No politics, no controversy: OTT platforms in India want to play it safe

Filmmakers and producers say a culture of fear has gripped the industry.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
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From Leila to Patal Lok to Tandav, over the past year, a number of web series on over-the-top media services like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video have attracted large-scale hate campaigns for being “Hinduphobic”. Police complaints were filed against shows, the platforms that hosted them, and even employees associated with the platforms.

Gone are the days of content like Ankur, Nishant, Manthan and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, which held a lens to issues of caste, religion, class and gender in Indian society. With the current culture of FIRs against content, those associated with OTT platforms told Newslaundry that everyone is nervous.

Adding to this tension is the central government’s new guidelines to regulate the content on OTT platforms. Among other things, platforms now have to classify content on the basis of nature and a viewer’s age, and also set up a three-layer grievance redressal mechanism.

“Every OTT platform has now decided not to use a religious context anywhere in our content,” said a Mumbai-based producer on the condition of anonymity. “Caste and nationalism have become untouchable [topics] too. Even if someone uses caste to show atrocities against the downtrodden, people register their objections and file police complaints.”

Using the medium of art, the producer said, web series and movies tried to highlight problems in society like “caste issues and religious extremism, which created an impact by generating awareness among people”. Now, however, this won’t happen anymore.

“We have to stop,” he said. “FIRs were filed against Netflix vice-president Monica Shergill, Amazon Prime executive Aparna Purohit, so basically studio executives are getting booked. This was never the case earlier and because of it, everyone is in fear now. People are provided with lawyers until the time they are with a company but what will happen to them once they leave? They are worried about how they will deal with such cases on their own. How will they afford expensive lawyers?”

He added: “This new culture of getting booked has created mass hysteria in the industry.”

Decisions on skipping issues of caste, religion and nationalism have not been made in writing but participants in the industry seem to be leaning that way.

“It’s not like we can’t make series or films on these issues but it depends on the appetite for risk and the support of a big firm,” the producer said. “Even then, the fear looms. The average cost of a web series is normally over Rs 20 crore. For series like Tandav, it’s Rs 100 crore. Six or eight months goes into writing, three months in production, and three more in post-production. It takes a lot of money, hard work, and effort to make a series. No one wants to risk all this because of some FIR.”

“Reluctance and fear has developed among writers,” said a film writer who works with a production house. “They are scared their stories will be rejected. OTT platforms used to be a great place to work because they had immense freedom of expression. But because of the code of ethics and police cases, it’s becoming like television. The level of content has gone down. Earlier we had 50 ways to express our stories but the options are now limited.”

According to the writer, OTT platforms have also changed their content briefs after the kerfuffle of the past year.

“For instance, Sony Liv has clearly said they will not look at content which could lead to political debates,” the writer said. “They are only looking for content on scams, or stories based on books, because they are safe. Amazon Prime said they don’t want to get into biopics and are interested in crime thrillers, provided they do not hurt political sentiments in the country. Netflix is okay with comedy, horror, thriller, psychological – but there is a big no for political thrillers. They specified that they do not want cops to be shown in a bad light in crime thrillers; they want them to be shown as the ‘good guys’. Also, the underworld should not be seen supporting political parties.”

He added that subsequent seasons of controversial web series will have to remove scenes that might lead to further controversy. “Some may even get decommissioned,” he said. “As a writer, I am very cautious now because these developments can lead to my stories being rejected.”

A filmmaker who has helmed more than four web series on OTT platforms told Newslaundry that restrictions should not be placed on filmmaking or storytelling.

“I don’t like censorship because under the guise of going after wrong things, of which there are very few, it goes after creativity and shuts down creative expression,” he said. “Under the garb of controlling pornographic content, such regulations are brought in to restrict creative freedom...Running hate campaigns against people, filing cases against them: this is harassment.”

The filmmaker pointed out how in the case of Prime Video’s Tandav, the company’s India content head, Aparna Purohit, had to go to the Supreme Court to secure interim protection from arrest. “What happened with Aparna was scary and had affected the industry. Nobody wants to go through what she went through,” he said. “People will now reassess their content even if it’s not controversial.”

Despite this, the filmmaker said, he believes that the film industry is “creative enough to say what it wants”. “Maybe six months from now, resistance will be stronger and the industry will stand up against this harassment.”

The director of an award-winning documentary and a couple of web series said that any filmmaker who is afraid of FIRs should “leave the profession”. However, he admitted that OTT platforms “are here to make money” and will therefore avoid controversies to play it safe.

“There are sensitive topics which cannot be touched without proper study or logic; they shouldn’t be taken just for the heck of it,” he said. “Religion is one of them, and it’s difficult to use it in context because we’re presently living in a highly sensitive environment...But I still believe it depends from person to person.”

Saying that it’s a “trend” now to get offended, he added: “OTT is a new phenomena. People will take time to understand it. The time will come when they will stop ‘offending’. People need to understand that one scene cannot destroy our culture.”

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