I still remember the very first copy of Playboy I ever saw. I was thirteen, and an older friend showed me a copy. I was too embarrassed to look at the photographs, and flicked through the pages with a fake, slightly bored, expression, pausing occasionally to chuckle at the cartoons. Then, coming to the end of the magazine, I casually put it aside and changed the subject.

But when I went back to school I bragged to my classmates that I had actually seen a copy of Playboy, and when they pestered me for details, I answered as best as I could, liberally using my imagination to fill in for everything that my memory was unable to supply.

Playboy, despite the notoriety of its candy-box nudes and sexism, became arguably one of the leading magazines in its time. In its very first year, in 1953, it had carried Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451. And over the years, it went on to publish the work of an astonishing array of writers, including Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, John le Carre, Arthur C Clarke, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov and PG Wodehouse – not to mention Nobel Prize winners like Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Its legendary in-depth interviews – once described as a cross between a jury trial and a psychoanalysis session – included people like Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter and Salman Rushdie (although Saddam Hussein and Margaret Thatcher apparently turned them down). It also carried the work of some of the world’s great cartoonists and photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton, giving rise to the oft-repeated defence “I only read Playboy for the articles”.

'Playboy' publisher Hugh Hefner and playmates arrive at Le Bourget airport on the Playboy jet "Big Bunny". Photo credit: AFP

Short-lived imitations

Smuggled copies of Playboy became surreptitiously available in India in the 1960s, though an adventurous publisher had launched a (kind of) Indian version of it, called Cocktail, as early as the late 1950s, with the logo of a strutting rooster in place of the famous bunny. It had a few photographs of foreign girls in bikinis, interspersed with some interesting writing by young Indian writers: nothing remotely naughty, but still scandalous by the standard of those strait-laced times. It soon vanished, though not exactly without a trace: collectors were still discovering rare copies of Cocktail at the footpath book stalls of Mumbai many years later.

In the late 1960s, an even more adventurous Chennai business group started a “key-club” – vaguely along the lines of the Playboy Clubs – called the Cat’s-eye Club. It was a members-only restaurant, the first in India to feature waitresses in miniskirts, and its USP was that each member was issued with his own private key to let himself in (I think it’s safe to assume that there were no women members). The Cat’s-eye Club caused a brief frisson of notoriety and quickly shut down – making one wonder what the heck its promoters had been smoking to think up such an idea in a conservative city like Chennai back then.

Another brush that India had with Playboy in the ’60s was when the magazine carried an interview with Jawaharlal Nehru – one of the first in that legendary series, just after Bertrand Russell. But while the interviewer claimed, graphically, that the interview had been conducted “in the hibiscus-scented grounds of Teen Murti House”, a clarification in the same issue explained that it was just a collation of public pronouncements made by the prime minister in speeches and statements over the past several years. Nonetheless, that interview caused a great deal of chatter in India, and inadvertently introduced Playboy to many people who would almost certainly never have heard of the magazine otherwise.

In the ’70s came Debonair, splashily advertised as India’s answer to Playboy (though it was essentially a smart business move by the publisher, Claridge’s Press to fully utilise its printing machines, supposedly inspiring Thompson Press to launch India Today shortly after). Debonair’s editorship was soon taken over by Vinod Mehta, whose main claim to fame at the time was that he had written a salacious guide to Mumbai, titled, Bombay: A Private View, the highlight of which was a lurid exploration of the city’s nightlife.

Market pressures

Thanks to Mehta’s eclectic tastes, Debonair’s editorial content soon became extremely readable, and he had some of India’s leading writers writing for it, just as Hugh Hefner had done in the US with Playboy. The difference, however, was that Debonair’s nude photographs were even more cringe-worthy.

I asked Mehta, many years later, why he hadn’t dropped those nudes. He threw up his hands and said that the mandate the publishers had given him was that he could do whatever he wanted with the magazine, with one, single proviso: it had to carry nude photographs. After he had built up Debonair’s editorial reputation, he tried to phase out those nudes. But the problem was that whenever he did that, the magazine’s sales would suddenly crash. He realised then that the magazine had a sharply polarized readership: the minority in the large cities, who bought it for the editorial content, and the majority in the smaller towns, who bought it mainly for the nude photographs.

A young Vinod Mehta with Busybee. Courtesy: 'Editor Unplugged: Media, Magnates, Netas and Me', by Vinod Mehta, Penguin India.

In the ’70s Playboy published a story by RK Narayan, titled God and the Cobbler – a fact that slipped by, surprisingly unnoticed, in India. But what certainly did not go unnoticed was the news of an Indian girl named Katy Mirza, who had become a Bunny at London’s Playboy Club: photographs of Mirza, in her skimpy costume, were suddenly splashed all over the Indian media. When she later returned to India, she enjoyed a couple of years of voyeuristic stardom featuring in calendars and in movies like Kasme Vaade, Jail Yatra and the Punjabi Chadhi Jawani Budhe Nu, before fading into anonymity.

According to the poet Philip Larkin, sex was invented in 1963. That may have been the case in England, but in India, of course, the case is rather more complicated. The first glimmerings were spotted in Mumbai in the swinging ’70s, though it is believed that there are certain parts of the country where sex has still not been invented.

The ’70s were the highpoint of Playboy’s popularity and influence. In 1972, its circulation hit seven million. Since then that figure has spiraled down to just 600,000, thanks to changing media and lifestyle trends. In India, too, similar trends over the years have made Playboy wannabes passé. Indeed, even Debonair decided, at last, that it no longer made business sense to carry those once-mandatory nudes. After all, who needs Katy Mirza when you have free porn streaming services, just a click away?