Big in Jakarta

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Agnes Dherbeys for TIME

Testing the limits Dheeraj manages to keep his movies within the bounds of acceptability — but only just

The plot of the erotic horror movie Rintihan Kuntilanak Perawan (Moaning of a Virgin Ghost) goes like this: some Indonesian rock musicians want to boost their band's fortunes. So they abduct a virgin called Alice and drink her blood. But Alice is empowered by a passing wizard and embarks upon a vengeful killing spree. "The old man made me supernatural," she marvels, after chainsawing the band manager's legs off. "Awesome!"

Any gaps in the plot are filled with buckets of fake blood and the ample figure of the film's leading lady. Alice the virgin is, rather implausibly, played by American porn star Tera Patrick, 35, previously seen in Ecstasy Girls 2, Reign of Tera and dozens of other hard-core videos. "She's a legend," says K.K. Dheeraj, whose Jakarta company K2K Production will soon release its third film featuring an American porn star. "All Indonesians know Tera Patrick."

At which point an innocent might ask: How, exactly? The production, sale and distribution of pornography has been banned in the Muslim-majority nation since 2008, and offenders face stiff penalties. (In January pop singer Nazril "Ariel" Irham was sentenced to more than three years in jail after homemade footage of him having sex with two other celebrities appeared online.) The government blocks access to many adult websites and bars sex and nudity in films.

That's why even international porn legends must keep their clothes on in Indonesian movies: wearing a bikini is as naked as Patrick gets. The same goes for Vicky Vette, the pneumatic star of Dheeraj's next film, Pacar Hantu Perawan (Virgin Ghost's Lover), which premieres on Oct. 4. But even while clad, foreign actresses help spice up what Dheeraj feels is an increasingly bland B-movie genre. Censorship has become stricter since the antipornography law, he says. And yet there are countless adult sites that haven't been blocked and a vast array of DVDs on sale in malls and markets in defiance of the law, helping stars like Patrick generate a high local profile. "Tera's films are illegal here, but you can get them easily," says Dheeraj.

That's at odds with Indonesia's creeping conservatism. The limits of the country's religious tolerance were laid bare in February, when a Muslim mob killed three members of the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect. A dozen mob members got three-to-six-month jail sentences for assault and other charges; an Ahmadi received six months for defending himself.

Dheeraj's movies are testing these limits further — but for profit, not principle. "I'm in Indonesian movies just for business," he admits. A bachelor in his mid-30s, he lives with his ethnic Indian parents in an incense-scented mansion in Menteng, one of Jakarta's toniest districts. The family fortune helps fund Dheeraj's films.

As he does with all his movies, Dheeraj thanks his parents in the opening credits of Rintihan Kuntilanak Perawan, which was shot in secret in Jakarta and hilly West Java. "Nobody knew Tera was here," says Dheeraj — although the film did come to the attention of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a vigilante group that raids nightclubs and shops selling alcohol and porn. Dheeraj went to the FPI's Jakarta headquarters to give its leaders a private screening. They didn't like it ("They watched in silence," he recalls), but were satisfied that it wasn't porn, even though it featured a porn star. "Nice people," he says.

Usually, though, Islamic hard-liners need something to get outraged about and Dheeraj provides that something — before adroitly converting their outrage into publicity. It's an almost symbiotic relationship. Take Pocong Mandi Goyang Pinggul (Shrouded Corpse Bathing While Hip-Shaking), released in April. Sasha Grey — best known outside porn as Vince's girlfriend in the HBO series Entourage — stars as a bikini-clad ghost. The FPI threatened violent protests if Grey went to Indonesia to promote the movie. At the time, Dheeraj vowed to hire 50 bodyguards to protect her but now claims there were never any plans to take Grey over. "It was just a publicity gimmick," he says, grinning. So was Dheeraj's decision to shell out $100,000 on hymen-reconstruction surgery for Dewi Persik, the Indonesian co-star of Pacar Hantu Perawan.

The release of Pacar Hantu Perawan was delayed because of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. The film stars 46-year-old Vette — an accountant whose porn career began when she moved from Norway to the U.S. in her mid-30s — but her scenes weren't shot in Indonesia. "Vicky didn't want to come here," says Dheeraj. "She had a problem with the Minister." That would be Tifatul Sembiring, Minister of Communications and former chairman of the conservative Islamic Prosperous Justice Party. Last November, during a U.S. presidential visit, Tifatul was derided for enthusiastically shaking Michelle Obama's hand after declaring he would never touch a woman he wasn't related to. Vette called the incident "handshakegate" and began taunting the Minister on Twitter. "You can touch me in public anytime you want, cutie!" ran one of her less obscene jibes. It boosted her profile but made a trip to Indonesia risky. Vette feared that people "would stone me or put me on trial for making sex tapes."

Vette's scenes were thus shot Stateside, but with Indonesia's film censors in mind. While nudity is forbidden, skimpy dresses and bikinis are O.K. if they are appropriate to the location. This explains why Dheeraj's movies largely take place in nightclubs and poolsides. Some of the footage nonetheless caused problems. "Vicky's big," says Dheeraj. "When she wears a bikini, it looks like ... whoa." He was forced to cut or re-edit several scenes, including one of Vette in a negligee. "It was vulgar," he admits.

That's a charitable description. With their vapid scripts, gore and wet T-shirts, Dheeraj's movies aren't Oscar material. "He doesn't care what people say about his movies as long they make a profit," says Ahmad Shovian, a writer for Filmoo.com.

Dheeraj shrugs. "People complain about my movies, but they still watch them," he says. "Sometimes I make a movie and I won't even like it." He seems excited about his next one, though. It will be shot entirely in Indonesia, with an American actress. Who? "A big one — bigger than Tera and Vicky," Dheeraj smiles. Bigger than Patrick and Vette? Awesome.