Censorship And My Hopes For Storytelling On OTT

It breaks my heart to think that talented storytellers like Raj and DK are currently amputating their work in a pre-emptive move to prevent offense
Censorship And My Hopes For Storytelling On OTT

One of the things I was most looking forward to in February was the second season of The Family Man. Directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK's series about the seemingly ordinary government officer Srikant Tiwari, who is actually a brilliant intelligence operative, was smart and thrilling.  Season one ended on multiple cliffhangers. Noxious gas was pouring out from a chemicals factory so would the nefarious terrorists succeed in wiping out half of New Delhi? And even more important, Srikant's wife, sharing a hotel suite with an attractive colleague, had texted him in the early hours of the morning. He was sleeping in the living room outside and then we saw the light in her room go on. Did anything happen between them? I'm desperately hoping the answer is no!

We have to wait several months to find out.  On February 5th, Raj and DK posted on social media that the season two launch had been pushed till summer. That could mean anything from May to August. I'm assuming that this is a direct consequence of the fracas around Tandav, which premiered in January on the same OTT platform – Amazon Prime Video. A tangle of legal cases ensued with the UP Police filing a case against the makers for "promoting enmity on the grounds of religion." The platform issued an apology and the scenes and dialogue deemed offensive were deleted or shortened. But FIRs in other states, including Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh followed.

As did heated discussion about censorship for streaming.  OTT platforms and online content such as news and current affairs have already been brought under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, giving it powers to regulate policies and rules for digital. On February 11, the Internet and Mobile Association of India announced that 17 platforms including NetflixDisneyPlus Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video have adopted a toolkit for implementation of the self-regulation code introduced in 2020. The industry body also said that it will set up a Secretariat for the implementation of the code and the toolkit.

I'm assuming that Raj, DK, their co-writer Suman Kumar and the powers that be at Amazon, including legal heads, are going through every season two episode with a fine-tooth comb to weed out anything that might spark a Tandav replay.  How much will this distort the original vision and dilute the impact of the series – we will never know. But it breaks my heart to think that talented storytellers like Raj and DK are currently amputating their work in a pre-emptive move to prevent offense. In an increasingly thin-skinned India, it is almost impossible to guess what will spark the next controversy.

How much will this stunt the creative flowering that the OTT boom has generated?  Last year, some of the best storytelling was in the streaming format, not feature films – think of Paatal Lok, Aarya and Scam 1992. It's understandable if makers and platforms now choose to steer clear of more complex, thorny material. It's much safer and perhaps better business to buy the next Bollywood blockbuster or commission another season of Bollywood Wives.

My hope is that creators will take inspiration from Chinese and Iranian filmmakers, and create, what actor Ethan Hawke called, 'Trojan Horse' art. That is, content which seems on the surface to be standard genre fare but is actually subversive and provocative. Case in point – Get Out, Stree, or Zhang Yimou's gorgeous 1991 period drama – Raise the Red Lantern.  The directors and writers cleverly camouflaged their messaging.

There are ample examples in movie history, which prove that censorship and political repression can lead to great art. What's required is more sophisticated storytelling or as my mom would say – saanp bhi mar jaye aur lathi bhi na toote.

I remain optimistic that artists will overcome.

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