Life | Bhabhi Girl

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Bhabhi Girl
Text by Supriya Nair
Published: Volume 16, Issue 12, December, 2008

She’s young, lonely, and a comic book character. Supriya Nair comes to grips with the sudden rise to prominence of Savita Bhabhi

Pornography does not, as a rule, appear in my email inbox. What broke through my (and everyone else’s) spam filters earlier this year, however, was unique even for that jaded genre of entertainment. It was a series of comic book images, produced in clean lines and solid colour in the style of that staple of Indian childhood, Amar Chitra Katha, and it told a story almost as old as the ACK folk tales – that of the lonely housewife entertaining her male house guests.

The housewife is Savita Bhabhi, the fictional protagonist at the centre of a storm of public attention this year. She is a figure in the mould of the ‘aunty’ of a certain sort of fantasy, much-married, dark-haired and of ample breast. In a convenient compromise, she is also young and lissome, with a belly as flat as a superheroine’s. Her stories rarely veer off the beaten path of the genre’s narrative – an assortment of men in nominally submissive roles (think adolescent cricketers who have broken a window and travelling salesmen) ring Savita Bhabhi’s doorbell and end up being treated real friendly-like by the courteous and amiable matron with a penchant for leaving the bathroom door unlocked as she changes clothes.

Newspapers in the United Kingdom and the United States have picked up on her immense popularity, wondering if it heralds a dawning sense of sexual candour in Indian society; men’s magazines are less than discreetly jubilant about the advent of a bold new heroine; the first rumbles of government alarm are sounding in the occasional press report; on the Internet, and bloggers and writers no longer need to provide explanations to their audiences about who they are referring to when they talk of ‘the hot bhabhi’.

So here is an interesting crossover production – this character shorthand, this quick and easy signposting of a stereotype, has somehow entered the mainstream, and is going where no porn has gone before. The popularity of the comics is not in itself surprising. What goes unseen in popular culture, distributed through pavement booksellers, late-night cable and illegal downloads in cybercafés, has always formed the unseen base of the iceberg. But something makes the Savita Bhabhi comics far more visible, and far more talked about out in the open, than other works of its ilk.

One reason is mundane but vitally important: it’s just much simpler to access. To know if a commodity is in demand online, you only have to ask yourself if someone in India will use their creaky dial-up connection and poor hardware to download it. In the erotica business, to this day, when more and more people in other countries are dropping out of the porn consumption cycle and spending their time on Facebook, the answer is a resounding yes. Forwarding comic book images in email, or collecting them on a pen drive, is so much less trouble than trying to pass around a video clip, it’s no wonder that dissemination has been so easy.

Another factor is their uniqueness of form. The advent of cinema rendered the raunchy woodcuts of Victoriana extinct; the immense amounts of time and effort expended on sketching dirty books habitually produce much lower returns than an investment in a shuttered room with a camera, an appropriate mise-en-scène and an hour. Comic-book pornography is nothing new in countries with different approaches to sexuality and obscenity law (and, I dare say, to comics), but something of a rarity in India. To consider a Savita Bhabhi comic, as a woman, is to bridge the divide between pictures and the written word that academics have long talked of as a gender issue: that women respond rather less to visual stimuli and rather more to textual ones – like the souped-up ‘mature’ Mills & Boon novels - than men. It also eliminates one very serious feminist concern about the means of production; questions of consent and compensation aren’t relevant to a cartoon.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these comics is their language. Rooted in the conventions of very Indian iconography and genre codes, the characters speak in English. It is a garbled, misspelt English, reliant on Hindi translations and phonetics, full of the flavour of the third or fourth language of the small-town, high-school educated Indian, the kind of men and women who are increasingly finding voices and recognisable faces in our advertisements and television programming. The gaucherie of this has kept certain kinds of readers entertained on more than one level, and are sometimes so over the top – an especially memorable panel involves characters chanting “fak!” over and over, in the throes of pleasure – that the premise of the comics tips over into a surreal irony, leaving you to wonder if they are the work of a talented and very classist humourist.

The act of consuming the Savita Bhabhi narratives is, I suppose, a thrill on several interconnected levels. There is the forbidden act of adultery embedded in the larger context of getting a forbidden kick out of a forbidden product. The raunchy and earthy humour lends a certain vibrancy. I can see that Savita Bhabhi may be something of a tour de force in her own genre. Not for me, though. I am more impressed by the dissemination of the stories, and their normalisation in parts of the mainstream, than I am by the comics themselves. There is something almost touching about the painstaking detail that goes into drawing and producing these works. But there is nothing bold or beautiful or, once you scratch the surface, any more appealing to an audience looking for something other than titillation. The comics advance no particular notions of sexual liberation or female freedom. And like most porn produced by men for men, they’re not much use to women.

Bring her to life, and Savita Bhabhi would be an unremarkable series of clips knocking about in the underbelly of the Internet. It’s in her two-dimensionality that she slips through the firewalls of the Web – and of popular culture.

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