The term ‘controversy’ refers to a “public discussion and argument about something that many people strongly disagree about, think is bad or are shocked by.” But why is it relevant here? The makers and actors of the web series Tandav, released on Amazon Prime Video last month have found themselves apologizing to the public for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments.” But let me tell you, this cannot really be termed as a controversy. It is not the first time that the term has been used to emphasise on the reactions of a certain group towards a fiction released on OTT (Over-The-Top) platforms. Clearly, the Indian media loves the term when it comes to addressing the reasons behind a significant rise in moral policing. The question arises, what then qualifies them to be called a ‘controversy’? Not saying that the content of the series is perfect, it has its issues which need to be critiqued, but that isn’t the focus of this piece.
Why did Tandav self-censor?
FIRs against the series have been filed in states of Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, Bihar, and Bengaluru so far, starting with BJP MLA Ram Kadam filing a police complaint in Mumbai and UP’s BJP MP Manoj Kotak writing to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ban the series and apologise for “hurting sentiments.” At this point, one could ask – was there a “public discussion and argument” about it? Certainly not. Then whose “sentiments” are those? Leaders from a particular political party and the Police in these states filing FIRs at such a portrayal is a function of the religious group that they seem to align with. These sentiments are individualistic or concerned with a fragment of political leadership and could not be equated with that of the entire Hindu population of the country. However, it seems to have concerned the overall cast and crew of the show. The maker, Ali Abbas Zafar and several actors took to Twitter to unconditionally apologize and thanked the I&B Ministry for their guidance and support in the matter. In addition to this, they at once agreed to drop those sections of the show.
This kind of censorship commonly referred to as self-censorship by the makers of the show, even before a legal order was passed by concerned authorities to do so, could be perceived as resulting out of fear. This culture of fear and intolerance has been perpetuated by repeated threats issued by religious bodies such as the Karni Sena, a Rajput organisation that has continued to incite violence against several creations of the Hindi film industry. In this case, they have announced an award for Rs 1 crore to the one who would chop off the tongue of the makers, even when the cast and crew has repeatedly apologized online and self-censored. Noteworthy it is that the maker and lead male actors of the show, Saif Ali Khan and Mohd, Zeeshan Ayyub have Muslim identities. Considering the state of politics in the country under the ruling government with the recent Anti-CAA/NRC protests, it appears that religion has played a crucial role in majoritarian powers deciding what viewers can watch. UP Chief Minister, Adityanath’s media Chief Advisor’s tweet on the same, and FIRs by members of political parties against the maker reveal the religious biases of the party in question. It forcefully restrains dissemination of that particular thought which seems to act against their religious beliefs. These leaders’ take on the issue alongside the crew’s swift submission towards those claims are moralistic in nature. One could perceive their actions collectively to be sensitive to popular support, leaders in terms of political gains and crew in terms of monetary ones. These motives make Tandav “controversial.” What one requires is a public discussion regarding the moralistic standards upheld by these two sections of the society, the stances taken by them in lieu of their hidden motives, rather than controversialize the content and members associated with the show for their thoughts that led to their fiction.
The New Surveillance State
What’s missing here is a legal development, definitive to this case. What the Indian audience received as a legal outcome is the recent statement by Union Minister of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar, where he cites “a lot of complaints against some serials available on OTT platforms” and states that the Ministry will soon issue guidelines regarding them. This came after the Government brought films and audio-visual programmes over online platforms under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in November 2020. These guidelines would control the release of content on digital spaces, especially OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and more. This outright claim to control content on the web translates into control of a specific section of the internet by the Ministry. Considered to be in public interest, without involving the public in the conversation is quite ironic and diminishes the fundamental rights of the viewers, and furthers moral policing. The assumptions and predictions about the future of fiction on these platforms boils down to the question: who is deciding (quite literally) what we watch?
Fiction and Subversion of Imagination
“The web series ‘Tandav’ is a work of fiction and any resemblance to acts and persons and events are purely coincidental,” tweeted Ali Abbas Zafar, in the official statement by the cast and crew of Tandav. Fiction as a medium, is imaginary, that is, not based on true facts and/or events. And most Bollywood productions use this narrative art form to produce creative content for consumption by all sections of India’s population, complemented by its dissemination over OTT platforms. A consumer survey suggests that the most popular category of content watched in India on OTT platforms is movies and web shows. The form and platform together provides the creators with innate freedom to delve into issues that shape and reshape the society in diverse ways, borrow from society, and depict it through dynamic, intense metaphors through storylines. Although content circulated are subject to healthy critique from viewers and rightly so, the move to assert control over their content under the discretion of certain leaders is oppressive and disrespectful to the viewer’s right to access multimedia, especially online. This act of taking decisions on behalf of the viewers, undermining creative freedom of the producers and digital space of the OTT platforms, restrains freedom of the consumers to access specific content and their right to critique. Earlier, the understanding of human life through fiction released over streaming platforms were not burdened by the jurisdictions of the Centre. When one proceeds to censor an imaginative art form, it is not only controlling the produced content, but at the same time the imagination itself. The angry FIRs by leaders upon depiction of Hindu deities in a certain light in a work of fiction attempts to curb the initial thought that goes into the writing process. This conscious effort to monitor ideas and stories before they are propagated infantilizes the viewers’ agency, and leads to subversion of thought.
The ‘fictional’ aspect now makes creations vulnerable to the guidelines. The imagination, ideas challenging the mainstream social structures, complemented by statements made by binary political leaders towards them inculcates fear and perpetuates it within the system at the same time. With the recent statement by Prakash Javadekar, it becomes certain that it is not ‘we’ who will in the future determine what ‘we’ want to consume online, at least in a ‘democracy’ like India. Till then, happy viewing!
Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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