Multimedia reporter Ben Piven spent nine months living and researching in Mumbai, India. He describes the country’s response to a government ban on a cartoon porn star and its cultural attitudes towards sex.
Indian netizens are mourning the passing of an Internet comic heroine, weeks after the country’s Ministry of Telecommunications banned this contemporary take on Kama Sutra for violating public decency.
Having gained a following of over 200,000 Internet viewers per day and 30,000 e-mail subscribers, Savita Bhabhi’s tendency to shed her sari represented a dramatic departure from traditional norms of Indian sexuality. Though a mere animated online character, Savita Bhabhi’s viewers faithfully watched her pornographic cartoon sequences — published in 10 Indian languages and in English — for its racy content and explorations of infidelity.
Indian left-leaning newsweekly magazine Tehelka praised the comic for its ability to “poke fun at the coy Indian attitude towards sexuality.” An editorial titled Bhabhi Anticlimax derided the government’s decision:
A PROMISCUOUS BHABHI is the latest threat to the sovereignty of our nation — that’s what our government would have us believe. Not the real life ones (we’ll pretend those don’t exist) but a wanton cartoon caricature so raunchy, she might be too real for the IT ministry’s comfort. They had to ban her.
“Bhabhi” is the Hindi term for “sister-in-law” but more closely connotes the American slang term “MILF” in this context. The cartoon, which has 12 episodes that ran in less than a year, is an escape from the sexual repression of Indian middle-class life. The last episode, “College Girl Savvil,” was released on July 1.
The assertive and well-endowed seductress — whose response to the global recession was a menage-a-trois with her female co-worker and boss — clashed with India’s anti-pornography laws. The creator of the Savita Bhabhi series initially went by the names “Deshmukh” and “Indian Porn Empire.” But 38-year-old British-Indian businessman Puneet Agarwal emerged as the creator of the trailblazing cartoon, which combines Hindu religious mythology with modern sexual sensibilities.
In response to the Indian government’s June 3 order for India Internet service providers to block the site, Agarwal’s Save Savita campaign attracted the attention of millions. Indian dailies have been running headlines pleading the public to file Right to Information complaints that would reverse the unpopular ban on Savita Bhabhi.
But since last week, when Agarwal capitulated due to personal reasons, the Indian blogosphere has been awash in RIP notices and eulogies for the toon porn star with a ravenous appetite for misadventures with milk men, old lovers and cricket stars.
During my nine months of research in Mumbai, I did not see much libertine expression of sexuality — despite living in a relatively liberal and upscale area of India’s most cosmopolitan city. But in speaking with some of my Mumbai friends recently, I realized that Savita Bhabhi threatens Indian sensibility.
“Her sexual escapades have brought about a lot of curiousity among readers who get a kick out of reading Savita in action,” said Pritesh Jethwani, a stockbroker in Mumbai who confirmed that the block prevents him from viewing Savita’s online exploits. “I think the cartoon is trashy. But from a democratic point of view, I oppose the ban.”
With women’s liberation activists also unhappy about the government ban, conservative forces in India revel in the triumph of traditional values. No longer will Indian sexual hypocrisies be exposed to Internet voyeurs in such a public forum — unless Savita’s programmers create proxy sites that allow Indian viewers to dodge the ban.
– Ben Piven