Vanit Jain: an unlikely owner-editor who did bet on print media

Vanit was bold to buy a girlie magazine that was near-defunct and tried to revive it. In his first editorial itself, he had excused himself for not being a professional editor

NH Graphics    
NH Graphics

Bishwadeep Moitra

Vanit Jain, who died on May 5, was the unlikeliest person one would imagine to be the owner-editor of Debonair magazine—our very own version of Playboy. I had met Vanit at his INS Building office in Rafi Marg in 1993 accompanying a colleague on a story—the chance of visiting a soft-porn magazine office was just too tempting. Vanit had made news due to the arrest of his brother under the obscenity law. Police had made the arrest from the virtual den of the news media—the INS building.

To me, Vanit in his silk purple suit and leather-upholstered office looked totally out of place in that building inhabited mostly by scruffy journalists. Yet, he seemed to pull off his deportment well. The office space of Debonair was an inheritance from the previous owners, the Somanis of Bombay, who along with Debonair ran a clutch of magazines—from films to politics, in those halcyon days of magazine journalism in the 70s and the 80s.

The deal Vanit struck in 1990 gave him five magazine titles for a sum of, as claimed by him, ₹1 crore. My colleague asked Vanit what made him, a conservative Jain, own a girlie magazine? Vanit pulled out a survey report to show us that polygamy in India is highest among the Jain community disproving the conservative tag pinned by us on him.

According to Vanit Jain, the deal he struck in 1990 gave him five magazine titles for a sum of ₹1 crore

Call it destiny, call it providence, I took up a job in one of the magazines owned by Vanit, Eve’s Weekly —then a monthly—as its chief designer few months after our first encounter. Eve’s, as it was called in its new avatar, had the word weekly written in the finest of fonts possible only to retain its claim on the title. Vanit wanted me to make Eve’s look like the Cosmopolitan magazine but lacked the will to loosen his purse strings when it came to match the production quality of Cosmo.

He hired a Tam-Bram editor for the magazine and expected her to make a woman’s version of Debonair. The result, Eve’s turned out to be a BTMC (Behenji-turned-mod-in-confusion) version of the Cosmo. His other acquisition, Star & Style, didn’t have many stars gracing its pages exclusively nor did it have much of a style to write home about. The flag of Vineet’s hotchpotch ship was the Debonair, which he himself edited.

A few other heads had prided to wear Hugh Hefner’s hat in India previously, including Vinod Mehta, my editor for 17 years in the Outlook magazine. Vanit, its latest claimant, responded the acquisition with a coy smile whenever the accusation came his way. He had started off rather flamboyantly by appointing Amrita Shah—a woman editor for Debonair when he revived the defunct title. Debonair used to carry a fair number of literary pieces and poetry in the 1980s; yet, despite all its literary flourishes, it essentially was a magazine meant to display lurid pictures of half-naked women.

The USP though of the Debonair’s nudie centrefolds were that they had to be pictures of Indian women. The magazine positioned itself as an adult magazine, not to be mixed-up with the down market stapled pondies one found at the bus stands. The beauty of the Debonair pin-ups, it was assumed, lay in the eyes of its bewildered reader. Erotic or pornographic, after all, even in the view of our honourable judges, remained a subject of perception.

Though the editorial office of the magazine was in Mumbai, Vanit operated out of Delhi, hence the ‘meat’ of the magazine—the nudies, was decided by Vanit himself in Delhi. I had no direct involvement with Debonair but due to my proximity to the editor, proximity caused by Eve’s staffers sharing the office space with Debonair in Delhi, my opinion was often sought. The mandatory rule of picture selection was, there ought not to be any frontal nudity otherwise the obscenity law came upon us.

On two occasions, I was even asked by my boss to direct the photo shoots. On one occasion, the April 1993 issue of Debonair, by brief was to recreate an erotic theme for the centrefold photograph drawing inspirations from Finance Minister Manmohan Singh’s iconic reforms budget!

Years later, my experience with Debonair came handy when Outlook had collaborated with the Playboy magazine to bring out an Indian edition. The project didn’t take off because the Indonesian edition of the Playboy that had just been launched was withdrawn after two issues of the publication due to moral outrage in that country. Nevertheless, all that I had learnt about what is erotic and when that turns into pornographic came in handy to make the dummy version of the Indian Playboy.

Vanit courted senior journalists, mostly of saffron hue, who would come to drink Black Label whiskey in his plush INS office and fill its patron with hot air. Some would contribute for Debonair under pseudonyms in return for handsome amounts paid in cash

Vanit, in his first editorial itself, had excused himself for not being a professional editor. He courted senior journalists, mostly of saffron hue, who would come to drink Black Label whiskey in his plush INS office and fill its patron with hot air. Some would contribute for Debonair under pseudonyms in return for handsome amounts paid in cash for articles those ran along the lines of: ‘How I had sex with my aunt’ or ‘Sex, Lies and Confessions of a Single Working Woman’. Surprisingly, a few of those phony-sounding letters to the sex therapist in the magazine were actually real.

My association with Eve’s was only for two years. The world-wide-web proved a death knell for printed pornographic material. Nudie photographs began to flood our inboxes unsolicited by the end of the 1990s. Free supply outpaced the demand exponentially. I didn’t hear much about Vanit Jain or his Debonair much in the current century.

Vanit naturally enjoyed the attention while it lasted but he lacked the pizzazz needed for the job. Yet, some credit is due to him for the boldness of buying a girlie magazine that was near-defunct when he took over, provide air albeit sans the purifier, and tried to revive that fast going extinct species called the print magazine.

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece and the views are the writer’s own.

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