Will OTTs Lose their Charm once the Axe of Censorship falls on Them?
By: Sashwata Saha
Home to some of the most progressive content on Indian media, online streaming platforms are now facing an existential crisis: censorship. Considering that the platform’s biggest USP is its freedom of expression, will it survive?
Just months ago, over-the-top (OTT) platforms were being called the next big thing with filmmakers and viewers flocking to the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney-Hotstar to present and consume diverse content that ranges from confronting taboos to politics and corruption to same-sex relationships.
The medium’s appeal increased when the pandemic struck and the subsequent lockdowns kept both cinema halls and audiences under lock and key. In fact, the surge in viewership was so huge that even silver screen releases were shifted to OTT.
On the flip side, such attention has brought with it a lot of viewer scrutiny, leading to the content being increasingly put under the scanner. Take, for instance, the Mirzapur controversy, in which Amazon’s crime thriller web series was served a Supreme Court notice for portraying the city of Mirzapur in a bad light or the BBC-Netflix adaptation of A Suitable Boy, which was almost boycotted for showing a Muslim man and Hindu woman kissing in a temple.
Then there was the tandav with another Amazon series aptly named Tandav which drew viewers’ flak for allegedly ridiculing Hindu deities. Soon after, the makers, as well as the OTT platform issued an apology, promising to delete the controversial scenes.
And now, the latest blow comes in the form of the new government regulations, announced on February 25, which bring OTT platforms — which were so far under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) — under the purview of the Information & Broadcast Ministry. This, in turn, opens content on OTTs to censorship, which many are terming an assault on free-thought and democracy.
However, on March 4, a Supreme Court bench, hearing the anticipatory bail plea of Amazon Prime Video’s commercial head Aparna Purohit (against whom an FIR had been filed for hurting religious sentiments in Tandav), raised concerns over the need for screening of shows as they sometimes showed ‘pornographic content’.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the OTT medium is today becoming a part of a bunch of mediums under intense scrutiny and regulation, which is a direct result of its popularity. All this brings us to the question: what lies ahead for OTT platforms in India? Going ahead, what will be the distinction between content on OTTs and the big screen?
A Platform for the Everyman
The biggest reason that OTTs became a magnet for creators and actors alike was the creative freedom offered along with opportunities for everyone. While Bollywood is often accused of nepotism, OTTs are very inclusive. Earlier, few celebrities would venture to the small screen, but OTTs opened the gates, presenting them an opportunity to be part of quality content that had a place for everyone.
In an interview with The Financial Express, Bollywood actor Manoj Bajpayee, who had a career resurgence courtesy of Amazon Prime, said, “You can’t ignore OTT. I was at Cannes a couple of years back and I saw a young boy, 18-19 years old, on the red carpet. There was such a huge crowd around him. It even led to a traffic jam. People were saying they had never seen such a gathering around a red carpet event. And who was he? A French Snapchat star. That’s the power digital media has!”
Actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas agrees with her Bollywood contemporary. Talking about the democratic nature of OTTs, Chopra said in a conversation with Shobhaa De at the Jaipur Literature Festival that she felt happy seeing so many writers, directors, actors and shows across languages getting opportunities on streaming platforms.
One of these actors is Adarsh Gourav who starred with Chopra in Netflix’s The White Tiger. “He is a treasure. Gourav really walked into Balram’s shoes (the character he played) and worked at a tea stall to learn the nuances of the job. That’s what I want to champion,” Chopra said. “A movie with Indian actors and based in India was trending on a global platform like Netflix. This is a huge thing. We didn’t have representation in the West, but now that is changing.”
Actor Rajesh Tailang, who has been part of Mirzapur and the Emmy Award-winning Netflix show Delhi Crime, credits OTTs for giving work to everyone. “Talent is being recognised. Not just of actors, but directors and writers as well… everyone is getting a chance,” he said in an interview to Hindustan Times.
Along with actors, major production houses, too, have lined up for a taste of OTT success. Netflix’s 2019 original series Bard of Blood was produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment. Meanwhile, actor Anushka Sharma and brother Karnesh Sharma also produced successful content for Amazon Prime Video (Paatal Lok) and Netflix (Bulbbul).
“The emergence of OTT has definitely presented more opportunities for talent to come forth,” said Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India, an OTT platform by Zee Entertainment Enterprises, to The Indian Express. “OTT does not have the pressure of the box office, which probably gives it the freedom and additional confidence to explore the various facets of storytelling. However, Indian cinema, especially over the past few years, has provided immense opportunities for budding talent and that can’t be credited just to OTT platforms.”
However, now treading cautiously, OTTs have decided to cancel shows that are likely to lead to controversies. New seasons of The Family Man, Paatal Lok and others have been cancelled by Amazon. Netflix’s Bombay Begums, starring Alia Bhatt, is under the scanner, too, with the National Commission For Protection of Child Rights alleging that it normalises casual sex and drugs for minors which is an “inappropriate portrayal of children.”
Bad Boys Get Leashed
After the controversy around Tandav, director Ali Abbas Zafar released a statement announcing that the controversial scenes would be dropped. The statement read, “We have utmost respect for the sentiments of the people of our country… The cast & crew of Tandav have made the decision to implement the changes to the web series to address the concerns raised towards the same… We once again apologise if the series has unintentionally hurt anybody’s sentiments.”
After the I&B ministry’s announcement of the new regulations and a week after a top Amazon Prime Video official was questioned by the UP police about Tandav hurting religious sentiments, the platform, too, issued an apology on March 2. The letter further added that it would “continue to develop entertaining content while complying with Indian laws and respecting the diversity of culture and beliefs in the country.”
While movies releasing in theatres need to have certification from the CBFC under the Cinematograph Act of 1952, content on TV follows the dos and don’ts laid down by the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act of 1995. Before the government announced the new regulations, OTTs had remained untouched by regulations and censorship.
However, the need for self-regulation was felt and, in February, around 17 online streaming providers had announced the adoption of an ‘implementation toolkit’ that pressed upon self-regulation as one of its core principles under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). However, the Centre’s announcement of the regulatory guidelines on February 25 caught the OTT sector unawares.
Though most of the new guidelines make for self-regulation norms, others -- like an inter-departmental committee overseeing the self-regulatory body headed by a retired SC or HC judge; the proposed appointment of an I&B ministry officer with the power to block access to any content; and a grievance redressal mechanism -- are worrying OTT players. Apart from this, the Centre has also asked digital platforms to categorise content into themes like violence, nudity, sex, language, etc and that content should also be based on age suitability under the IT (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Act 2021.
Wearing Off the Sheen
Even though many actors and film-makers have suggested that the loss of creative freedom would push them away from OTTs, there are many arguments that say we are looking forward to an era of coexistence between the cinema and the streaming platform.
In the words of Prachand Praveer, the author of the 2016 book Abhinava Cinema which traces the influence of Indian classical aesthetics in modern visual storytelling, “When TV came, people on radio were worried. OTTs have given theatres a run for their money, but each format finds its own space. There are enough human beings on this planet to consume it all.”
An underrated characteristic of the OTT platform is its shelf-life. Movies cannot stay in theatres forever. Eventually, they will find themselves on smaller screens -- be it that of a TV or a phone. This also stands for governments, free thought and expression are here to stay, festering in the minds of millions, governments however change every five years.
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