New Delhi: Would the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll fueled TV show Californication be worth watching without the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll? What about serial killer series Dexter without the gore?
In an effort to attract younger viewers without offending the older ones, Indian TV is now showing some of America's edgiest shows — but cutting out the edge.
As India urbanises and its middle class grows, a delicate dilemma has hit a media culture long dominated by local TV shows aimed at rural audiences, such as the soap opera Baalika Vadhu (Child Bride), about a girl married off at age 10. While the young and hip audiences that attract advertising dollars want foreign imports, no broadcaster wants to upset conservative viewers or attract government ire.
"This is a very sensitive time for the media in India," said TV critic Shailaja Bajpai. "Many stations are afraid of government banning orders," but at the same time, output needs refreshing to bring in audiences."
So TV channels resort to inconsistent and clumsy self-censorship, snipping scenes that are central to a show's plot with abandon. While they bleep out profanities, they will also cut a reference to the drug "crack" from one part of a show, while letting it slide a few minutes later.
Even more absurd are the imports that have English subtitles to assist those with a shaky grasp of the language. Censors often let the spoken word slide through, but change it or strike it completely from the subtitles. So while a character on The Big Bang Theory is allowed to say the word "intimate," the subtitles only showed "int ------."
One incident turned an episode of Friends into a legend of unwatchable TV. The show hinged on the gag that two pages in a cookbook got stuck together and the character Rachel mistakenly made a fruit pastry with beef. The station bleeped out the word "beef," a show of sensitivity for Hindus' reverence for cows, leaving viewers to guess why her diners were so disgusted.
It's just as perplexing for the suddenly chaste vampires of HBO's lusty True Blood and for the serial killer star of Dexter, who is constantly changing blood-splattered clothes for no apparent reason on Indian TV. Or for David Duchovny's Californication lech Hank Moody, who disappears into a bedroom with a beautiful women and then suddenly appears in a disjointed scene from later in the episode.
Nevertheless, young Indians, who have embraced Levis, McDonalds and MTV, are hungering for Western television.
"I no longer want to watch the stupid shows I watched with my family growing up, I want entertainment and there is very little on Hindi-language television," said Abhinav Mohan, a 22-year-old mass-communication student, who watches the disjointed imports instead. "Though heavily censored, I can still follow them."
Broadcasting the shows, while editing them into confusion, underscores the fine line entertainment companies like the NewsCorp-owned Star and FX are trying to walk to attract urban youth while not angering their more traditional parents.
Bollywood actors only began kissing onscreen in the last decade. As recently as 2007, an arrest warrant was briefly issued for Hollywood star Richard Gere after he kissed the cheek of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS awareness rally.
"Indian produced movies and TV are very formulaic, you always know what you are going to get," said Rahul Gupta, a media company owner in New Delhi. "Today's youth are more likely to get what they want from Hollywood than Bollywood and TV companies are starting to realise it and hope to cash in."
In an effort to head off government interference, the industry created its own regulatory body in June to deal with complaints. Now, in addition to the odd censoring, viewers must also suffer a banner that repeatedly scrolls across the screen, advising viewers how to complain to the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council. More than 3,000 have.
The complaints range from "scantily and vulgarly dressed women" on MTV's Grind to a scene "misguiding children to kill," on the southern Indian family melodrama Muddu Bidda, (Cute Girl).
So far, only six channels have been called in for a hearing. Their apologies have been enough to satisfy the council and prevent it from referring the cases to the government, which has the power to ban shows.