Five people in the know narrate the sordid story that is fast exploding into a pornography scandal, allegedly involving businessman Raj Kundra.
Some time on February 4, 2021, a Thursday, even as the city was reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic, when a team of sleuths from the property cell of the Mumbai police's Crime Branch swooped down on a bungalow in Madh Island -- a picturesque locale, often visited by picnickers, beach-bums, lovey-dovey couples in search of privacy, in Mumbai's northern suburb of Malad -- little did they know that this raid would lead to the arrest of businessman Ripu Sudan Balkrishna Kundra, known as Raj Kundra, five months later.
Kundra, 47, who was arrested by the Crime Branch on July 19 on the charge of being a 'key conspirator' in the alleged creation and publishing of pornographic content via mobile apps, has been sent to police custody till July 23 by a Mumbai court, along with his IT head Ryan Thorpe.
Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com spoke with five people in the know of the porn industry's workings and of Kundra's alleged link to the case to construct this account. These five spoke on the condition that their identity would not be revealed.
The billion rupee business model
Let's talk about the topline of the porn industry in India first. A ballpark figure estimated by people in the know puts it at anywhere from Rs 20 crore to Rs 30 crore per month, which translates into Rs 240 crore (Rs 2.4 billion; Rs 1 billion = Rs 100 crore) to Rs 360 crore (Rs 3.4 billion) per annum.
And that is what attracts savvy businessmen to dip their toes in the porn industry.
"These are professionally run businesses, with a profit motive, with professionals at the helm who rake in crores of rupees with a paltry investment of just a few lakh rupees (1 lakh = 100,000)."
According to these insiders, the investments include renting bungalows, away from the public and police's eye, that dot the scenic shoreline that stretches from Aksa Beach to Erangal to Dana Pani to Madh Island (local fishing villages in Malad).
"Throw in Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 5 lakh per day to rent one of these bungalows, bring in some desperate videographers, directors, bring in some equally desperate male and female models and wannabe actors, desperately seeking to make ends meet once their Bollywood or modelling dreams fail to take off, shoot four-five porn videos that each last anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour, and publish these from a foreign country to paid subscribers via a mobile app and you end up doing business worth Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million) or more every month."
Porno-nomics: Economics of porn
"Developing a mobile app is also not very expensive. The rent for shooting gear is also not too expensive. Once the content is ready, it is streamed to paid subscribers who shell out anywhere between Rs 199 and Rs 299 per month to watch porn that has Indian actors in it."
"There is a huge demand for porn videos featuring Indian actors, with Indians across the world subscribing to such pornographic material even when Web sites that stream free porn films are easily available via the Internet."
The COVID-19 lockdown has proved to be a bonanza for this business.
"With people having time on their hands, and mobile phones acting as a handy tool, watching porn on the go and its immediate availability have never been this easy. Spending Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000 for an annual subscription is no big deal for many these days. Then you have monthly subscriptions too for those who don't prefer or can't afford to go for annual subscription."
"Forget the actual industry figures for those having active mobile Internet with good bandwidths (necessary to stream high resolution videos) in India. Even if 10 lakh (one million) subscribers go for such apps that stream porn by paying anywhere between Rs 199 and Rs 299 every month for such services, the figure runs into Rs 24 crore to Rs 30 crore every month."
"Now, imagine if out of 90 crore (900 million) active mobile Internet users in India, one crore (10 million) subscribers -- which is worth a well-researched study -- all over India or the globe were to avail of such services then this easily makes India's home-grown porn industry worth half a billion US dollars every year."
The scary part is...
And this is where questions of ethics, consent, and consequently charges of exploitation, force, inducements by some of the actors, who willingly or unwillingly become a part of this enterprise, intervention of law enforcement agencies, make their entry to spoil the porn industry's boom and spread.
"First they cajole these girls into doing short auditions that involve intimate scenes. The reluctant ones are told that if they do their auditions well they would be given a chance to act in big banner Bollywood films, or high-paying modelling assignments."
"Gradually, they add on to inducements, higher payments which almost certainly don't materialise, sometimes threats too, and make them do semi-nude and kissing scenes as part of the auditions."
"The final stage is getting these girls to act in a full-blown porn film. There are survivors who have lodged complaints of this nature. These girls are promised lakhs of rupees for acting in such films but what they get after the shooting is no more than Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000."
Many young women accept it as their fate: Some fear the ignominy and stigma that come with exposing their identities as porn stars, while some fear the influence and power exercised by the final beneficiaries of these films, who pocket the largest profit chunks that originate from the business.
"Many girls have been threatened, blackmailed, asked to stay quiet; those who don't shut up are blackmailed by showing them their recorded clips or threatened that their careers would be finished if they act smart."
The Kundra connection
Raj Kundra's name cropped up in late February-early March when Umesh Kamat -- a former employee on Kundra's payroll who allegedly coordinated the HotShots app before he joined London-based Kenrin -- was taken into custody by the Crime Branch.
"We were able to link detailed clues of his (Kundra's) alleged involvement. He was called in for questioning on a number of occasions between March and July for his link with Armsprime Media, a celebrity app maker and content creator, in which he had invested in 2019. But he said he had resigned from the directorship of Armsprime Media last year and produced documents as well to that effect."
Visit the Web site and this is what flashes in front of your eyes:
Scroll down and you will see a collage of celebs among four dozen thumbnails.
As on July 21, the group's Web site armsprime.com showcases three apps -- Celebyte, SuperFan App and Desiplex.
While Celebyte provides a dedicated app to celebrities to monetise their 'spare time', fulfill fan requests and widen their fan base, SuperFan is an 'exclusive app' that allows celebrities to 'interact and broadcast' to their fans with the ability to monetise their engagement in 15+ ways; and Desiplex lets celebs 'publish content and interact with fans'.
Interestingly, armsprime.com, which has a Twitter handle since 2019, has only 172 followers despite claiming to be 'India's largest content monetisation company for talented creators and allows only 'approved followers' to see its tweets.
Note: An e-mail request sent to armsprime.com asking for comment went unanswered till this report was published.
The tab that gives information about the 'Team' that handles armsprice.com went missing just before midnight.
"However, the apps that were allegedly used to stream porn films were 'HotHits' and 'HotShots'. Both these apps were on Google Store and Apple iStore but were subsequently blacklisted and removed in 2020 when complaints about these apps streaming pornographic content surfaced."
"While the content was created in India with the help of Indian citizens, the same was published and distributed by Kenrin Pvt Ltd, a London-based company, with whom Kundra's Viaan Industries allegedly has a tie-up."
"The company (Kenrin) is allegedly owned by Kundra's brother-in-law. During investigations we came across several apps that were used to stream the pornographic content and all these apps were developed by Armsprime Media."
Some time in February 2021, the property cell of the Mumbai Crime Branch received a tip off that young women were lured into acting in semi-porn films through advertisements in newspapers and later induced into making porn films.
A team led by Senior Inspector Kedari Pawar and Laxmikant Salunke, who later investigated the case till his transfer out of the Crime Branch, raided the bungalow in Madh Island and arrested five persons, including two women, setting off the chain of events that culminated in Kundra's arrest.
The Crime Branch team also rescued a 25-year-old woman, who was later sent to a rehabilitation programme.
Arjun Rajane, the investigating officer from the Malvani police station where an FIR was registered against those arrested in the raid on February 4, 2021, said, "All the accused were brought to the Malvani police station and an FIR registered against them here."
"But soon after, the case was transferred to the property cell of the Mumbai Crime Branch (the team led by Inspector Kedari Pawar and Laxmikant Salunke) which raided the bungalow in the first place. The accused were brought here because the crime took place under our jurisdiction."
The accused were arrested under case number 103/2021 and charged under Sections 292, 293, 420, 34 of the Indian Penal Code; under Sections 67, 67A of the Information Technology Act; and under Sections 2(g), 3, 4, 6 and 7 of Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986.