For filmmakers and those with a creative bent of mind, the last few days must have left them wondering if OTT platforms, one of the few places of refuge for uncensored artistic expression, would soon be subject to the infamous censor board ‘cuts’ that India’s movies and TV shows are familiar with.
The fuss began earlier this month when on January 15, Amazon Prime released its Hindi political drama ‘Tandav’. A series panned by critics and viewers alike took centre stage as a section of the audience claimed that certain scenes or dialogues in the series demeaned Hindu gods and by extension, were hurtful to the sentiments of Hindus, the majority community in India. That the character portrayed in these contentious scenes is played by Muslim actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub also seems to have aggravated many.
Responding to the outrage, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) called Amazon India officials for a meeting to address the complaints it had received against the show. Meanwhile, an FIR was filed against the makers after members of parliament (MPs) from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had lodged complaints.
As per the I&B Ministry’s guidance, the people behind the production aired an apology on social media and agreed to the contentious scenes being cut from the show.
This sequence of events could be seen as the Ministry sinking its teeth into its new role after it brought both OTT and digital news platforms under its purview in November last year.
However, the FIRs haven’t gone away and court cases have piled up against the makers in several states, often with the sanction of the ruling party in those states.
With Amazon Prime and the makers of Tandav kowtowing to Hindu fundamentalists and apologising for their alleged indiscretion, the latter felt emboldened. Another set of complaints were filed against an older Amazon show ‘Mirzapur’ for showing illicit relations, promoting social enmity and depicting the district of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh in a bad light. And as with Tandav, BJP MPs came to the fore to express their discontent with the show.
Censorship Will Have Chilling Effect on Filmmakers
For Udai Singh Pawar, a filmmaker and screenwriter, who most recently created a Netflix film titled ‘Upstarts’ in 2019 focusing on startups, the calls for censorship of OTT content could have a chilling effect on writers wanting to express their take on problems that plague the Indian society today.
“It plays at the back of your mind. As we saw with Padmavat (2018), it doesn’t take long for these calls for censorship to hit the roads. There were protests all over India, calling for a ban on a film that they hadn’t even watched. It’s clearly political but you can’t do anything about it,” explained Pawar, who worked as an associate director on the 2016 Bollywood film Airlift.
As many may recall, Padmavat was in the eye of the storm in 2018 as a section of the populace had contended that the film would depict the Rajput community in a bad light. The film’s set in Rajasthan was vandalised, its director Sanjay Leela Bhansali physically assaulted, while a right-wing fringe organisation named ‘Karni Sena’ — which spearheaded the protests against the film — threatened to assault the film’s lead actress Deepika Padukone.
According to Pawar, a script germinates from the writer’s take on certain issues that they’ve encountered in their life. So the filmmaker wouldn’t stop to wonder whether a particular scene they are writing could offend someone. “It is because that intention is nowhere in the picture and you’re just telling your story, doing justice to your characters. Plus, there’s always a disclaimer stating that it’s a work of fiction,” he said.
“It’s certainly an unpleasant time for creative expression in this country.”
Another filmmaker who chose not to be named backed Pawar’s view of calls for censorship having a “chilling” effect on those in the film industry.
“Nothing may materialise from their complaints and FIRs. The courts may turn down all their appeals for a ban and these films and shows could continue to be aired on OTT platforms. However, the next time a scriptwriter or a production house is working on a project, they’d be doubly careful and stay clear off contentious issues to avoid the hassle,” the filmmaker told us.
Notably, calls for a ban on their Indian original content aren’t new for either Amazon Prime or Netflix, with the latter having faced allegations of being anti-Hindu for films such as ‘BulBul’, ‘Krishna And His Leela’, as well as its original shows such as ‘Sacred Games’ and ‘Leila’. So far, these calls for a boycott haven’t stemmed the parade of Indian OTT content delving into myriad issues.
However, a Bollywood insider told Inc42 that mainstream film production houses are consciously choosing to avoid politics or religion as subjects of a film when they decide to bankroll a script. Case in point being the 2018 Yash Raj production Dhadak, a remake of a 2016 Marathi film titled ‘Sairat’. While the original film explored caste as a dominant angle in the love story, the remake was highly sanitised, mostly leveraging the economically divergent backgrounds of the two main characters as a crutch for the film.
Censorship For Protecting Filmmakers?
Some legal experts are of the opinion that a ‘censor board’ for OTT platforms might not be such a bad thing, as it could protect filmmakers from the spate of FIRs and court cases initiated by those with vested interests. For instance, an OTT show such as Tandav has been subjected to multiple FIRs under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the IT Act. However, a certificate from a statutory body could have quickly diffused such charges, also protecting artists from harassment.
But as has been amply demonstrated by the Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) mandated cuts for several Bollywood films over the years, having a censor board for any medium, impedes creative expression.
In September last year, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) had forwarded a self-regulation code, to pre-empt censorship, to the government. However, the I&B ministry had asked the association to rework the code to include adequate classification of prohibited content and proper third-party monitoring of all content released on these platforms.
Over 17 leading OTT platforms of the country, namely Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, ALTBalaji, ZEE5, Arre, Discovery+, Eros Now, Flickstree, Hoichoi, Hungama, MX Player, Shemaroo, VOOT, Jio Cinema, SonyLIV and Lionsgate Play are signees to the code.
Last month, a source told Inc42 that IAMAI was working on a procedural document, which will talk about how the self-regulation code will be implemented by all platforms. The source added that by talking about the methods of implementation, the ‘implementation toolkit’ will naturally address the concerns raised by the government about the self-regulation framework.
The IAMAI has also claimed that in its dialogue with government agencies, self-regulation and not censorship, has been agreed to as the way forward for OTT platforms in the country. However, it is not clear how a single self-regulation code would be implemented across hundreds of streaming platforms with varied offerings.
It is worth mentioning that India’s OTT market runs the gamut, from international streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon to streaming apps owned and run by local film production houses, such as AltBalaji and Zee5. Still others, such as Hoichoi and Aha focus on distributing content in regional languages, while a host of other platforms such as Ullu, The Cinema Dosti, Fliz Movies and Kooku specialise in 18+ or adult content.
Pornographic Content On AltBalaji?
‘Erotic’ has grown as the choice of genre for even mainstream OTT players such as AltBalaji, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ekta Kapoor’s film production company Balaji Telefilms, and Times Internet-owned MX Player. But the genre has its own share of problems
In November last year, an FIR was filed against AltBalaji, along with several other fringe OTT players such as Hotshots, Flizmovies, Feneo, Neoflix, Ullu, Hotmasti, Chikooflix, Primeflix, Wetflix, and Kukoo. The FIR was lodged with the Maharashtra Cyber Police, under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the IT Act and the Indecent Representation of Women Act. The complainant had alleged that these platforms featured obscene and pornographic content.
So are certain OTT players leveraging the lack of censorship to get a free pass for pornographic shows and movies?
Pawar felt otherwise. “It’s a choice of genre. Some would like an action film, some would prefer comedy, and some would like erotic. Either they watch a show that’s titillating or they watch porn, it’s for them to decide. The government can’t babysit its citizens and curtail their free agency,” he said.