Censoring of OTT content seems to be limited to curbing voices of dissent; nuanced regulation could be a way forward
Censorship back in the days of single-channel TV was all about providing ‘clean’ entertainment on a mass platform rather than curbing a difference of opinion or catering to the powers-that-be. You’d imagine a 2021 version of that old formula would continue work for the common man.
Makers of Amazon Prime’s show Tandav have agreed to censor out scenes from the show that allegedly hurt religious sentiments. This, perhaps, marks the end of a significant but short phase in Indian entertainment. Away from the hawk-eyes of the Censor Boards, creators have hitherto had complete freedom to tell the kind of stories they want to without having to censor out violence, nudity and coarse language, or any other controversial subjects. It was too good to last, though.
It’s been about four years since OTT players like Netflix, AP and Disney+ Hotstar (previously Hotstar) started redefining how we consume content. It took only about two years for the first big OTT show – Sacred Games – to ruffle political and religious feathers. And, once the ball was set rolling, there’s been no stopping it. The list of shows that have managed to offend reads like a Hall of Fame roll call of desi shows, of course with some outliers. Every time there was a controversy about Leila, A Suitable Boy or Ashram, the industry held its breath.
Last November, the government finally issued a notification that all OTT platforms would come under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It’s important to note that this happened not because a show had too much nudity or gratuitous violence but because religious or political sentiments have been hurt. Those in favour of censorship of films and now of webs shows talk about the need for content that can be viewed by families, that uphold the ‘sanskaar’ of the land. This loosely translates to limited foul language, sex and violence, which, in turn, are the easiest crutches for those who claim to be pushing the envelope to make ‘edgy’ content for OTT.
In the opening scene of Flesh, an Eros Now show that premiered last year, a man walks around a room where young children are sleeping on the floor. He is touching himself as he walks from child-to-child, looking for the one to rape. One little girl wets herself out of fear so the man walks over to another girl and unzips. As the sounds of him raping the little girl fill the air, a kid reaches out to comfort another. And, it only gets worse over the next eight episodes. Directed by Danish Aslam and written by Pooja Ladha Surti, Flesh is set in the traumatic world of human trafficking but there’s little nuance or sensitivity in how the gut-wrenching violence, child abuse, rape and torture is portrayed.
In it’s sixth season, Alt Balaji’s erotic show Gandii Baat is a puddle of exhibitionism, crudity and misogyny. In the very first episode of the first season, a husband unable to pleasure his wife, ropes in his neighbour to have sex with her while he pleasures himself. The first episode of the next season has a group of neglected housewives being pleasured by a snake. Gandii Baat masquerades as an anthology of stories from rural India but what it really is is soft porn.
In a particularly horrific sequence in last year’s hit Paatal Lok, a group of gun-toting upper caste men storm into a lower caste family’s home in Punjab. The leader of the group tells the boy’s mother his ten men will also avenge the crime committed by her son. Even before we see her being raped, the mother’s anguished moans and the rhythmic creaking of the charpoy ring in the courtyard as a young upper caste man looks on unblinkingly and her much older-relative cries in the background. It wasn’t the violence in Paatal Lok that Right-wing Facebook groups who labelled the show ‘anti-National’ and ‘Hindu-phobic’ has a grouse with, but by the fact that a woman was raped by Sikhs. Ditto for Mirzapur, another extremely violent series, which is also now in trouble over allegations of ‘maligning the image of Uttar Pradesh’.
Also read: Paatal Lok, Mirzapur, Sacred Games: Has sexual violence become a common trope for 'edgy' streaming shows?
Even if the government was to actively start censoring OTT content, for now, they are mostly only concerned about curbing voices of dissent. And, it’s up to the individual platforms to self-regulate. Most makers who have worked with the big three – Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar, maintain that the platforms do self-censor. “India is a huge market for these platforms and they can’t afford to do anything to jeopardise their business here. There is a lot of quality control that happens at every stage of production. Yes, there have been instances where writers and directors have gone trigger happy because they would finally have actors abusing on screen or show sex but I feel like its going to settle down,” says a director with multiple series credits who requested to stay anonymous.
Director Rohan Sippy’s latest offering Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors deals with intense subjects like domestic abuse and marital rape but instead of offering trauma porn, deals with nuance and sensitivity. “A story is more engaging if you leave things to imagination. Sex, violence and even unnecessary abuses puts off a huge section of the audience. You realise this once you step outside Andheri (West). As a maker, you want to reach as large an audience as possible so why would you alienate people yourself,” he says. While regimented censorship isn’t the solution, Sippy hopes ‘a Darwinian sort of process makes shows that are unnecessarily ‘edgy’ less popular and platforms realise that they are losing out on a sizeable chunk of the audience’. “What we need to go back to is the kind of shows that were being made for Doordarshan in the 80s. Good makers and writers telling entertaining stories that are relatable and with nuance.”
While censorship in any form is dangerous and regulation ought to be a choice, we don’t live in a perfect world, and a far-from-evolved society. Also, freedom of speech works both ways. If there are millions of voices clamouring for a bit of a clean up in our content to make it more palatable for family-viewing, it won’t be long before someone sitting behind a desk decides to listen. What then? How many steps away would that be from state-sponsored censorship? Unfortunately, gratuitous sex and violence tend to cloud the discourse around free speech in the OTT space today rather than focusing on what could end up being infinitely more dangerous in the long run – drowning out the voices of dissent.
Dial back to the days of single-channel television. It’s not as if we haven’t had politically charged drama in the good old days. Shows like Tamas showed us how politicians would manipulate the public’s emotions in order to rule. Censorship back then, was all about providing ‘clean’ entertainment on a mass platform rather than curbing a difference of opinion or catering to the powers-that-be. You’d imagine a 2021 version of that old formula would continue work for the common man.
A set of guidelines with a moderate dose of self-imposed regulation could work wonders to not just calm down a suspicious audience that’s still transitioning from television to digital, but widen their viewing base. It would also provide a level playing field for all the players in the industry rather than make targets of a few.
While it’s probably still too early to know what regulation for web shows will end up looking like, one can’t help feel that ‘cleaner’ platforms will always have a higher moral ground when someone’s sentiments are offended for political reasons. There is a difference between regulation and state sponsored censorship, and most people can tell that difference. When the state decides to cross that line, it’s hard to imagine support from too many quarters apart from those who’ve sold their souls. After all, fascists do hate being called fascists.
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