top of page
gemlab_white.png

Unlimited Data, Unlimited Desire: How Indian streaming platform ‘ALTT’ structures a relation between sex/desire, nationalism, and infrastructure

Sneha Kumar

Nov

2023

Unlimited Data, Unlimited Desire: How Indian streaming platform ‘ALTT’ structures a relation between sex/desire, nationalism, and infrastructure

Kamiyar (name changed) descending from the microwave tower. Courtesy Perveez Mody, 2008.

Perveez Mody begins her book The Intimate State: Love-Marriage and the Law in Delhi with a story about a 24-year-old Muslim man who scaled a microwave tower outside the New Delhi railway station in 1998 and declared an indefinite hunger strike.[1] His demand was that the President of India intervene on his behalf to bring his Hindu wife, taken away forcefully by her family, back to him. The man remained on a narrow ledge more than halfway up the tower and communicated with the media via a mobile phone and letters that he threw down or carefully lowered using a tied together string. In this instance of protest, the microwave tower, an integral infrastructure of information and entertainment circulation became a platform on which the state’s algorithms of desire and belonging, modes of censorship, and methods of resistance coalesced. Just as the microwave tower in this story becomes a site for the negotiation of desire—it’s expressions, embodiments, and politics—so, I argue, that the Indian streaming platform ALTBalaji (now called ALTT) positions the algorithm and unlimited data as infrastructures central to the productions and circulations of categories of sex and desire as entangled with the shifting aesthetics and affects of citizenship and belonging in the imaginations of contemporary Indian (Hindu) nationalisms, which are being constantly platformized via intricate digital systems such as India’s national identity card called Aadhar.


ALTT’s parent company, Balaji Telefilms Ltd, is a relatively large producer and distributor of Hindi film (Bollywood) and television. Ekta Kapoor, the Co-Managing Director of Balaji Telefilms Ltd, began her career as a Hindi television producer in the mid-1990’s in a post-liberalization India that was seeing an influx of Western goods and media. Her first show was a sitcom called Hum Paanch (Us Five, 1996-2006), which delved into the intricacies and absurdities of the Indian joint family, and contributed greatly to the initial popularity of the channel on which it was aired i.e., Zee Channel. This partnership would continue into the streaming market. Kapoor is most well-known, however, for the genre of the K-Serial including titles such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (A Mother-in-Law was also once a Daughter-in-Law, 2000-2008) and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki (Every Household’s Story, 2000-2008). These serials were primarily aired on Star Plus and leaned into a very palatial Hindu, upper-caste aesthetic, ideology, and sexual politics. It is important to note here that this period (the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s) also saw the meteoric rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, India’s current ruling Hindu nationalist party.


 Her foray into film production in the early 2000’s drifted away from the K-serial formula and began to lean into the sexual lives of young urban Indians as they intersected with technology, specifically the mobile phone. Launched under ALT Entertainment in 2017, which also produced films such as Love, Sex, aur Dhoka (Love, Sex, and Betrayal, Dibakar Banerjee, 2010) and Ragini MMS (Pawan Kripalani, 2011) that focused on sex as it was captured, circulated, and consumed by the mobile camera, ALTT was positioned as a diversification strategy whose content would appeal to young upwardly-mobile Indians in both the metropolises as well as smaller towns and cities.


In order to work through what I propose is a complex entanglement of sex, data, desire, and nationalism as structured by ALTT, I pose the following questions: Putting into conversation how the symbolic meanings attached to infrastructures become central to nationalisms,[2] [3] how modes of citizenship as belonging and belonging as citizenship are predicated on methods of categorization (including how notions of citizenship and belonging have changed with the introduction of digital forms of governance that also include forms of media distribution),[4] [5] [6] and how intimacy erupts along the pressing of algorithmic systems that maintain the boundaries of desire,[7] I ask how the streaming platform’s fetishization of unlimited data may be an iteration of an unlimited desire for legible and categorizable bodies as reflected in the growing ubiquity of digital governance platforms that legislate movement across various borders and boundaries. Here, I am influenced by Rahul Mukherjee’s “infrastructural imaginaries,” which he describes as the orientation of bodies toward physical infrastructures such that particular affective relationships are created between said bodies and infrastructures.[8] I extend and possibly even kink his framework to include the algorithm as infrastructure as well as what I refer to as ALTT’s produced notion of the ‘sexiness of data,’ which posits sex and desire as categories of prediction and personalization and possibly sheds new light on the implications of an infinitely reproducible standard of sex and sexuality. Embedded in this notion of data as sexy is ALTT’s content ecosystem that consists of networked relations between telecommunications companies such as Reliance Jio in India, Celcom in Malaysia, and Dialog Axiata in Sri Lanka and partnerships with other local streaming platforms such as Zee5 and MX Player. My conceptualization of a content ecosystem is indebted to Ishita Tiwary’s definition of a platform ecosystem as synergies between various kinds of infrastructures.[9]

 

Zooming into the particularities of the streaming platform, I consider how the genealogies of ALTT bring together histories of film, television, and the imagined national audience. I wonder about the role of the streaming platform in the production of a disciplined, appropriate, and categorical erotics that directs performances of desire toward the ends of a lewd Hindu nationalism, which is committed to the reproduction of the Hindu family form that Anjali Arondekar via Durba Mitra visualizes as a configuration of caste and conjugality that contains sexuality within the forms of the domestic and the patriarchal.[10] And finally, I look to the slippery concerns of censorship, the outrage against ALTT’s original series, and fan responses to content on the streaming platform, to see how both the state and its citizenry grapple with the tension between the private and the public, the traditional and the modern, and the vulgar and the respectable. In my understanding of the vulgar, I am guided by the work of Shailaja Paik, which places vulgarity as central to the sex-gender-caste complex and where vulgarity is necessarily associated with the excesses of the female body that entice caste transgression.[11] To this equation I add the conjugal anxieties of nationalism.


I argue that ALTT, through its rhetoric, structures a relationship between telecommunications infrastructures, data, algorithms, nationalism, and desire in a way that is unique to the digitalization of the Indian nation-state and its precursors. This rhetoric is made visible by company documents, journalistic pieces about the platform, interviews with the Managing Director and CEO, interviews with Ekta Kapoor, the owner of ALTT’s parent company, Balaji Telefilms Ltd., and the content on the platform itself. Besides reading about and around questions of the digital and the algorithmic as infrastructures in their own right and their role in reframing conceptualizations and fantasies of belonging, citizenship, and the body, I introduce desire as a throughline connecting these reframings through analyses of moments in Indian policy and media that have sought to maintain the categories of caste and religion as the overarching structures of Indian (Hindu) nationality and nationalism via the policing of sex and sexuality. These instances include, but are not limited to, how conversion to another religion by way of marriage in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh requires the person converting to register their biometric data with the state government, and how the matrimonial page in Indian newspapers involve the breaking down of personhood into consumable, appropriate categories. When exploring ALTT’s productions of desire, I want to work through, historicize, and position the aesthetics and erotics of two of its most popular original series as determined by viewership data disclosed by the streaming platform: Gandii Baat (Dirty Talk) - Urban Stories from Rural India (2018-present) and X.X.X Uncensored (2018-present). Centering the work of Michel Foucault,[12] Linda Williams,[13] and Sanjay Srivastava,[14] I look at how these two shows produce certain figures of a sex(ed) Hindu nationalism and the work of vulgarity in simultaneously critiquing and celebrating such figures in articles about these series and their hashtags on X (Twitter) and Instagram.


Streaming has come to occupy a relatively central role in the consumption of film and television in India especially with the rapid proliferation of mobile phones and telecommunications infrastructures. Scholarship on the streaming cultures of India have necessarily focused on placing the local streaming platform within larger histories of film and television hardwares, modes of distribution and circulation, practices of consumption, and audience-making in order to show how the Indian streaming platform’s logics differ from those of North America and Europe. My larger project, while also contributing to situating the Indian streaming platform within local and global contexts, brings to this work the question of the role of the streaming platform in the larger process of platforming the nation and nationalism. Furthermore, it raises the specter of sexuality to see if, and if so, how the predominance of the algorithmic in delimiting belonging, relations, and sex sheds light on the valences and violences of desire that seem central to this process of platformization.


 

Footnotes


[1] Perveez Mody, The Intimate State: Love-Marriage and the Law in Delhi (London, New York, and New Delhi: Routledge, 2008), xvi-xx. Return to text.

 

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1983), 9-36. Return to text.

 

[3] Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 327-343. Return to text.

 

[4] Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2000), 1-32. Return to text.

 

[5] Nishant Shah, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, and Nafis Aziz Hasan, Overload, Creep, Excess: An Internet from India (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2022), 67-120. Return to text.

 

[6] In fact, R.S. Sharma, the chairman of the Telecom Authority of India (TRAI) in 2017, saw the Digital Addressable System (DAS), which replaced all analogue systems of broadcast and cable television in India, as the aadhar or foundation of Digital India. Return to text.

 

[7] Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 1-36. Return to text.

 

[8] Rahul Mukherjee, “Jio sparks Disruption 2.0: infrastructural imaginaries and platform ecosystems in ‘Digital India’,” Media, Culture & Society 41, no. 2 (2018): 175-195. Return to text.

 

[9] Ishita Tiwary, “Amazon Prime Video: A Platform Ecosphere,” in Platform Capitalism in India, eds. Adrian Athique and Vibodh Parathasarathi (Cham: Palgrave MacMillan, 2020), 87-106.  Return to text.

 

[10] Anjali Arondekar, Abundance: Sexuality’s History (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2023), 114-115. Return to text.

 

[11] Shailaja Paik, The Vulgarity of Caste: Dalits, Sexuality, and Humanity in Modern India (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), 1-46. Return to text.

 

[12] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 36-49. Return to text.

 

[13] Linda Williams, Screening Sex (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), 1-24. Return to text.


[14] Sanjay Srivastava, “Street, Footpath, Gated Community: On the Cultures of Indian Pornography,” in Sexuality Studies, ed. Sanjay Srivastava (New Delhi: University of Oxford Press), 228-253. Return to text.


 

Sneha Kumar is a PhD student in Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University. Their current research looks at how streaming platforms serve as a lure into nationalism with the promise of “good” sex, with a specific focus on the Indian context. Their broader interests include platforms, specifically streaming and fan platforms and their intersections, data and its affects, and queer fan aesthetics and practices. They have a book chapter in publication that grapples with some of the arguments brought up in this piece titled “Searching for the ‘ALT’ in ALTBalaji (Platforms and the Moving Image, meson press, Forthcoming 2024).” Their work on queer fandom and its expressions can be found in the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures and Render.

bottom of page