Inside the world of a bikini model

Aastha Atray Banan

Home truths: Sunita with her nephew
Home truths: Sunita with her nephew, Photo :MS Gopal

WHEN ADITYA Sharma was 15, he made a monthly pilgrimage to the magazine stand. Sometimes he had saved enough to buy. Sometimes he could only flip through. At 25, he remembers the girls, their big breasts, their round bottoms, what he describes as their “lusty bedroom eyes” fondly. At 15, he never asked himself why the girls in Debonair magazine made his blood rush. “These random girls stoked every sexual fantasy possible. Just looking at those eyes and those bodies made me want to ‘do’ them. And I did do them in my head every day,” he says. “It was also easy to think of them that way because they were in a bikini, and a bikini was only worn by sluts, right? That’s how we used to think back then.”
Bikini model Sunita Rambhal, who was on the cover of Debonair in May, could take offence at this statement but the 23-year-old is both practical and has a devil-may-care attitude. You may be forgiven if you don’t recognise Sunita, but that’s just because she’s not graced the glossier pages of a GQ, Maxim, Vogue or even a Kingfisher Calendar — the “acceptable” avenues to appear in a bikini in India. In Debonair of May, sprawled in seductive poses in a five-page spread, she spouts nuggets on fitness or the perils of being a model. Sunita had done bikini shoots before for catalogues and calendars. Hitting the cover of Debonair was big — even though the hey-days of high-profile editors such as Vinod Mehta and Anil Dharker and resplendent nudity are all long gone. A few days after the magazine hit the stands, a voice from an unknown number called Sunita and demanded she sleep with him or she’d be killed. When she filed a police complaint, the cop remarked, “Aisa picture hoga toh aisa hi hoga.
In her Navi Mumbai residence, Sunita looks out of place in the small living room, with makeshift curtains and an old settee. A joint family that includes two brothers and their families, her mother and a younger brother, go in and out. No one even looks at Sunita, whose make-up and brown halter top is camera-ready.
Sunita lights a cigarette and offers us one too. She tells us, “Though we are from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, and I guess we should be traditional, my parents are okay with what I do.” To Sunita, the world outside is a little less accepting. “My neighbours stare at me in the lift with undisguised hostility. People I go and meet for jobs ask me to do the deed with them. I don’t understand. If Kareena (Kapoor) can wear a bikini, why can’t I?” she pauses, “They don’t realise it’s a job.” She takes another puff and smiles at her five-year-old nephew who is staring intently at his aunt.
“I have set some limitations for myself. I won’t go nude. At the same time, if I don’t show some flesh, kaise chalega?” she says. After college, Sunita sat at auditions instead of the graphic design job she’d studied for. A handful of Bhojpuri films, a couple of TV serials and 25 bikini shoots later, she doesn’t regret her decision. “I get paid between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh for a shoot. Where else will I get this kind of money?”

‘I can pose nude but not in India. I do bikinis because I can carry it off – I am super skinny. And society? Who cares,’ says 21-year-old Sony Kaur

Sunita’s is not an occupation for the faint-hearted. An Internet search for “Indian bikini models” will direct you to sleazy websites where hundreds of girls pose and preen in garish bikinis and enormous pouts. Only a handful of fashion magazines carry bikini spreads and to make it there — to its expensive respectability — is a one in a million chance. The magazines Sunita and her compatriots pose for are often sold only at the railway stations and bought oh-so-clandestinely. Even the Indian lingerie market prefers to have East European models who are too somnolent to be accused of any raunchiness.
This is also not the industry to look for the self reflexive. Sagar Mindhe, 27, is a freelance photographer who shot Sunita for Debonair. He has been shooting bikini models since 2005. When he does shoot forDebonair, he locates and auditions models who will follow the magazine’s brief of ‘showing skin’. The magazine decides which girl will be on the cover. Unlike the other shoots Sagar and crew do, this one is entirely pro bono. Being on the cover of Debonair or shooting theDebonair girls ought to be payment enough. Editorial input consists of a five-minute interview of the model for the vacuous nuggets that accompany the spread.
Sagar feels bikini models get shady assignments because they are perceived as “bold”. His tautology continues. “If some models market themselves properly, they can make it to the big league, but most are C-grade. Most of the pictures tend to look sleazy but I try to make them classy. It all depends on the magazine. And the model — the most important thing for a model is to be able to connect with the audience,” laughs Sagar. He says being a bikini model comes with some nasty baggage. “When I show the pictures in my portfolio to other clients, they ask if the girl is a prostitute as well.”
Photographer Kaustub Kamble, 31, emphasises on the short shelf life of bikini models, “Once they are 25, they better find something else to do. These days even 17-year-olds are bikini models. Indian girls are also not as good as their firang counterparts. Once in a bikini, they go blank. I think a good attitude matters most.” Photographer Jayesh Sheth, who has been in the business for three decades, has a less ephemeral checklist, “Broad shoulders, big bust, big round bums, flat midriff, long legs and, yes, no stretch marks!”

‘I saw an actress, who plays a Sati Savitri in a soap, going mad after a round of coke. I want to tell people, I am the real Sati Savitri,’ says Sunita

MODELS SHARMISTHA Chakra, 23, and Sony Kaur, 21, know all about the check-lists. Sony moved from Hyderabad to Mumbai two years ago. She has done a Debonair shoot and 15 other bikini shoots. “I can even pose nude but not in India. I do bikinis because I can carry it off — I am super skinny. As far as society is concerned, who cares. I am not vulgar and that’s what matters.” Sharmistha remembers when she first started out and her Bengali relatives referred to her as “gandagi” “For me, a bikini is like my body part, and I am just so at home with it. Most of the shoots are professional. If you don’t misbehave, no one will. Bas.

Served haute Debonair’s May cover
Served haute Debonair’s May cover

Back in Navi Mumbai, Sunita shares Sharmistha’s superstitious can-do spirit — that if you somehow have the ‘right persona’, no man will harass you. We get talking about the casting couch. Sunita has a “godfather” in the industry. A horror film producer called Raaj Varma has given her advice on how to handle her career since she started off a year ago. “He has never asked me to do anything with or for him. If you have a persona that says you are not interested in such things, nobody will waste time asking you. Anyway, I do have a boyfriend. He is the one who told me to go ahead with Debonair,” she says.
This is not the story of a single girl supporting her family through a sleazy business. Sunita would be the first to laugh at such a morality tale. Her brothers, who run the oil tanker business her father set up, are well-off. A fact she is grateful for. “I have seen girls who have to send money back home. They just go in and say I will sleep with you, give me the shoot.”
As we speak, Sunita poses for the camera saying this is the first time she has been asked to smile and not produce a pout. In her conversations, you hear the constant oscillation between a world in which she is Sunita, a commodity for any reader to partake of and a world in which she is the warm, loving and well-loved Sunita.
Like everyone else, Sunita loves to party. You will find her and old friends at Mumbai’s JW Marriott’s Enigma every Wednesday dancing to Bollywood hits and at Blue Frog on weekends. “You won’t believe some things you see in this job. At a New Year party in Goa, I saw a model, the wife of an actor, snorting coke and smooching whoever was in sight. I also saw an actress, who plays a Sati Savitri in a soap, going mad after a round of coke. I felt like telling people, I am the real Sati Savitri.”
Wait for the switch. When the talk steers towards her body, she refers to it as a ‘product’. “As a woman, you are never satisfied with your body. You’ve to take care of your body. If you won’t love the product, how will the audience love the product?” Then the switch again. Sunita says she still gets the jitters when she has to strip down to a bikini. “These shoots are professional but there are 20 men watching — some who make you uncomfortable.”
For Sunita, there is always ambition to steady her between oscillations. “I may be doing a GQ shoot soon. And hopefully that will change my life. My aim in life is to do a movie with Salman Khan and act in a Hollywood film. I want to do an action movie like Angelina Jolie. You just wait and see. Until then, I just want to say this: I am an Indian bikini model, and I still have morals.” She erupts into furious giggles.
Aastha Atray Banan is a Senior Correspondent, Mumbai with Tehelka.