Current Institutional Affiliation
Assistant Professor, Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin / Madison

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2018
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Film Studies, University of Southern California
The Transnational Journeys of Malayalam Soft-porn: Obscenity, Censorship and the Mediation of Desire

This dissertation tracks the social life of Malayalam-language soft-porn films in the south Indian state of Kerala and examines how they contributed to debates on obscenity in the public sphere. Appearing as an industrially recognized genre in the late 1990s, soft-porn films circulated in the same public sphere that saw the emergence of a fledgling LGBT movement, as well as the onset of sensational media reportage of sex scandals, and constantly drew on both of these in their narratives. Further, soft-porn films' intertextual nature allowed for a fusion of vernacular nuances with the transnational erotic charge of exploitation films imported from the United States in the 1980s. In doing so, soft-porn films incorporated transgressive desires and non-normative sexual practices that unsettled hetero-patriarchy as well as the predominant male-hero culture by shifting focus to the female actor as the fulcrum of casting and production decisions. I engage a two-pronged strategy to examine the production, circulation and exhibition history of soft-porn films. First, I employ an ethnographic lens, to explore how technicians, filmmakers, actors and distributors negotiated censorship regulations, trade union membership clauses and the mainstream film industry's exclusionary functioning that alienated the lower rung of the production units. Second, using a combination of archival research and narrative analysis, I track the emergence of the figure of the madakarani (sex-siren) in these films. As a sexually autonomous woman, unabashed about her upward mobility, the madakarani offers a new mode of looking at female pleasure and desire in the context of Indian cinema. With this mixed-methods approach combining archival research, ethnographic mapping and narrative analysis, I locate how film practice in India is caught amidst tense negotiations between obscenity, sexuality, import policy and censorship.