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Issue 7

Who is Deciding What You Watch? Fiction and Move Towards New Indian Censorship

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.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

The White Tiger: Poverty Porn or Gritty Realism?

Balram Halwai, the protagonist of The White Tiger, would have you believe that before any other label engulfs him, he is an Indian entrepreneur. The label of a murderer, a man emerged from ‘the darkness,’ or that of an ex-driver for the son of a wealthy and influential landlord is secondary. 

The White Tiger, released early this year, is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel by the same name. The movie provides an incisive narrative of the glaring class divide in India—and it does this humorously. The truth of the class divide is rather simple, as explained by Balram: the ones who live in ‘the darkness,’ who come from the castes of the narrow bellied and tuberculosis stricken; the ones from drought-struck villages, who make up 90% of India’s population are caught in a chicken coop. They see their fate played out in front of them through others caught in the same coop and they see their kind slaughtered right in front of them, yet they do not try to escape. That is their fate. 

“the trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy” 

This is how Balram ends his philosophy with a macabre finality. As he says this, the movie displays montages of tired men cycling in rags, carrying furniture worth several lakhs, and being paid less than a hundred rupees for it. The dialogue ends with such a man bowing down to a woman in front of a mansion, displaying his thanks for being paid a meagre amount for his service—the people caught in the chicken coop do not try to escape. This is their fate. 

The film takes this simple philosophy, as thought of by Balram, and expands it into a carefully embroidered, gritty and rusted story that climaxes with a murder. Not once does the film slack in its depiction of the class divide—cities, when they belong to the caste of the big-bellied are grand, boasting of malls, clubs, people who converse seamlessly in English and wear short clothes. The same cities, when they belong to their populous, but largely overlooked counterparts are crowded, immobile, and reek with the stench of hate, crime, resentment, and, of course, open defecation. Throughout the movie, we see shots of crowded cities choked with poor people, and in the very next shot, open tennis courts, big residences occupied by not more than two people. We are very clearly shown how the rich (take, for example, the landowner) are unafraid of claiming the poor and treat the land and lives of the poor as if they already belong to them—like when Balram offers money to a crippled beggar, but receives scalding scorn from his ‘masters’; they treat his money as if it is theirs.  

Although this grisly, gritty depiction of urban and rural spaces contributes to how we view the limited accessibility of both public and private spaces, I thought this resolute ugliness veered towards the lauded portrayal of Indian poverty by Hollywood—think slumdog millionaire. This ugliness often felt like an attempt to translate Indian poverty, class and caste to a public who is far too separated from this problem to view it as anything more than entertainment. My saying that the portrayal of poverty often exists as a translation is also a privileged stance—after all, I am also writing this as a big-bellied person who has never had to step inside The White Tiger’s portrayal of ‘darkness.’ But the film often also presents poverty as a thesis; something to be dissected, explained and proved. We see this in the caricatural depictions of the wealthy high-class landlords, the bitter, soulless and money-hungry joint family back in the village and the typical rich, kind of nice, “caste-doesn’t-exist-anymore-papa” Americanized son. 

The characters, to prove a point of poverty, lack complexity and emotional depth. They are cruel just because they are. Their actions as a function of their class, caste and religion are one dimensional, and, frankly, a little boring. I mean, what’s new about a wealthy politically-inclined family that’s Islamophobic, casteist and misogynistic? In attempting to present and translate the ‘truth’ about Indian class, the movie misses out on a lot of character depth, choosing, instead, to employ stereotypes. The only redemption to this is a depth of contempt that runs through every character, despite their differences: nobody is happy, everyone wants to be somewhere they are not. The othering is mutual—the poor do not see the rich as one of their own, and of course, neither do the rich. 

The only character to break out of the stereotype, though, is the protagonist Balram Halwai, played phenomenally by Adarsh Gourav. If nothing else, I would recommend this film for its exceptional fresh-faced talent. Balram Halwai is probably the only intricately crafted character in the movie. He displays deep concern for his brother, which is laced with equal amounts of contempt. He cares for his ‘master’ (the landlord’s son) like one would care for a brother or a best friend, is hurt by his lack of consideration for him, but still does not hesitate for a second in believing that he has been greatly wronged by this supposedly nice man. 

The character of Balram Halwai is also charming and humorous. This humour seeps into the movie, and takes a dense and gritty topic accessible and interesting. We find ourselves agreeing with Balram, even when he is clearly in the moral wrong—we also see how our moral compass is deeply stricken by privilege. While watching the movie, I shamefully recognized some of my behaviours in the behaviour of the privileged. This is exactly where the film gets it right—although the characters portrayed as caricatural, their actions are mundane. They do what we all have done at some point in our lives. To be shown the wrongness of our beliefs and our actions is inherently shocking, and The White Tiger does a phenomenal job of that—shocking us by making our ‘mundane’ classism so lucid, so perceptible. 

Shivani Deshmukh is a second year undergraduate at Ashoka University. She studies Sociology and Anthropology.

Picture Credits: Netflix India

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 4

OTT Platforms: What controls the content we watch?

You sit in your bed, scrolling through the internet, looking for the next series to binge-watch. You switch tabs from Netflix to Amazon Prime Video to Disney+ then to Hotstar. You’re probably still confused about what you want to watch. The entire time, however, your choices feel seemingly limitless. You acknowledge tacitly that this was not the case a couple of years back. 

Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have expanded over the past 8 years. From only two platforms in 2012, India now has over 30 streaming service providers. Increasingly, television broadcast service providers have started giving customers the option to watch live TV online. A 2018 report by The Boston Consulting Group based its analysis off a consumer survey and predicted the Indian OTT market to reach $5 billion by 2023.

The reach of such platforms has been exacerbated by the pandemic as movies that would have otherwise released in theatres have now debuted on online platforms. An instance of the same is the somewhat controversial film Laxmii which is set to release on Hotstar later this month. While this doesn’t mean that theatres will shut for good, with different states opening up film theatres as early as November 2020, this does speak of the trend that the biggest platforms are racing to create libraries of content. This is indicative of an imagination where the OTT isn’t an adversary to film, rather a much-needed ally.

In this vast plethora of content, some questions remain. Do you choose what you are going to watch? Can someone influence your content choices? Netflix confirmed that it was testing a ‘shuffle play’ option for its users where the platform can suggest a title for you to watch based on your viewing preferences. One can, in light of this, think of online content as a basket of goods. While your screen time and interests may determine the exact good you choose from the basket, the entire basket differs from country to country. You’re provided with the content that will sell in your specific context as companies curate the content that you are likely to watch. 

Although companies are curating content for you, these are in themselves diverse. The bottom line is this– the singular power has gone out of the hands of big film studios’ now. At the box office, timings and screens are dependent on financial capacity. This problem shrinks in the online space. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, in an interview with the Hindu, spoke of his experience of not being strapped for money and concerns of audience reaction to the work he was doing. At the same time, the online space, like everything, isn’t free of problems. 

Even though the power to determine content isn’t concentrated in a few hands, the potency of the question stands, perhaps more as a ‘what’ question– what determines the content you consume? The answer is binge-worthiness which in part, determines the type of content that is created by production houses. That is why crime and horror are popular genres. Entire seasons are released in a single go contributing to the binge-watching trend. The goal for these platforms seems to be achieving the ‘endless scroll’, a constant updating of content. Coupled with the endless scroll, it is also important to acknowledge that the goal of binge-worthiness can go hand in hand with increased freedom to the creator.

This is true not just for the multinational names like Netflix, Amazon’s and Disney. Indian platforms like ALTBalaji, Voot and ZEE5 operate according to the same logic where the quest is to find content that appeals to the largest possible audience. These are also more pocket-friendly for different demographics. For instance, the Basic subscription for Netflix for a month is Rs. 499 as compared to ALTBalaji which costs Rs. 300 for a year.

Whatever be the cost, OTTs are often seen as competitors or add ons to film and television. There is a distinction in the entertainment content they provide. This difference or rather diversity of perspectives is perhaps seen most vividly in the comparison between one subsidiary of a TV company and the network itself– Balaji Telefilms. The ALT or alternative seems to have become a recourse from the regurgitated material we see on TV. A prime (pun intended) example of this is Balaji and ALTBalaji. While the former, meant for TV reproduces stereotypes; the latter, a mobile app and website sets out to challenge them. It pushes boundaries in showing queer romance, and central woman characters among others. While it does have its limitations, this content is far from Indian TV soaps, as mentioned by the Chief Marketing Officer himself.

A factor contributing to the success of ALTBalaji is its employment of erotic content. OTTs are free from the Central Board of Film Certification and hence several censorship rules. However, the formation of an adjudicatory body, the Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC) was announced in February this year. This is coupled with a push for self-regulation. This is a salient distinction as it comes hand in hand with the individuation of the viewer experience. Some scholars see censorship as the adoption of a patronising attitude by the state. Online viewing is highly individualised with its focus on the smartphone and hence the assumption is of maturity on the part of the viewer, provided that details around appropriateness are provided. So the effect doesn’t start and end at erotic content but in general more freedom to the creator, as mentioned earlier. According to Kashyap, the topics “that matter to me: sexuality, religion and politics. These are the three big nos for the cinema experience. But Netflix doesn’t shy away from that.”

It would seem that the OTT platform provides more space for experimentation–both to the content creator and the receiver. That being said, it might not be the time to junk the TV completely, or at least junk it with the understanding that consumption of online content comes, at least in the Indian subcontinent, with a class dimension. While the idea of ‘selling content’ may work for entertainment channels, it is somewhat tricky territory when considering another category of content such as news which in itself is a public good. The question to ask then is who has the resources to invest in what essential are additional sources of entertainment? While data is a cheap commodity, with companies like Jio entering the market with highly affordable plans, viewing online content comes with the ability to pay for a subscription as well as pay for an uninterrupted internet experience. 

Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).