As the decade drew to a close, Film Companion asked a few leading Hindi filmmakers about a change in cinema they hoped to see in the next 10 years. Shoojit Sircar said he prayed for an environment that allowed him to make an all-out political film, one in which he could fearlessly name politicians, and not be penalised for it. "India really needs that," he said. It looks like Sircar has a long wait ahead of him. At least, that's what the events of last week point to.
On January 15th, Amazon Prime Video released its political thriller Tandav, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, written by Gaurav Solanki (Article 15), and starring Saif Ali Khan, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Dimple Kapadia, and Sunil Grover, among others. The 9-episode series touches on some incidents that grabbed the headlines over the last year, like the student protests at JNU, but only superficially. For the most part, it's a pacy thriller which presents a glossy and exaggerated view of power and politics. It's not the "pure political film" Sircar was talking of. But even so, Tandav managed to attract several police complaints from UP, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and most recently Karnataka, for hurting religious sentiments. The issue kept snowballing until a team from UP police flew down to Mumbai to probe the makers of the show.
This isn't the first, and definitely won't be the last time an artist's voice will be squashed in India. And yet, several film writers I spoke with feel there is a difference in the suppression they're experiencing now. Filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey, who fought a public battle with the Censor Board before the release of his film Udta Punjab, feels the shift too. "What's happening currently has for sure been happening for a while, but I think now the attack on the freedom of writers and directors is much more direct. The simple thought that is being conveyed to us is that there is no way we are allowed to speak or offer any sort of view on political or social matters," says Chaubey.
Another writer, who didn't want to be named, says after last year's golden run, this incident could be the beginning of the streaming space's ruin. "I don't think what's happening is even about the show. There's a much larger agenda at work here. The government is trying to send out a really strong message – toe the line. This is their way of saying 'You better not go astray. Don't you dare think outside the cultural box'," says the writer, adding that the religious identity of the director and lead actors of Tandav, as well the anti-establishment political views of Zeeshan Ayyub cannot be ignored.
In fact, one of the scenes the makers had to drop after the uproar features Ayyub. His character is portraying Lord Shiva in a college play while students chant 'Azaadi' (a chant we've now come to associate with activist Kanhaiya Kumar) in the background.
The twists and turns of the Tandav case is being closely watched by the industry because it impacts all stakeholders. Frightened writers are second guessing their material, streamers are rethinking what is safe to commission – no one wants to risk an arrest before a release – and makers of political or satirical shows that are already under production are wondering what horrors await them.
"This is being discussed on every WhatsApp group, production meeting and story pitch," says the content head of a production house. Some are of the opinion that Amazon was too quick to give in – the platform immediately apologised and agreed to edit the disputed scenes – making it harder for streamers to contest similar cases in the future. Production houses are also predicting scary scenarios in which their completed shows never see the light of day because the streaming platforms they've sold it to may get cold feet if they feel it could antagonise the government. "Most movie production companies have already been scared into submission. I hear that platforms are already backing out from doing anything that they deem sensitive. So it's already begun," says Chaubey.
So does this mean creators should completely abstain from tricky subjects? A young filmmaker told me that the only way to make yourself heard to this government is to get on the streets and protest. "Obviously that's never going to happen in Bollywood," he says. Filmmaker Hansal Mehta, who made 2020's most feted web series Scam 1992, says we must brace ourselves for lesser variety in stories being told, but this won't stop him from writing socially relevant stories. "Artists have the great ability to tell stories without being offensive. Good writing and storytelling will always shine through," says Mehta.
Chaubey too believes that the only way to beat them is with smart writing – for creators to be extremely vigilant and wise while touching upon social and religious issues. "It's up to us as filmmakers to tell our stories more responsibly, not to shy away from uncomfortable truths if we have to, but at the same time approach it in a manner that becomes hard to contest. You need to have more nuance. And I'm only saying this because of the environment we are in," he adds.
The assumption amongst artists right now is that what's happening with Tandav is a lead up to what they've all been dreading for a while now – a censor board for the web. There have been murmurs of this for many months now, but no one knows of any concrete plans. Some hope that the plan will fall through because finding enough people to sift through hours and hours of content dropping every second across multiple platforms feels too arduous and impractical. But there's no running away from censorship. "They will probably enforce a broadcasting code of what we can or cannot say. Now when we send our shows for quality checks, I think they'll be far stricter," says the content head. However this pans out, a clampdown on artists is here to stay, and by all accounts, will only get worse. This, too, shall be a part of the 'new normal'.