Neeraj Ghaywan’s film Masaan is a beautifully shot film in general, but there’s one particularly striking moment in it. The camera looks down upon a glittering Varanasi, bedecked with Durga Puja decorations. The sky is an inky black that makes the city look all the more dazzling. Out of this tangle of darkness and light, two red balloons float up; strangely delicate and gleaming with hope. It’s an exquisite frame that finds beauty in Varanasi without painting it as an exotic, holy city. The Varanasi of Masaan is a small town with big dreams, little secrets and those two balloons, released by a boy and a girl who are tentatively falling in love with one other. They’re doomed, of course. Yet while they rise above the crowded landscape, you can’t help but hope against hope that somehow, the balloons will survive, just like the love story that they symbolise.
The reason the audience knows that love story isn’t likely to have a happy ending is because right at the start of the film, Ghaywan has shown you what happens to young men and women who dare to explore being intimate with one another. Then again, if you watched Masaan online on Hotstar, you probably don’t have a clue.
The version of Masaan that’s available on Hotstar, STAR India’s on-demand, video streaming service, is an amateurishly edited one in which a few critically important moments in the film, including the pivotal opening episode, have been chopped off. When Ghaywan, writer and lyricist Varun Grover and filmmaker Anurag Kashyap discovered this a couple of days ago, they lashed out at Hotstar on Twitter. All of them recommended pirating the film rather than watching it on Hotstar. Kashyap’s Phantom Films is one of the producers of Masaan.
It isn’t unusual for a film’s writer to realise what’s being shown isn’t necessarily what s/he wrote. Recently, film editor and writer Apurva Asrani discovered that Satya didn’t have one of its most famous songs when telecast on &TV. “I was shocked that the song ‘Goli maar bheje mein’ had been chopped off,” said Asrani, who was one of the two editors of Satya.
Masaan, however, was edited for a digital platform. Since the film had a commercial release after winning the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes Film Festival last year, it has a certificate from the difficult-to-please Central Board of Film Certification. You’d think this would be proof positive that Masaan needs no further edits, but before it made its official online debut, the film was hacked at again.
Grover had no qualms pointing fingers at the film’s producer, Drishyam Films. “The producer holds the rights and the contracts for the film are signed by them,” Grover told Newslaundry. “As writers and lyricists, we do not hold the rights over the work once we have finished it. A writer has no stake here. … The intellectual property goes to the producer.”
As it turns out, the producer may not be in as much of a position of power as Grover suggests.
Last night, Phantom Films released a message via Twitter that cleared Hotstar and put the blame of the amputating Masaan squarely on Drishyam Films.
Ghaywan apologised to Hotstar on Twitter. Drishyam Films reacted soon after with this statement:
Leaving aside the threat of legal proceedings against Grover and Ghaywan, and Kashyap coming across as entirely clueless about what he signs, the statement claims that cuts were made to Masaan because the CBFC twisted Hotstar and Drishyam Films’ arms.
When Masaan was released commercially, it was given an “Adult” rating. To be shown on Hotstar, however, films evidently need to have a UA (“unrestricted with adult accompaniment”) rating. Drishyam’s statement tucks this detail in as though it’s self-explanatory and obvious when in fact, this is ridiculous. The internet is not a cinema hall. What’s shown on it doesn’t need ratings.
Given Hotstar is an online platform, nothing it hosts needs to be certified by the CBFC. Despite this, Hotstar has voluntarily opened itself — and consequently, large chunks of the Internet — up to the possibility of coming under CBFC’s purview. Admittedly, it may just be a matter of time before CBFC wields its baton over what film content is available online, but at present, this is not the case. A film that has already been certified by the CBFC doesn’t really need to be re-edited and re-certified. The internet is not the CBFC’s domain, which means the content on Hotstar doesn’t need CBFC’s blessing. Neither does it need to follow the regulatory guidelines that keep television content in check. Despite all this, Hotstar has effectively asked that the content it buys be censored.
And that brings us to another curious aspect of Hotstar. On one hand, STAR India’s digital platform seems to be interested in programmes and films that will fit CBFC’s UA rating. Yet, it’s buying the rights of films that are known for their racy or (at the very least) provocative content. They’ve got films like Hate Story 3 and The Dirty Picture, which are well-known for being risqué. In fact, the only reason Hate Story 3 was made was to offer the sex-starved Indian audiences some semi-nudity and heavy breathing. But in a gloriously ironic twist, the online version of the film is actually more sanitised and less sexy than the edit that was released in theatres.
From a consumer’s point of view, this is perilously close to a con. There you are, letting precious data be consumed by Hotstar’s stupidly heavy files only to find no one’s losing any clothes, nobody’s fusing lips in Fevicol jaisa mazboot jod, and the film is shorter by a few minutes. The last part may not be a cause for complaint but for those who click to watch a film like Hate Story 3, the rest of is likely to be so. After all, no one who’s interested in plot and filmmaking is going to choose to watch that film.
When a producer has a particular cut of a film, why would they go through the extra effort and expense of editing it again? Because as far as online content goes, the ball now lies in the distributor’s court. In the still nascent world of digital streaming, the producer can either opt for a platform run by a big company like STAR India, or try their luck with a new player like Netflix, or make tiny amounts of money through YouTube’s system of paid views. Until Netflix and upcoming ventures like Viacom’s Voot give Hotstar some competition, the money-minded producer will pick STAR India’s relatively older platform over the others. Even if it means making a new set of cuts. After all, Hotstar has existing customers since it’s been around for a little more than a year and is backed by one of the biggest media companies in the country.
Unfortunately, Hotstar has used the year that it enjoyed a monopoly, to enforce a self-censorship.
Instead of using its enviable position for good and promoting an internet that’s free and unrestrained, Hotstar has chosen to use its power for evil and that too, slyly. All it’s asking for is UA content — is it Hotstar’s fault if producers serve up chopped-up films? As far as Masaan, Drishyam and Phantom are concerned, apparently not.
(with inputs from Karuna John)