How Censorship – and Self-Censorship – Came to Indian Streaming in 2021

How Censorship – and Self-Censorship – Came to Indian Streaming in 2021

'It's become very tough to say absolutely anything socio-political' say writers on the fallout of the Tandav fracas at the beginning of this year

In April 2020, when theatres had to shut over Covid-19 fears, streaming platforms swooped in to save the day for everyone. For creators, it provided an alternate home for their work. And for the rest of us locked at home, it gave us entertainment and a distraction from the health crisis unfolding outside. Let's put this in perspective. According to The Ormax OTT Audience Report: 2021, India has 353 million digital video consumers, which is about 25% of its population. Of these, 111 million are watching SVOD content (premium paid content). This audience base has grown at 25-30% per year over the last two years (largely owing to the pandemic), and is expected to only get bigger.

At this point, it's hard to keep tabs on how many streaming platforms exist in India. There are new ones mushrooming faster than the speed of light and the hours of content being released on them week on week is staggering. In fact, there's so much being churned out that it's deflected attention from the stories that are being held back, the ones that don't make it to us.

Looming Threat of Censorship

Digital platforms gave makers a free hand to go nuts with the amount of sex, gore, violence and abusive language they could show – things they could never get away with on film. Surely and steadily voices of outrage began surfacing and the lawsuits started to pile up. Shows like Sacred Games, Leila, A Suitable Boy all managed to rile up deeply conservative groups. The writing was on the wall – censorship was around the corner.

It began in November 2020, when the Union government brought streaming video services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar under the ambit of the Information & Broadcasting ministry. The honeymoon period officially ended early this year when Amazon Prime Video released its web show Tandav, an exaggerated, pulpy take on Indian politics. Directed by Ali Abbas Zafar and written by Gaurav Solanki, the show made pointed references to the major headlines of the last few years – students of a Delhi university chanting 'Azadi' slogans, farmer protests, police brutality and politically motivated IT cells on social media. 

In a matter of days there were as many as 10 cases filed in various parts of the country, calling for the arrest of Zafar, Solanki and Amazon Prime's Head of India Originals, Aparna Purohit. Purohit had to move the Supreme Court after the Allahabad High Court rejected her bail plea on February 25. She was booked under multiple charges, including promoting enmity between different groups, defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion, public mischief, and more. The two scenes of Tandav that rankled the complainants and angry BJP leaders were immediately removed and unconditional apologies were made by the platform. The following month the government prescribed a Code of Ethics to regulate content publishers.

And with that, creators and platforms claim they've been robbed of what was considered this medium's biggest strength – a safe space to tell braver stories. Those in the industry believe that the makers of Tandav were made an example of to show the rest how serious things could get if they didn't toe the line – and it worked. It has bred an atmosphere of fear and helplessness and is slowly changing the stories we're telling and the way we're telling them. "It's all going down the drain," warns a writer.

As many as eight people, including writers, content executives at streaming platforms, and legal experts were interviewed for this story, and most were not comfortable being quoted.

The Side-Effects of Tandav

The most immediate fallout of the Tandav fracas was that Amazon Prime Video stalled the release of The Family Man Season 2. Raj and DK's spy-thriller, which was about thwarting a deadly attack by a Sri Lankan rebel group this season, eventually released 5 months later in June, after a fresh set of cuts.

A more long-term fallout, creators say, is that streaming platforms are now afraid to touch anything that could end in a potential lawsuit or arrest. So stories that are anti-establishment or "anti-India" have unofficially become no-go areas. Topics that make streamers see red include religion, caste, Kashmir, Hindu gods. In some cases even seemingly harmless love stories are being turned down if its centred around an inter-faith couple. The biggest losers in this situation are shows that touch on contentious issues like honour killings and love jihaad and were already commissioned or shot last year. A handful of them are allegedly now being heavily reworked or been put in the cold storage.

International streaming giants typically have a team of lawyers that vet content and flag off problem areas before its release. This is not a new practice. Obviously they found nothing problematic in Tandav. Now platforms have introduced more layers of checks to ensure nothing objectionable slips through. "It's become very, very tough to say absolutely anything socio-political. Earlier they would just look for the obvious lines or words. Now the teams of lawyers and policy experts have been beefed up and they're looking for subtext. I've never seen that happen. They pre-empt everything, stuff I didn't even think of while writing," says a senior screenwriter, who didn't want to be named.

Vaibhav Vishal, a writer on Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story and Inside Edge 3, says writers have to "exercise self restraint" right from the moment they put pen to paper. "You have to be sensitive and really careful of what you're saying. You have to be mindful of what can be taken out of context. Platforms too are doing that. Earlier there used to be outrage. Now you'll just be attacked. So be sensitive and exercise self restraint and at the same time be prepared that despite all that people can still go ballistic," he says.

"It's become very, very tough to say absolutely anything socio-political. Earlier they would just look for the obvious lines or words. Now the teams of lawyers and policy experts have been beefed up and they're looking for subtext. I've never seen that happen. They pre-empt everything, stuff I didn't even think of while writing," says a senior screenwriter, who didn't want to be named.

A content executive of a leading platform says that while these self-imposed curbs on expression are unfortunate and may appear like they're being "over-cautious", they are trying their best to find ways to work around it. Wherever possible, one of the suggestions they often give writers is to change the setting or language of the story – right now the assumption is that it's the Hindi shows that are being attacked, and you can get away with a lot more in the South.  

There may be truth in that. Amazon Prime Video has in the last few months acquired Tamil film Jai Bhim starring Suriya and Malayalam film Kuruthi starring Prithviraj. Netflix acquired the Malayalam film Nayattu. All these films are unabashedly political. Manu Warrier's Kuruthi, for example, is a deeply layered commentary on religious intolerance, hate and bigotry packaged as a gripping home invasion thriller. Jai Bhim and Nayattu too generated a fair amount of debate. But they were allowed to exist.

The New Law – Pros and Cons 

The good news is that the Code of Ethics has streamlined the redressal process for complaints. Instead of a matter being instantly taken to the cops, there is now a detailed three-tier process that gives platforms a chance to listen to objections and have them investigated. The first two tiers of the redressal system allow methods of self-regulation by publishers.

However, the third tier – called the Oversight Mechanism by the Central Government – is what could be worrisome. Under the Oversight Mechanism, the Ministry can constitute an Inter- Departmental Committee that will consist of secretaries from various ministries. "The executive can make decisions that judicial bodies should be making. In theory, you would want a judge to decide whether a piece of content goes against national sovereignty or public order, because the sort of incentives that judges have and political representatives have are very different. One can argue that the latter's incentives are skewed towards not protecting freedom of speech, but towards protecting certain interest groups or their own political constituents," explains Akshat Agarwal of Koan Advisory Group, an India-focused public policy research and advocacy firm.

There is a strong and valid concern that this could allow the government to step in on its own, even in the absence of complaints coming in, and have something removed or blocked. So far there have been no cases of this happening.

So Is There Censorship?

Yes and no.

Technically no, because there is no official communication or diktat that stops platforms from saying what they want. In fact, the regulations stated in the Code of Ethics are rather broad and generic. It says the material can't threaten the 'unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order.' It's deliberately vague and left open to interpretation. None of the writers I spoke with for this story had read the guidelines or were clear on what the law said. "When it comes to anything that is restricting speech, the vaguer it is, the more restrictive it is, because there is more room for interpreting offence. You can fit a lot of things within those terms. By not narrowly defining the contours of what you can say and can't say, it gives the decision making body a lot of leeway to make that decision," says Agarwal.

But for all practical purposes, there is censorship. The Tandav incident has instilled a fear so strong that no publisher wants to risk reliving that horror. "Once something is flagged, it's almost a pointless battle. You can't reason and get your way. It's a dead end. And nothing is written. There's no official memo on what you can say and cannot say. Everybody's just supposed to know what you can't say," explains another screenwriter who didn't want to be named.

The Way Forward

Is it possible to continue telling truly original and authentic Indian stories by side-stepping religion or caste? Will this mean that the content slate for the coming years will only have safe love stories, or bland remakes of popular international shows? Creative producers I interviewed said a new demand by some platforms is to make more shows in the "K-Drama space". They're non-threatening and successful.

Finally, where does this leave shows like Amazon Prime Video's Paatal Lok that has been one of the best things to have come out of Indian streaming. The first season that was released last year presented an unflinching commentary on the state of our nation. It will be interesting to see how much of the essence of the show is retained in season 2. Also, would a show like Netflix's Leila (2019), which openly warns of a totalitarian nation state be green-lit today? Probably not.

While some writers feel working on subjects that they know will not get passed is an exercise in futility, others believe that they must work harder on finding more skilful ways to tell their stories anyway. "Writers need to be better writers to make a point. They need to find smarter means to do it, evaluating all the options available, because the route that they take may not always be the right route. But don't stop saying things," says Vishal.

Streamers argue the matter is not as "black and white" as writers are making it out to be. It's still early days since the regulation has been passed and it will take a process of trial and error to find out how much they can get away with. The problem right now is that you can't predict what will set people off. Until then, there are always "other stories that can be told".

"It's not that bleak. The question we now ask ourselves is, 'Is this content really worth it?' Is this content going to bring in the numbers and is the return of investment going to be so good, that it's fine to risk the post-release trouble. Ultimately, the responsibility to protect the team is ours. What happened with Aparna was scary. Is this show worth having our employees arrested?" adds the executive of a streaming platform. I suspect the answer to that question will always be a 'no'.

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