In Plain Sight
Growing up, I attended a Catholic school in Mumbai. Despite all the “good” lessons we learnt, Sex Ed was abysmally poor, even at its very best. Due to India’s societal structures, discussions about sex are reduced to hushed, private conversations away from public scrutiny. One does not converse about sex in terms of being a physiological need, even though Maslow would call it a necessity to function optimally.
In the absence of substantial Sex Ed, porn has been, and still is, most Indians’ first foray into the world of sex. For the privileged, this may be within their worldview, but for the larger masses, seeing blonde Caucasian women in titillating poses wearing fishnet stockings, thongs and red stilettoes is perhaps too large a mental leap to make.
Within this cultural context, there’s an industry that exists in the shadows of the relatively chaste mainstream Indian cinema. It employs cheaper technology and has poorer production quality than its counterpart in the West, but the on-screen universe is more within reach for the average viewer. The market for these raunchy B- and C- grade films, as we know them, is primarily built upon preconceived notions about the relationship between genders with respect to sexual pleasure, and the movies’ hyper-sexualised stimuli bring alive fantasies and satiate physical needs (over a mishmash of genres) – an outlet which is otherwise restricted. One can exist within this parallel world of fantasy to function optimally. But there are limited ways to access it, primarily through private viewings. And for women, the promotional posters are likely all they will be able to see.
The posters can usually be found plastered onto the open walls of a city. They are strategically placed in locations frequented largely by the men who are the intended audience. Unlike most major Indian cinematic productions, big-budget trailers and promotions are not an option here. So, the function of these posters is to almost “cat call” and grab the male gaze in an over-populated visual world.
The art of the poster works within a framework that reiterates the age-old idea that sex sells. Suggestive nomenclature is used in the titles – words like “kamaal” (amazing), “laal” (red), “garam” (hot), “taaza” (fresh) or “tadap” (yearning) are meant to fuel the imagination. With the localisation element, the films become a bit more relatable to their audience. The layouts of the posters are designed like tabloids where the text integrates with large imagery, implicating scandal. Multiple photographs in different angles are put together in a collage of paparazzi-like shots. And if you were to line the posters up next to each other, you would see that they follow a similar visual pattern that unifies them as part of the same aesthetic world.
The women (who are usually Indian, but a Caucasian face is used on occasion) portrayed in the posters most often have their hair down and are clad in lingerie, low-cut blouses or semi-transparent clothing. Their cleavage (considered the “entry point” for the mind to travel) is prominently displayed, along with accentuated waistlines. The female form is further objectified by being photographed in sensual poses: lying down with one leg raised to show off more skin or atop a man, or on a beach with arms invitingly raised. Another commonality is pouted lips or an open mouth, both of which are common symbols of the concept of pleasure and obvious choices for the close-up shots. The men on the posters often represent traditional masculine aggression or are portrayed as the ones who save the day or provides the said pleasure.
Colour is incorporated very strategically: yellow for highlights, red for allure and black for seduction are the popular choices. Gradients are used to blend together the multiple photographs, type and textural inferences, which adds to the overall oomph factor and makes it look like a spectacle. Typography is minimal, with the title taking the main focus; simple type styles are embellished with inlines, outlines and drop shadows. The variations within the film names – Call Girl, Prem Sutra, Taaza Maaza, Garam Padosan – are what create the small differentiation in an otherwise generic marketplace. While some posters use local languages, English is the favoured choice of script. Bilingual titles are rarely seen.
The styling, photographs and composition can be perhaps likened to the promotional imagery of popular ’50s and ’60s Hollywood movies like Dr. No, Gone with the Wind or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, among others, and there are even hints of Playboy covers from the Hugh Hefner days. As we have continually seen over the years, sex does sell, and it sells well.
The main strategy is to focus on the tease. The combination of nomenclature and tantalising visuals that fetishise the female body, along with the colours and styling, more often than not leave the intended audience wanting more. The key lies in the nuance of how much to show and how much to let the viewer imagine. The perfect mix is successful in grabbing the attention of the walking male gaze, leading to a ticket sale – for private viewing only.