and sexuality were narrative elements in films of the 1970s and 1980s as well. Low-budget “glamour films” made by K. S. Gopalakrishnan, Crossbelt Mani, P. Chandrakumar, and others in the 1980s were frank about using erotic scenes.9 However, in the 1990s soft porn emerged as a generic category in industrial and journalistic parlance.10 Soft-porn films were underlined by informal modes of production and distribution as well as by the use of ingenious marketing strategies that foregrounded the adult content and the viewers it catered to. This was most prominent in the incorporation of “A” (for “adult”) signage in posters and publicity materials, and in accompanying texts that promised viewers a fair deal for the ticket price.
In many instances, the lure of the “forbidden” scenes attracted audiences, and filmmakers strategically mentioned in film posters the details of censor-recommended cuts. While a “cut” might imply an excision or process of discarding, in this milieu the “cut piece” worked not by negation but addition, as I will go on to explain. Recycling the censored “cuts” thus added a productive layer to conversations on how to bypass the strict eyes of the censor board. Their combination of low budgets, use of glamour, tailor-made shooting schedules, and hurriedly written dialogue has led to the dismissal of these films in dominant accounts of Malayalam cinema history as thattikoottu padangal (trashy productions).11 “Sexplosive,” “sexcitement” and “saucy” were some of the phrases used to describe them in newspaper entertainment columns, which often doubled up as publicity.12 Additionally, they were often publicized as “gents' films,” as they were aimed exclusively at adult male audiences, marking the theaters they played in as all-male spaces where women hardly ventured.13
Despite their overwhelmingly male target audience, these films were paradoxically also called “heroine-centered” thanks to their strong female leads.14 Given the female-oriented plotlines, filmmakers began to employ a slew of new actresses who were willing to act in sexually charged roles. There were already columns called puthumukham (new face) in film magazines like Nana that featured aspiring actresses looking for a break in the industry. Some of these actresses expressed their willingness to take up roles involving intimacy or exposure.15 While the starlets who attained prominence through these columns sometimes managed to land roles, they often disappeared from the film scene after a short time. In stark contrast, the soft-porn industry's biggest face—Shakeela—bypassed this circuit of film magazines and entered the industry through a personal contact who worked as a makeup man in films.
Shakeela's repeated appearance in soft-porn films made her the core engine of their success and a popular sex symbol among Malayali men. It was Shakeela who emblematized the growing popularity of soft porn, its mass appeal among both homegrown and diasporic audiences, and its subsequent disappearance from the cinemascape. The emergence of Shakeela in these films as a sexually liberated woman who gives her desires a free outlet without subscribing to moral edicts destabilized Kerala's hero-centric, mainstream film industry for a while, leading to what was popularly called Shakeela tharangam—the “wave of Shakeela.”16 The emphasis on “women-centered” narratives in soft-porn films led to acrimonious debates among feminists and women's groups who were quick to cite obscenity clauses to enforce proper implementation of censorship regulations.17 Even while protests and theater blockades were organized to prevent the screenings of these films, their popularity shot up. And when obscenity cases were filed against Shakeela, none of the men's or women's groups advocating gender equality supported her, making it her personal battle to fight alone. This points to her gendered precarity, especially given her image as a soft-porn star and the subsequent marginalization she faced as social and cultural forces tried to constrain her.
Shakeela's emergence and decline maps closely onto the life cycle of the genre—it is almost as if Shakeela defined soft porn, the topography of her body mirroring its imaginary topos. The ways in which the camera lingered on her buxom, heavyset figure—an anomaly in the Malayalam film industry at that moment—with a concentrated focus on her face, breasts, and thighs, equated the realm of desire with her anatomy (fig. 1).
In a sense, Shakeela is a conceptual anchor around which the textual aspects of soft porn, as well as issues of production and distribution, can be studied in depth. Against this backdrop I will map the specific constructs of cultural purity and gender equations in Malayali society; battles over these were often fought out over women's bodies, and Shakeela was the battleground par excellence. This mapping, both of Shakeela's on-screen body and the life of a genre, necessitates a hybrid methodology that includes a mix of industry studies, textual analysis, and an ethnographic study I conducted intermittently between 2012 and 2017. I draw on detailed interviews with technicians, artists, and production units who participated in the films; distributors and exhibitors who were responsible for their circulation; and the theaters that screened them. Using these conceptual and methodological maneuvers, I argue that in spite of the pejorative value associated with soft porn, actresses such as Shakeela mobilized its sexual potentials in a complex manner, often using these films as a way of giving voice to repressed female sexuality in a dominantly patriarchal society. While this doesn't necessarily make the films feminist, it demands a particular feminist orientation toward the study of pornography itself.
THE SOFT-PORN ECOLOGY AND FEMINIST PORN STUDIES
“Feminist porn studies” as a distinct approach problematizes questions of representation. The introductory issue of the journal Porn Studies described this approach as emerging with a stated interest in work that “engages with pornography as texts, productions or performances; as occurring in various kinds of ‘spaces’ with various significances; subject to various kinds of legal and other regulatory frameworks and with different importances for its participants and for observers of those participants.”18 Thus at the core of this debate is a struggle over another kind of representation—not merely representations on-screen, but representation in academic work itself on the industry, its practitioners, their labor, and their agency. Mireille Miller-Young explains this as a political position: scholars working on pornography have long been termed “academic pornographers” in line with the anti-porn perspective.19 Miller-Young's own work on African American women working in the porn industry recognizes that they did so for a variety of reasons, including economic sustenance as well as taking control of their own sexual images. To envelop all kinds of pornographic production and labor under the metaphor of “exploitation” is to dismiss the agency of women who live and work in the industry, casting them as mute subjects who are either exploitatively represented on-screen or must be redeemed through representation in certain kinds of feminist work. Feminist porn scholars have been calling for a remapping of the terrain of feminist studies by including the study of labor, agency, pleasure, and desire.
Dealing with a form like Malayalam soft porn requires a similar feminist engagement with labor, desire, and pleasure. At the same time, Malayalam soft porn's underground circuits of production and distribution and its dependence on trust-based interpersonal networks necessitates moving out of the exploitation narrative and studying collaborative practices as productive relationships. The editors of The Feminist Porn Book (2013) speak about the category of “feminist porn makers” who create pornographic images through safe, collaborative networks.20 The overarching principle underlying the production of Malayalam soft porn may not have a clearly defined feminist politics or engagement with gender parity.21 But a feminist study of its production practices allows a methodological move that can braid together the ground realities involved in informal modes of procuring and sustaining labor such as trust-based and ethical collaborative approaches. Thrikkunnapuzha Vijaykumar, a prominent soft-porn filmmaker, recounts that questions of ethics and consent were followed on the shooting set: “Situated at the marginal zone where our commitments have been questioned ad infinitum, it was important for us to maintain some semblance of transparency, however limited it might look to an outsider.” Specifically, even though the filmmakers had access to intimate shots of the actresses that could have fetched them a good price on the market, there seemed to have been a collective consensus about the risk involved in circulating or trading sexually explicit celluloid fragments, or “bits.” “It was never a free-for-all arrangement, where women did not have any space for negotiation as men traded in their images. The very fact that we have had actresses who were vocal about their comfort levels in terms of setting limits of exposure, is an indication that we acknowledge film labor.”22
Vijaykumar and others worked with a pool of regular actresses, and nobody wanted to be perceived as a “rat” and breach the trust, as it would have meant shutting down their business altogether. Shakeela also recounts that when she entered into contracts for films, she was very clear that she herself would not perform any topless shots; these would be shot separately using a body double, known as the “dupe” in the Indian film industries.23 In other words, her films were made with a clear demarcation of boundaries and consent, as opposed to the casting-couch narratives that usually surround the imagination of soft porn.24
Marking its distinction from hardcore pornography has always been central to the soft-porn industry. The soft-porn filmmakers and production personnel I interviewed for my project were keen to describe how they appropriated the term “soft porn” as an oppositional phrase to distinguish it from hardcore pornography, and the ethical dilemmas that accompany the making of low-budget productions. Some of them even opposed the designation of their work as pornography, constantly reiterating the need to account for the hierarchies and conventions accompanying mainstream filmmaking practices.25 They strategically used the “soft” in “soft porn” to define the genre against the injunctions laid out both by the anti-porn brigade and the censor board certification clauses that were becoming increasingly stringent to contain the spread of sexually explicit content.
Soft-porn films were produced under severe financial constraints, with budgets often not exceeding US $4,000.26 They emerged at the same moment in the 1990s when the mainstream film industry was facing a severe financial crisis. The box office failure of many big, mainstream productions starring A-list leading men forced exhibitors to forge alternative business arrangements with distributors in order to stay afloat. This, along with tight shooting schedules, marked these films with amateurish features such as lack of continuity and a reliance on stock footage.
Avoiding any direct exposure of genitalia, soft-porn films worked through the power of suggestion via visual and aural tropes. They often included extended shots of cleavage and thighs, massage and bath scenes, and dubbed-over moaning to signify sexual pleasure and climax. This application of the “money shot” in soft porn is distinct from Linda Williams's discussion of “money shots” in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (1989). There, Williams argues that there is a hypervisibility associated with the climactic moment of male ejaculation: to denote sexual orgasm, hardcore pornography necessarily has to get close to genital coitus.27 The money shot in soft-porn films, on the other hand, reinstates female sexual pleasure, reminding us that magnified genitals and a visual manifestation of male ejaculation are not necessarily the hallmarks of sexual orgasm. Softness in soft porn is defined through the deflection of female sexual pleasure to body parts such as the thighs or cleavage, as opposed to the phallocentric climax of the money shot. This could also be read as a way of signposting the sequences that could not make it to the final cut due to censorship regulations. Thus, the “softness” of soft-porn films was also a way of managing audience expectations, drawing from their familiarity with the ground realities of production.
In his work on soft-core films, David Andrews argues that softcore emerged as a self-conscious genre steeped in negation. He defines it as “any feature length narrative whose diegesis is punctuated by periodic moments … of simulated, non-explicit sexual spectacle … [and] leans on standardized forms of pornographic spectacles such as striptease numbers, tub or shower sequences, modeling scenes, voyeur numbers, girl-girl segments, threesomes, orgies and the like.”28 “Spectacle” here serves a visual and affective purpose, with the female breast emerging as a crucial visual signifier. In Malayalam soft porn one encounters most of these features but with certain differences. For instance, the female breast is often (but not always) reduced to the image of cleavage that denotes (often unattainable) sexual desire. Dealing with soft porn in the Indian context, then, leads to certain unique problems shared by both the researcher and the filmmaker. Given India's strong censorship regulations and criminalization of pornography, soft-porn filmmakers had to find unique workarounds to sexualize their films.29 The existence of soft porn points to the loopholes and implausible regulations that govern censorship mechanisms in India. These films unsettled the binaries of mainstream and underground, legal and illegal, and challenged the official apparatus that was meant to contain the obscene (fig. 2).
All films in India must be certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) before they screen in public venues.30 But soft-porn filmmakers often managed to splice in “extra reels” in the form of thundu or cut pieces, which might have been originally edited out of the censor print or lifted from completely different source material, then added to the screening by the projectionist for a titillating effect. “Bits” varied in their composition and content, sometimes including excerpts from foreign films and sometimes featuring Indian actresses. In the case of Indian bits, some included recognizable actors, but by and large most featured relatively new actors. If the recognizability or relatability quotient was an added advantage for including Indian actresses, there was also a fetishization of white skin that motivated many producers to employ “English” bits.
The intimacy suggested through these cuts included bedroom scenes, shower or massage sequences, or those that referred to contemporary political and sex scandals. The idea of “leak” or “exposure” narratives often accompanied the discussions following the insertion of cut pieces of prominent actresses. When asked how they had procured the “explicit” clips of the actresses, many distributors I interviewed sidestepped the question with a template response: “It was already available as XXX videos in the Gulf. They are not shot in Kerala.”31 This implied an imagination of “elsewhere” that I came across in conversations with many mainstream film personnel during my initial inquiries as to where exactly soft-porn films were produced. Many of my respondents acknowledged the creative inputs given by the projectionists in inserting the bits. The process of the projectionists' interventions at the material level of the film reel was equivalent to “editing over” the material and thereby scripting a new narrative that was otherwise left out at the censor's cut. This is similar to what Lotte Hoek argues in the context of obscenity in Bangladeshi cinema in her theorization of the “cut piece.”32 Bits, as they are referred to in the Indian context, work on the charm of the fragment that can disrupt the active viewing of the film through its sudden explosion into a scene—a distraction that even the audience looked forward to, something close to a state of willing suspension of disbelief.
Even though hardcore films were sold surreptitiously under the counters at VHS parlors (rental outlets) or imported via diasporic channels in Singapore or the Gulf, the use of localized tropes that viewers were already familiar with made soft porn immensely popular among Kerala's film-viewing public.33 Casts and crews were quick to realize the financial gains made possible by this arrangement of roping in newcomers. Using newcomers was a deliberate strategy that allowed filmmakers to produce content that would not be undertaken by established mainstream actors. In fact, most of the crew who worked in these films preferred to remain anonymous, and this “negotiated anonymity” was a central feature of the films.34
This also posed certain methodological problems for my research. When I first ventured into the field to trace the production history of soft-porn films, I strangely found the references to my object of study everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In spite of the availability of many of these films in DVD format and uploads in many media sharing sites, YouTube channels, and even sites exclusively meant for Malayalam soft porn, the details of the productions, including the technicians, and even shooting locations were hard to come by. The names in the opening credits were mostly fictitious coinages. The production and distribution companies existed only until the business transactions were completed. As soon as the outside state rights, satellite rights, and DVD rights for the films were sold, these companies would be dissolved. This anonymity that underlined soft porn's production practices was a far cry from mainstream cinema's preoccupation with the singular director—a preoccupation that film studies has replicated in its focus on authorship. In fact, any visibility or claim to authorship in case of soft porn could compromise the behind-the-scene deals negotiated by the industry as well the credentials of the personnel involved. And in a context where the crew sought anonymity, the female star took the place of the hypervisible author.
The risqué nature of soft porn necessitated a careful distancing on the part of production crew who wanted to maintain their status as part of a more “respectable” industry. Since the production crew and distributors used fictitious names to bypass their credit lines, the only identifiable faces were those of the actors and actresses, along with the production manager.35 Among these, the actresses would become the most public faces, to the extent that the films themselves would be called “heroine-oriented films,” with the roles of the male actors reduced to a minimum. Female characters were given ample screen space to assert their agency; publicity posters specifically mentioned their names. Another trope linking soft porn to softcore was the inclusion of certain seemingly radical choices, like the heroine's preference for masturbation over heterosexual coitus.36 The storyline would feature the heroine's preference to masturbate immediately following her sexual deterrence of the partner by physically pushing him to the corner of the screen space. The absence of either a graphically depicted or implied penis mobilizes the mise-en-scène to capture the pleasure of the woman with or without heterosexual intercourse. Narratively, the woman becomes the seducer, not the seduced, the pleasure seeker rather than the object of sexual gratification. While mainstream films of the time showcased the manliness of the hero and did away with the agential role of women completely, “Shakeela films” overshadowed the male presence with her towering stature. The male roles were scripted as an adjunct to Shakeela's bodily topography. Most actors who shared the screen with her were sidelined to miniscule prototypes, almost extras, and eventually stepped out of film industry with little or no impact.
This tendency to foreground female roles has been cited as an intrinsic feature of softcore. In her work on erotic thrillers, Linda Ruth Williams locates sexual intrigue in the storylines of film noir to explore how they drive on-screen softcore sex. In an interview, one of the executives from Axis Films International said, “You need to keep the women in front of the camera. The guys are incidental, the guys are appendages.”37 Similar narratives dotted journalistic accounts investigating the Malayalam soft-porn industry from the vantage point of actors who were “barely visible” on the margins. For instance, one article in India Today asserted:
They drool over inviting cleavages and pant with bawdy desire, succumb to heady seduction and live the lascivious dreams of a million men. They are envied, these lusty keepers of the steamy world of sex, but their haloes are not in place. The sheen of stardom is dissipated and the trappings of fame missing. They are revered, but also loathed, often disowned, by their own families. They are heroes, but only in name.38
One can read in the dominant tone of the article an incessant compulsion to re-masculinize the space of cinema, which was under threat by the upsurge in the popularity of soft-porn actresses. Narrating the individual stories of male soft-porn actors who were either disowned by their families or forced to relocate to faraway places to escape ignominy, the author's empathetic voice finds “heroine-oriented” films the main culprit for the actors' “measly salaries.” To show how they have been overshadowed narratively within the diegetic space of the film and ostracized from the prospect of entering the mainstream, the India Today author even includes an extract from a mother's letter to “her unlikely hero of a son.” Concluding with a vignette shared by an actor, he writes:
Even after 20 movies, the assistant director tells them how to grin sheepishly when the heroine reveals her cleavage. Will they ever get to perform? Unlikely as long as the bottom line requites the heroines to be visibly bare and the heroes, well barely visible.39
The reference to the opportunity to “perform” cuts across the gendered expectations normally associated with soft porn. The actor's inability to “perform” is perceived not just in terms of screen space or a full-fledged character role. It is more about the lack or deprivation that accrues because of the women's relative advantage in terms of laying out their preference in shooting certain scenes or negotiating what they are comfortable with. In fact, an identifiable feature of soft-porn films was the narrative prominence of the madakarani, an autonomous, socially mobile, morally flexible female figure who is unabashed about her sexuality. One could describe the madakarani as a localized variant of the vamp—an inhabitant of a moral ecology that demands a constant refashioning of the self. Using her sexual attractiveness, the madakarani forges temporary alliances with patriarchy, but these negotiations are functional and do not bind her against her will, leaving room for withdrawal if they turn against her interests. However, the madakarani is different from the vamp in that while the vamp stands in stark contrast to the virtuous woman, she is at best a morally liminal figure.
While her alliances are often temporary, calculated, and strategic, this is aimed at stabilizing her position in a conservative, exploitative system that furthers the longevity of caste, class, and heterosexual structures. Considering the unequal wage gaps and unsafe working environments that made gender equity impossible in Malayalam cinema, the resistant force emblematized by the fictional madakarani offered a powerful alternative to a deeply patriarchal system. For us, it is an entry point for a renewed look at the complex terrain of gender relations that enveloped the depiction of this figure in Malayalam soft porn. Moreover, as a cultural figure, the madakarani encompasses a much wider ensemble of imaginative strands associated with women and sexuality, drawn from fields as diverse as the vernacular erotic literature featuring sexually graphic illustrations (kambikathakal), vernacular pulp fiction (painkili), write-ups where anonymous women share their bedroom secrets (rathikathakal), and the illustrations accompanying these stories. Each mobilizes the figure of madakarani, who flaunts her sexuality and is unconstrained by norms of propriety as a generic necessity.
As transient figures, the madakarani as well as the actresses who played them were seen simultaneously as a threat and a source of exoticized desire. Most came from states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Punjab—in short, from outside the state of Kerala. The fact that the lead roles in these films were played by actresses originating from other linguistic and regional spaces was carefully strategized to emphasize that local, ethnically Malayalam talent was not part of this sexualized labor. Reshma, Maria, Sindhu, Sajini, Roshni, and other starlets went on to climb the ladder and land lead-actress roles. But the most durable figure was Shakeela, who came to emblematize this entire genre. As the madakarani par excellence, Shakeela is a unique figure who embodied both monetary profit and perceived threat to morality in an industry strongly biased in its treatment of sexual difference.
MAKING SHAKEELA: SAVIOR, SEDUCTRESS, “AUNTY”
Shakeela was born Chand Shakeela Begum to a Muslim family of mixed Tamil-Telegu descent in the town of Kodambakkam in Tamil Nadu, a place first famous as a site for the production of all south Indian films, and since the 1980s as a hub for low-budget productions.40 If for the Malayali male imagination, soft porn was an ambivalent space where the sexual imagination was defined in conjunction with what was otherwise considered taboo, Shakeela's on-screen persona was a totem that stood for all that was culturally ostracized but privately desired. In her autobiography, Shakeela describes how her films catered to an audience who found expression for their fantasies in certain parts of her body.41 The public imagination of Shakeela as a series of desired body parts that could be zoomed in on and magnified was enabled by her status as an outsider. The Malayalam mainstream industry would never have allowed an “indigenous” actress, so to speak, to be foregrounded as a sex siren.42 In fact, the history of Malayalam cinema has been peppered with a slew of “outsider” actresses who emblematized exotic, desirable, and yet objectified bodies, for instance Vijayashree in the 1970s and Silk Smitha in the 1980s and early 1990s. The porn-star aura that Shakeela embodied in the late 1990s and 2000s was a particular variant of the sex-siren figure enabled by the industrial configurations of the time.
Shakeela's debut was in a supporting role at the age of seventeen in Play Girls (1994), a “sex education film” where she costarred with Silk Smitha. Shakeela's entry into the film industry was quite accidental. R. D. Sekhar, a makeup man and Shakeela's neighbor, offered her a role in the film, which he was producing. But while it was Smitha's diva image and alluring dance moves that helped her traverse film industries of multiple languages, the media celebrated Shakeela's success with the term sexpuyal, the “sex tempest,” who with her sheer screen presence was capable of outpacing even mainstream films in terms of box office. The film that cemented Shakeela's position as the sex bomb of Malayalam cinema was Kinnarathumbikal (Lovelorn Dragonflies, 2000, fig. 3), a debut venture by the hitherto unknown associate director R. J. Prasad, made with a meager budget of approximately US $17,000.43,Kinnarathumbikal went on to gross US $628,000, capitalizing on what one reviewer described as Shakeela's “dreamy eyes, puffed-up flesh squeezed within a low cut blouse and her deep, deep cleavage.”44
Set on a tea plantation, the film explores conflicts caused by the blossoming of complex desires amid the exploitative labor arrangements underlying the everyday lives of plantation laborers. Shakeela plays Dakshayini, a tea plucker who has a live-in relationship with the plantation supervisor, Sivan, but also has sexual escapades with the teenager Gopu. Gopu also has sexual relations with his elder cousin Revathy, who is the daughter of a tea plucker, while Sivan also desires Revathy's hand in marriage. A similar story line involving intergenerational desire was explored earlier in Rathinirvedham (Sexual Ecstasy, 1978) starring Jayabharti, and Layanam (Union, 1989), starring Silk Smitha. But in these films, narrative closure demanded that punitive justice be held against the female protagonist for her transgressive desire and resulted in the deaths of the female characters. In contrast, Kinnarathumbikal empowers Dakshayini, who feels betrayed by Sivan's desire for Revathy. Rejecting Sivan's advances, she incites Gopu to murder Sivan, thereby helping the cousins elope. A double assertion of agency is at work here. First, there is a strong refusal of patriarchal coitus by a woman who is treated as a disposable object. Second, despite the fact that marital relationships within the same family are permitted in certain south Indian communities, this works only when the woman is younger than the man; thus, there is also a rejection of marital mores activated by Shakeela's character.
One of the oft-quoted dialogues spoken by the character of Shakeela—“Is there anyone among us who hasn't committed sin?”—stands out to viewers of the film and to those who may have merely heard about it. The statement is directed at a hetero-patriarchal structure that berates women who are alleged to have multiple sexual partners as warranting social sanctions while allowing men to engage in extramarital relationships. As a strong statement against the double standards and hypocrisy that enwrap middle-class moral values, this surfaces as memes and quotes shared on fan sites and Twitter.45 There are even fan-created trailers for the film, with fictitious details of the production addressing Shakeela as “universal star.”46 The film banner for this production was inventively phrased as “Kanyaka Films” (Virgin Films), a turn of phrase that was later taken over in the 2013 K. R. Manoj–directed Kanyaka Talkies.
Similarly, “The Lost Entertainment,” a YouTube channel that creatively edits trailers for older films, curated a trailer for Kinnarathumbikal compiling highlights to evoke the original experience of watching it on-screen.47 The idea of loss implied in the phrase “The Lost Entertainment” speculates on how trailer culture may have worked if the digital platforms were available for older films. In the specific context of Kinnarathumbikal, this curation reimagines the publicity materials and contexts of reception to conjoin different generations of viewers (fig. 4).
Though soft-porn films were perceived to address mostly male viewers, one cannot totally ignore female viewership. For a while, these films were telecast on cable channels such as Surya TV in the late-night segment “Midnight Masala.” The reference to masala (spice) is a subtle allusion to the spicy scenes that could not be broadcast during prime time. Kinnarathumbikal was also telecast in 2002 on Asianet, a Malayalam-language satellite television channel. The appearance of a “soft-porn” film on prime time created a huge controversy, unleashing debates about televisuality and asleelatha (obscenity) in domestic interiors.48 A recent Facebook post by Deepa Nisanth, a literary figure, emphasizes the surreptitious pleasures the film provided. Nisanth recalls watching Kinnarathumbikal secretly when it was telecast on Surya TV, knowing all too well that her mother wouldn't approve.49 Her curiosity as a teenager was stirred by conversations in her college and teasing repartee directed at heavyset girls whom boys called “Shakeela.” In her deeply personal note, Nisanth writes about how much Shakeela's autobiography became crucial to understanding the “real” Shakeela and the trials and tribulations that made her a force to reckon with. Nisanth's post was widely shared and commented upon by many Facebook users, who also added their reminiscences of watching the film.
In a way, it was Shakeela's heavyset body that allowed her to fit into the archetype of the amorous “aunty.” This was a recurring trope in both visual and written forms of pornography throughout the country and a stereotype that allowed for imaginative access to the middle-aged woman next door as the key to many a male fantasy. Shakeela confirms this in her autobiography: “My large breasts and heavy body was what excited the audience. … If I didn't have this body, I may not have been able to make my career.”50 These films often paired Shakeela with young actors, and her growing popularity had a lot to do with how they stamped her with the image of a sexually deprived middle-aged woman on the lookout for teenagers to satisfy her desires. The cougar-like figure is denoted by the frequent use of the word chechi not only in Kinnarathumbikal, but also in other films and erotic pulp fiction. In Malayalam, chechi literally means “elder sister,” but colloquially also connotes an elder woman with whom one intends to engage in sex.51 Coupled with this imagination of a sexually deprived but desiring middle-aged woman, Shakeela's body became a locus of an excess that spilled out of the diegetic space of the narratives, allowing the spinning of many offscreen fantasies, which circulated in sensational “yellow” magazines like Fire and Crime.52
This template of intergenerational erotica would become popular in erotic cartoons after the decline of soft-porn films, especially in popular erotic comic series such as Savitha Bhabhi and Velamma, which regularly featured the sexual adventures of eponymous characters who tend to look for pleasures outside marriage (fig. 5).53
This location outside the space of domesticated desires also enabled the inauguration of Shakeela's fame as a “porn heroine,” a tag that was a near impossibility in a cultural context where stardom was associated solely with male actors and female roles were scripted to foreground normative codes of conduct in a patriarchal society. Here, Shakeela not only became the archetypal madakarani figure, unsettling societal expectations of what roles an actress should take up, but also inaugurated a mobilization of female pleasures in the sexual act, positing the woman as initiator of lovemaking. Her gaze directed at pleasure-seeking male viewers subverted earlier tropes of heterosexual intimacy where the male partner and his sexual drives structure the scene's composition. If success, popularity, and the ability to influence production decisions constitute the criteria for stardom, Shakeela was way ahead of many mainstream actresses whose memory faded the moment they stepped out of the industry. Films such as Miss Shakeela (1999) cashed in on her presence, and even her makeup man came to be known in film circles as Shakeela Ravi (Ravi being his actual name).
In my conversations with exhibitors and distributors of soft-porn films, many still remember the sway these films had on audiences, how they helped them wade through the crisis of dwindling audiences. For instance, the mainstream film distributor Sreekumar stated:
The name Shakeela evoked suspicion from purists who thought her films were nothing but an excuse for showing sex. But it saved many of us when mainstream Malayalam films of the time flopped in the box office, leaving us neck-deep in debt. It was the soft-porn boom that helped us to recover the loss.54
Contrary to the popular belief that soft-porn production was highly disorganized and scattered, many of my respondents spoke at length about the streamlined planning required for low-budget productions. While the reels of the “clean” prints were mostly processed in Gemini or Prasad labs in Chennai, there were exclusive sites where the explicit bits were processed, for instance Vasant Color Lab or RK Labs in Bangalore. Agents in Bangalore mediated between the distributors and the lab for a certain percentage of cut pieces from both parties. Some field representatives who used to accompany the boxes carrying film prints still recall giving assistance to projectionists to synchronize the bits with the “gap,” a term that in film circles means sequences that could plausibly precede or follow the cut piece.
One other factor crucial for the success of soft-porn films were the B- and C-center theaters that catered to semi-urban and less affluent audiences. Ticket prices here were comparatively lower due to lower tax rates. This allowed exhibitors to negotiate different models of profit sharing with the distributors—yet another instance of flourishing informal transactions that never existed on paper. If the theaters in the B and C centers usually had to wait for new releases until the films finished their first run at the A centers, soft-porn films were released to all centers in one go. In one way this catered to the aspirations of audiences in the outskirts to be on par with the audiences who usually got to see films first, a much-looked-for opportunity for many film buffs. The runaway success of soft-porn films also unsettled established distribution patterns that marked new releases only for the A centers and denoted B and C centers as zones solely for added revenues (fig. 6).
It was the B- and C-center theaters that increased the marketability of Shakeela as a star. The prefix “Shakeela” was added to specify films tagged as soft porn in general, such that theaters that screened Shakeela films were collectively titled the “Shakeela camp.”55 One field representative who had been sent to the “Shakeela camp” remembers how theater owners would confront him to confirm whether the film print had the real or the fake Shakeela—“real” and “fake” being operative terms used to identify films in which she had acted throughout and those where she featured for a few minutes as a token presence.
BETWEEN AN ETHICS AND A MEMORY OF SOFT PORN
By 2005, with the decline of soft porn, Shakeela herself became a reference to her previous glory, making only cameo appearances in comic roles. She even had cameos with mainstream actors such as Mohan Lal (Chotta Mumbai [Small Mumbai, 2007]), Vikram (Dhool [Dust, 2003]), and Vijay (Sukran ) capitalizing on her past glory. But as opposed to heroine-centric roles in soft-porn films, these roles could easily be forgotten if not for the fact that she managed to share screen space with mainstream actors from a system that had always disparaged her films. With her marginalization post-2005, Shakeela's career also began to mirror that of many other starlets who had come from outside and enjoyed a short stint in the industry (fig. 7).
To some extent, many in the industry still feel that Shakeela's image as the veritable signifier of soft-porn films hijacked a share of success that rightfully belonged to other actresses who starred in the films but are completely omitted in accounts of the era. One of the actors who starred opposite Shakeela recounts how when films were distributed as Shakeela films, even if they were recycled from shots of her earlier work, they still easily broke even or reaped profits. This process of recycling included both duplication as well as editing together small segments that featured Shakeela, even though the result might be a hodgepodge of exploitation films in Hindi and English. Shakeela's image was like a connective tissue that cohesively bound disparate fragments that would otherwise have seemed like a random mix of sexploitation shots. Familiarity with her image as an icon of soft porn became part and parcel of this fragment economy, and doubled up as a mode of foregrounding the artifice behind the image and the visual dynamics that invited audiences to break down the visual and aural sequences into smaller units. Here the precariousness of Shakeela's stardom as well as the limits of performative labor coalesced. Speaking about Shakeela's star value in the industry, one of my interviewees added:
Shakeela's remuneration was on a day-to-day basis, which was beneficial for her in some ways, but proved fatal to her career. There were many producers who were willing to pay her more than Rs.1 Lakh [US $1,400] for a day. But what she did not know was that these shots became parts of three or four films in the pipeline. There were even agents who helped mediate the sale of “unused” shots to prospective buyers.56
This informal economy came as a boost to soft porn, where transactions were based mostly on trust and mutual benefit. But like most unorganized ventures, the stakes of each party in the success or failure of the film were not clearly demarcated. This proved useful in the informal labor practices that it facilitated, but some parties gained or lost revenue because of market contingencies. There were times when cast and crew were ready to work without payment for days on end, with the guarantee of being paid once the producer got the money from the financier. This distinction from mainstream cinema was reiterated in many of my interviews with people associated with these films in varying capacities. “Now, you cannot imagine anyone ready to work under such constraints. … The unionization is so strong that the moment they feel that the producer is lax with payment, the unit stops functioning immediately,” said one of the production managers who earlier worked in soft porn.57 The money pooled into these films came from a variety of sources, including remittances from Gulf-returned Malayalis who thought of soft porn as a shortcut to easy money.58
But as a flip side, this association with easy money, low budgets, and low production quality began to be equated with a narrative of moral decay. The imagination of soft-porn films was peppered with anecdotes regarding the exploitation of junior artists and the existence of the casting couch. The directors and producers were alleged to have resorted to shady dealings, like the use of “open shots” (sexually explicit shots) to sell their films.59 It may be true that some of the films had erotic sequences that were shot and edited extraneously and entered different circuits, tagged in many porn websites under “hot-boob show” or “Mallu Aunty clips.”60 The larger discursive context within which these films were situated and the one-sided reviews they gathered made them notorious as sex films. Voicing his severe criticism of the way mainstream Indian cinema has portrayed soft porn as nothing short of prostitution, one of the producers who made a string of soft-porn films under a fictitious identity told me:
It was not like the mainstream cinema where the actresses after being cast are told to agree to “compromise” to retain their roles. Whoever comes to soft porn enters with the full knowledge of what is involved. … In spite of the sex and desire, there was a certain ethic that governed our interpersonal relations. It was not that everything was out there free for all.61
Shakeela, in the meantime, started taking up comic roles in mainstream Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada language films.62 However, she continued her popularity as a soft-porn actress by anchoring sex-education programs in Tamil television such as Antharangam (Personal Intimacy, 2016), telecast on 1TV, and Samayal Manthiram (Cooking Tricks, 2016), telecast on Captain TV. Following a phone-in talk-show format, both elevated Shakeela to the role of an information expert who mediated sex-related queries directly to the sexologist. Interestingly, while the sexologist himself was featured as a peddler of sexual myths and masculine performance from a strictly heterosexual perspective, Shakeela's presence as the initial point of contact for the caller allowed for a collective discussion of the roles she enacted on-screen and their relevance to sex ed.63 Shakeela's presence as a visual icon of soft porn was evoked time and again, as most of the callers were elated to share a word with her or show off their knowledge of her films. Thus, Shakeela's career in soft porn also enabled her to stand in as a facilitator for information regarding the callers' sexual lives. Another sex-education program, Thitthikkum Iravukal (Sweet Nights, 2016), made Shakeela's on-screen significance prominent in its narrative strategy. It devoted a substantial section of the program to sequences from Shakeela's films between responses from the sexologist to caller queries. Thus in a strange way Shakeela, her era of glory and her precarious labor, were recuperated for instrumental use in the sex-education programs.
Shakeela's influence in the industry was phenomenal, but she actively left soft porn after it fizzled around 2002, and the cameo roles she has played since hardly offer her the stardom that she formerly enjoyed. But then in 2013 there was wide-scale publicity around her return to Malayalam films; this time as director of Neelakurinhi Poothu (Neelakurinhi Is in Bloom). As part of the film's promotion, both Shakeela and the producer, Jaffar Kanjirapalli, appeared in many television and radio interviews. In these Shakeela emphasized that her directorial debut would give her a new beginning, and that this was in no way connected to the sex films she was earlier part of.64 Kanjirapalli, who is also vice president of FEFKA (Film Employees Federation of Kerala), was also an erstwhile producer of soft-porn films.65 However, the project ran into trouble when Shakeela expressed discomfort with Kanjirapalli's insistence that she enact the lead role as well as direct. Partially this was an effect of the print and visual media's speculations about the film's plotline, even before shooting started. For instance, a Times of India report quoted the producer as stating: “It's a sentimental movie co-directed by Shakeela on a woman who raised a daughter all alone fighting the odds. The movie will be a complete entertainer with spicy scenes of Shakeela underwater and in the attire of a fish seller. The shots will be taken in such a way that the censor board can never deny us certificate.”66 Neelakurinhi Poothu was shelved halfway into the preproduction phase.
Shakeela finally had her directorial debut two years later, in 2015, with the Telugu film Romantic Target. The film centers on a female vigilante who murders sexual predators who pose a threat to women's safety and dignity. Stressing the need for awareness of crimes against women, the film exposes the rampant exploitation of women by the powerful—a narrative thread popular in many soft-porn films as well. Despite Shakeela's cameo role as a police officer, it failed to win over audiences. As a response to an interviewer's question about its genre, Shakeela described it as dealing with a “lady-oriented subject.”67
The popular memory of soft porn in the recent past has not always been sensitive to the concerns of the film personnel and actors. The Bollywood film The Dirty Picture (2011), publicized widely as the biopic of Silk Smitha, is a case in point. The Dirty Picture is a prime example of how the mainstream film industry has capitalized on the lives of starlets by projecting them as helpless victims caught in the claws of an exploitative mafia (fig. 8).68 The soft-porn industry appears in the film in two crucial moments: first in the character of “Shakeela,” Silk's young and zesty rival who displaces her as the next sex bomb, and second in the depiction of the soft-porn industry as an exploitative arrangement where actresses are drugged and intimate moments captured without their consent. This was more in tune with anti-porn accounts, which posited soft porn within a template of moral decay and represented those involved as shrewd and calculating. But there is some anachronism in the narrative of The Dirty Picture. The reference to the Shakeela character might be a reference to the real Shakeela—the portrayal of a competitive relationship between the two through a song sequence posits a causal relationship between Silk Smitha's decline and Shakeela's emergence. Smitha did attain the status of a madakarani during her time, but never emblematized the genre of soft porn as Shakeela did. By situating Silk's character in a narrative of moral and professional decline and associating this decline with a particular industrial form, The Dirty Picture not only vilifies the soft-porn industry but also collapses two temporal moments. This slippage allows for the perception of all madakarani figures as soft-porn actresses, no matter that Malayalam soft porn, strictly speaking, emerged as a genre during Shakeela's reign; Smitha had died by the time Shakeela became a major presence.69
This anachronism is integral to the process of othering inherent in popular accounts of Malayalam film history. This anachronistic othering, I suggest, was also crucial to how the outsider madakarani figure became an index of taboo desire within a libidinal economy. At once voluptuous, profane, exotic, and threatening, the figure of the madakarani is denied contemporaneity in mainstream Malayali society. Madakarani figures such as Shakeela always point toward an elsewhere that is both geographic and temporal, for they belong to the time of the libidinal dream that clashes with the real time of Malayali society. For Shakeela, her decline made her many temporalities collapse. The image of Shakeela the porn star still circulates on the internet while the “real” Shakeela is consigned to the shadows of the silver screen.
A handful of legal obscenity cases were registered against Shakeela in different parts of south India. Of these, the case filed at the Tirunelveli district sessions court in 2003 involved a police raid in a theater, in which police confiscated what they described as “uncensored pornographic content” and arrested Shakeela and actor Dinesh on obscenity charges. The case dragged on for nine years and was finally dismissed for lack of substantial evidence. In one of her court appearances, Shakeela, a Muslim by birth, arrived clad in a burqa, earning the ire of an Islamic women's group that went on record to say: “She doesn't wear any clothes in films, how dare she choose symbols of Islam?”70 But Shakeela defended her stance by asserting her right to practice the religion in her own way, idealized neither as a radical sex liberationist nor as a pious Muslim woman. Another controversy was over the Malayalam film Kadambari (Wine, 2002), when the activist group Ayyankali Pada (Fighters of Ayyankali) took up a “cleansing” campaign against the soft-porn wave in Kerala.71 A group of activists attacked a theater with locally made bombs and burned a reel of the film in front of the audience.72
Shakeela, then, is not just denied a claim to mainstream Malayali society or her religious identity, but becomes a symbolic marker that can only exist within the memory of soft porn. Shakeela's autobiographical account and the upcoming biopic produced in multiple languages by Indrajit Lankesh is part of a recuperative effort to reinstate her voice and performance as important interventions in rethinking sexual politics. At the same time, the director claims that the film would be “rags-to-riches-to-rags story,” mapping “the hardships and rough phase when she was not getting films and was trying for character roles.”73 The film is still in production as I write, but the first-look poster gives a complicated picture of Shakeela that both embraces and distances her from the peculiar kind of stardom she was associated with. The tagline of the film, “Not a Porn Star,” shows the actress Richa Chadda, who is playing Shakeela in the film, standing in front of a wall scribbled with abuses directed at her (fig. 9). While the upper half of her body is covered in gold jewelry, the text on the wall includes negative comments on her skin color, weight, and religion. But she looks fearlessly straight at the camera.
The inclusion of the Malayalam word veshya, meaning “prostitute,” and a Tamil word that loosely translates as “fuck” in midst of the Hindi words signifies the localization of Shakeela as a south Indian figure despite the fact that her films had a pan-Indian appeal, thanks to the dubbing industry that flourished alongside soft-porn films. There is also an image of a penis that has been scribbled over, but enough traces remain to see what it is. The wall scribblings are uncannily similar to walls in the public restrooms and railway comfort stations filled with random names, abuses, doodles, and phone numbers. While the photograph was shared by Richa Chadda on her Twitter feed with the caption “Bold Is Gold,” the filmmakers drew inspiration for the image from Silk Smitha's film Miss Pamela (1989) and used this image to pay homage to Smitha. It was Smitha's “untimely tragic demise which led to the rise of Shakeela's popularity, and had it not been for Silk to pave the way with her unapologetic choices, Shakeela wouldn't have been so popular.”74
The promotion of the film details the face time Chadda had with Shakeela, a well-strategized move to possibly avoid the controversies of The Dirty Picture (Smitha's family filed a defamation suit, forcing the production team to desist tagging the film as Smitha's biopic). Whether or not the filmmakers used “Not a Porn Star” as rhetoric to move beyond the expected trajectory of sensationalism, the making of the film would have been unimaginable if not for Shakeela's aura as a soft-porn star. The porn-star status (and its corollary precarious stardom) had been Shakeela's unique selling point when her career was thriving. But to negate her distinct identity to “mainstream” the film misses the point. Needless to say, the demands and limitations placed by the genres of biopic and autobiography might have their role in framing the project in a particular light. However, the authenticity that the filmmakers are attempting to preserve by humanizing the subject should not do injustice to the particular time period and production practices that facilitated Shakeela's success and stardom. This kind of accuracy in a biopic privileges the “living subject” without implicating it within the facade of false empowerment.