Let’s talk about pulp fiction, not the Tarantino classic which is a worldwide favourite, but the genre itself that inspired it. Pulp fiction refers to a genre of racy, action-based, crime stories published in cheaply printed magazines from around 1900 to the 1950s, mostly in the United States. The name comes from the kind of material they were printed on; cheap, ragged-edged paper made from wood pulp. The stories were based on imaginary characters and events revolving around sex and crime with lurid imagery. They were produced in large quantities intended to reach a large population and weren’t of the greatest quality. Pulp fiction was the perfect example of a cheap thrill.
In India, this genre influenced thousands of , especially in Hindi. Surendra Mohan Pathak is a well-known name in Hindi pulp fiction who wrote 4-5 novels annually for 55 years. These novels became the ‘airport books’ of India vigorously read by anyone travelling anywhere. But apart from that, the magazines never quite adapted this genre, except for one — Madhur Kathayen.
Started in 1986 by Shailabh Rawat, Madhur Kathayen is the longest-running and probably the only pulp fiction magazine in India. Rawat, who is from Ranikhet in Uttarakhand, fell into writing on sex and crime by chance. He came to Delhi to prepare for the civil services exam in 1983 but soon found a job at Delhi Press’ women’s magazine Sarita. Later, Rawat joined Nai Sadi Prakashan and turned his attention to crime. “Newspapers and TV channels only touch the surface of a crime. We go into the human emotions, the conditions that led to the crime,’’ the creator.
Madhur Kathayen works in a photo-story format. It’s full of raunchy images of women, especially on the cover which is shot by the publication’s team itself. Shailabh oversees the entire project from the stories, which are collected by his team of reporters who talk to the police for actual crime incidents, to the editing of the magazines. He creates these pulp fiction-style storylines through kitschy images and dialogue boxes that if were filmed, you’d probably describe their style as B-grade. But they’re not. Madhur Kathayen is truly and quintessentially, Indian pulp fiction.
Shailabh Rawat has been accused of selling sex due to the nature of these magazines but he doesn’t agree. To him, this is pulp fiction, which is supposed to appeal to the lower mind; fascinated by vulgarity and violence. The stories published in the magazines are to some extent based on real-life incidents happening in India that don’t make it to the front pages of a newspaper because of their absurdity like adultery, sex crimes perpetrated by women and rituals that involve human sacrifice and sexual assault.
The magazine had an English version by Kai Friese called Crime & Detective that shut down in 2018. But Madhur Kathayen is still in publication. Shailabh believes that its longevity is credited to its accessibility among the middle and lower middle class living in remote areas where the internet is out of option. And that’s true. Most of us have streaming services and movies that have created art out of crime; Breaking Bad, Peaky Blinders, everything Martin Scorcese ever made; the best of the best. But to access them or even develop a taste for them is the characteristic of a particular demographic — one that is fluent in English. Madhur Kathayen is for everyone else.
Indian pulp fiction like this sounds ridiculous to us. Preposterous titles like ‘Pakhandi babaon ki vasna gatha’ and ‘Ek thi Sheela, hawas ki leela’ feel cheap and disgusting. We’re into stories of sex and violence but only if it’s elite, avant-garde, predominantly American, British or European. And not just recent generations that grew up globally connected with the internet, even the previous ones shamed and condemned Madhur Kathayen which generally has had a bad name in India. Not in France, though.Musée du Quai Branly’s Photoquai, a major event in the world of photography happening biennially, selected a frame from Madhur Kathayen and displayed it in their exhibition by the Seine river. That was probably the only recognition Shailabh and his publication got, and it came from out of the country which says more about us than about the magazine.
Since before it was cool or even legal, Madhur Kathayen was featuring same-sex love stories. The magazine was talking about polygamy, adultery, pedophilia, prostitution, and grizzly sex-crimes way back in the 90s in a culture that reveres repression. It wasn’t totally progressive but it was bold and ahead of its time. Feminists, including myself, would bring the good ol’ ‘objectification of women’ argument to the table when talking about the images featured in the magazine but the women who did those shoots were happy with their work. They speak about it affectionately in a documentary on Madhur Kathayen by 101 India. Apart from some pushback from their families, they enjoyed participating in the process because it was different, sensational and something that no one was doing at the time. Even Shailabh believed that he was only reflecting what was going on in society with some female-driven narratives as well. Bottomline, it was just a specific art of storytelling.
Madhur Kathayen has lost its readers over the years from 2 lakhs sold copies to 90,000 a month which is still a substantial amount and the fact that it’s still running today despite all the content available online speaks volumes about our culture. Indians carry internalized shame about our country and people which could be a direct result of our colonization. It reflects in body shaming, colourism, our beliefs of white supremacy and our thoughts about immigration. The repression of basic human emotions and desires in the name of tradition and values doesn’t help either.
In a society like ours, Madhur Kathayen becomes a mirror which reflects our own hypocrisy which seeks liberation but accepts it only when it’s external. There’s only a limited amount of desi we find palatable especially when it comes to bodies and sexuality. We’d rather look at an artistic photo series by a visual artist using nudity and the female form as a 'narrative' than the busty women of Pulp Fiction who are using that medium to find comfort in their own sexuality that society dictates them to be shameful of. It challenges our euro-centric gaze and directly attacks the repressive, stigmatic nature of our culture which, honestly, is the root of almost all criminal tendencies.
You can find the documentary about Shabilabh Rawat and Madhur Kathayen below.