Web Censorship will Undo the Industry Level Achievements of Independent OTT Content

Web Censorship will Undo the Industry Level Achievements of Independent OTT Content

After the backlash against the Amazon Prime Indian web series Tandav starring Saif Ali Khan and Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, makers of the show have conceded and agreed to censor scenes which have hurt religious sentiments.

This follows in the trail of several other similar complaints being lodged against other web series. A complaint was lodged against makers of the MX player series Aashram for using derogatory words against Schedule Caste/Schedule Tribe communities. In case of Paatal Lok, a legal notice was issued to Anushka Sharma, the show producer, for hurting sentiments of the Gorkha community in a particular scene on the show. In another instance, a complaint was lodged against Netflix’s A Suitable Boy starring Ishaan Khatter and Tabu, portraying a particular kissing scene in the backdrop of a temple.

Web censorship will undo the industry level achievements of independent OTT content

On the flip side of the coin, the ever-increasing popularity of these web series is slowly achieving new milestones. The 2019 crime drama series Delhi Crime recently won the International Emmy for best drama series, while Arjun Mathur’s contribution to acting has finally been recognized by the same fraternity with his role in Made in Heaven. Last year, Radhika Apte was also nominated for best actress for her role in Netflix’s Lust Stories, while another Netflix production, Sacred Games (season 2) was also nominated for the best drama series last year.

The rising success of Indian web series isn’t just a fluke. The racy, edge-of-the-seat pace of thrillers like Sacred Games, Paatal Lok and Delhi Crime have been universally acclaimed. There can be no contrasting opinions regarding the brilliant complexity, depth and quality of these storylines. Even if these storylines are, sadly, emerging from the grim realities of this country.

Variety magazine listed Paatal Lok as one of the best international TV shows of 2020. Sacred Games is the only series to have made it to The New York Times’ “30 Best International TV Shows of the Decade” list. Ben Travers of IndieWire called Delhi Crime, “an expertly told, hard-to-watch true crime series”, which is not for everyone, “but it won’t let go of anyone who watches.”

But alas! These facts of universal, sometimes even global recognition is equivalent to some dumb foreign rap for the extremists of this country, who have made a profession out of being hurt for every little thing that happens out there. And their favourite war cry is ‘Anti-Hindu sentiments’. It seems like every good, new web series that releases comes with a pre-written set of potential lawsuits that can be filed.

OTT Platform Content

Thanks to these extremists and flag bearers of religious perfection, OTT platforms now stand to be regulated by the state. According to techlawforum.in, “In November 2020, the Cabinet Secretariat issued a notification bringing the OTT industry (along with the digital news industry), which was under Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s jurisdiction earlier, within the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). This marked a significant shift in MIB’s jurisdiction which earlier only included traditional forms of media such as cinema, radio, etc. and not digital media. While the MIB cannot regulate OTT platforms without bringing a specific law in place for the same, the move has sparked censorship concerns.”

Would regulation be the right step for OTT content? One of the major reasons for Web series and OTT platforms’ huge commercial success in India is the lack of state intervention in the content. OTT platforms and their content are not subject to the same sort of certification requirements that films and TV shows are. This is the reason why so many web series and digital films have been able to venture into political or controversial themes, nudity, language, and topics that would have been impossible to showcase in theatre releases or TV shows.

Earlier, directors, producers and screenwriters in the Indian film industry were in a constant tug of war in censorship. So many amazing films could never see the light of day because of arbitrary censorship laws. Precious gems of movies like Bandit Queen, Water, Fire, Urf Professor, Black Friday, Paanch, etc. couldn’t find as much glory as they deserved, because they never found acceptance back home.

But the advent of OTT platforms meant a paradigm shift in the Indian content viewing experience. Indian cinephiles addicted to new, daring, intelligent, bold and/or exciting storylines, who earlier had to turn to foreign content for that rush, now found the same in their own, homegrown content….and whats more? They got it anytime, anywhere.

But the greatest gift that OTT has given these viewers and also to intelligent creators is the lack of censorship on content. With streaming platforms, mature audiences who know how to handle explicit content could now access amazing storylines, based right on the hinterland.

The availability of exclusive, fresh and good content was the reason some of the first OTT services in India like Netflix and Amazon Prime achieved commendable success. This new trend spurred the growth of not only more streaming platforms, but also led to the creation of better and better content.

Directors and Producers in the industry are wary of two major things: censorship and box office collection. OTT platforms gave these creators a great chance to freely make great movies, without the fear of film board disapprovals or box office flops. Soon, more and more producers started releasing their productions on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Zee5, Voot, and other OTT platforms.

TV series used to be a sad reality in India. The competitions between Saas and Bahus in family matters would put great athletes to shame. Petite heroines tripping only when the hero is nearby, to fall exactly into his embrace, while the romantic bollywood song played in the background….Wonder why the CBFC never cut these things? They are more disturbing than gory scenes. Fun fact: these exact scenarios are still a staple of television shows, even today.

But OTT platforms gave a new meaning to Indian series. If we had idiot shows like Sasural Simar ka, Naagin, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, we also had gems like Sacred Games, Made in Heaven, Mirzapur, Scam 1993 and many, many others. They may be on a different medium, but they are, nevertheless, Indian long-format shows, with storylines worth global acclaim.

Not that the popularity of web series and films was not growing at an unprecedented pace, but the 2020 coronavirus lockdown only pushed their success in a hyperspeed mode. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar have now become household names, thanks to the lockdown and all the free time it brought with it.

OTT platforms can be credited with the onslaught of a golden age of content in India. This great momentum could never have been achieved if, like big screen release films, OTT platforms were too regulated by the Film Board of India. Delhi Crime, which has by far, achieved the highest global recognition by this point, would never have been even released if CBFC had caught hold of it. Paatal Lok, Sacred Games, Family Man, Aashram, etc. are some of the other series that would have definitely been censored, in various degrees, due to dicey themes like caste oppression, violence, religious fanaticism, abysmal state of women safety in India, cult and godman brainwash and other socio-political issues.

The credit for the true and just recognition of amazingly talented actors like Pratik Gandhi, Shreya Dhanwanthry, Tripti Dimri, Jaideep Ahlawat, and various others goes to web series. Film Directors have a tendency to cast actors who already have a significant fan following, so as to maximize their box office collection. But web series and movies, with their subscription-based revenue model, do away with this capitalization on a star’s fame and focus on casting the best actor for a role.

We have web content to thank for the greater democracy in talent recognition and awards.

As of now, there is a lot of back and forth happening between OTT platforms and the State under the aegis of Internet and Mobile Association of India. But if the cases against web series and producers of these series keep mounting as such, the day wouldn’t be far when web series and digital films also come under the purview of the state, similar to theatrical releases.

In times of unreliable media and suppression of independent voice, web series have served as a great source of objectivity and transparency.

Introducing the same stringent laws for OTT content, used to regulate theatre releases and network shows would be equivalent to suppressing yet another independent voice.

Web series, with their freedom in creativity and lesser control by the state, have come a longer way in revolutionizing the industry, far more than theatre releases could ever do in a far greater stretch of time. Clipping the wings of OTT content in such a manner will definitely undo all the wins of OTT platforms, achieved so far.