According to Henry Louis Gates, “Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”
The recent surge in first action reports (FIRs) against creators of web series in India has revived the age-old debate between censorship and artistic freedom. In January, FIRs were filed against the makers of the web-series ‘Tandav’ and ‘Mirzapur’, for allegedly offending religious sentiments, among other reasons. This is hardly a new occurrence. Last year A Suitable Boy, a web series on Netflix was criticized for similar reasons.
Indian Censorship of Amazon Prime, Netflix, and other Streaming Content
Over-the-top (OTT) media streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix are now a point of interest for the government and the Centre Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Prasoon Joshi, Chairman of CBFC, speaking in a meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology said OTT platforms need to be regulated. Joshi pointed out that films released in cinemas for public viewing are required to to go through CBFC—on OTT platforms, no such clearance is required.
The push for regulation on OTT platforms may be triggered by their exponential growth in revenue and viewership. As per the PwC report, India is currently the fastest-growing OTT market and is set to become the world’s sixth-largest by 2024. As of July 2020, the viewer base reached 29 million.
The failure of OTT platforms in coming up with a self-regulated content code has not helped their cause, either. A code was formed under the supervision of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI). The code was signed and accepted by 15 OTT platforms, including Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Disney + among others. However, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) rejected the code, stating that tighter regulations are needed.
The Supreme court of India issued a notice to the MIB and IMAI to set up an autonomous body to regulate OTT platforms. The notice came in a response to a PIL seeking the setup of a regulatory body for content on OTT platforms.
Flexibility and Freedom: The Benefits of Streaming Platforms for Creators
Audiences are attracted to OTT platforms for the ability to select their viewing content. The ability to explore multiple genres at your fingertips with the additional option of mobility have fueled the increasing popularity of streaming platforms.
Content on digital platforms does not go through the filter of CBFC certification; this is why the landscape on OTT platforms looks so different to film releases.
The idea of making content without fear of government censorship attracts a lot of content creators. This has brought an overall transformation in the Indian entertainment industry.
The data collected by these OTT platforms helps tailor content based on preferences—this information also helps creators. OTT content also gives creators the flexibility of collaborating with multiple directors and writers which heightens the quality of media.
A Divided Industry
Many creators criticized the announcement that OTT platforms will be subject to government supervision. While disappointing, creators have long expected such a move from the government due to controversial films such as Leila, which would never see the light of day without OTT platforms. The list of such works is long.
Some creators argue that due the lack of censorship on OTT platforms unnecessary cuss words and sexual content are added to appeal to a broader youth audience. Many also maintain that in a country as diverse as India, censorship is the only way to ensure harmony.
Will the Streaming Landscape in India Change Forever?
Whether the government forms an autonomous body for regulating content on OTT or the CBFC takes over the mantle of regulating it, the outcome will more or less be the same. The material will most probably be regulated under the provision of Section 5B (1) f the Cinematograph Act, 1952. The same provision is used for the certification of films.
The law states that a film will not be given certification for public release if any part of the film is deemed as going against the security of the state, friendly relations with other countries, public order, decency, morality, involves defamation or content of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offense.
The language of the law is very ambiguous; the word morality itself has no set meaning in the constitution. Hence, many films throughout history have faced serious censorship and, in some cases, a total ban. Politicians are vigilant with regard to calling out content throughout Indian history on these grounds.
Ultimately the future of entertainment on OTT platforms looks grim with imminent regulation. Censorship will sanitize material, making OTT movies and shows more or less indistinguishable from the content on television or movie halls. As many Indian users on Twitter said after the announcement, “It was fun while it lasted.”
Freedom of Expression
Freedom of speech has become a hot topic of debate, not only for artistic expression but due to the crackdown on journalists, activists, and comedians, a rising trend in recent years under the Modi government. Many see censorship as a way to crush dissent and to control the narrative against the government using religious sentiments as a tool. Ultimately, the move to regulate OTTs is part of a broader set of regulations and religious clashes within the Indian political system.