Tuesday, December 15, 2020
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Streaming platforms have opened up new possibilities. Image: Andrés Rodríguez

OTT media reflects realities of post-truth world and supports independent films

A KISSING scene shot in a temple for Netflix show, 'A Suitable Boy', triggered the Hindu nationalists to call for boycott of the OTT streaming platform.

Several shows on digital straming platforms have got similar reactions in past. While the right wing finds ideological faults, left liberals point out gaps in storytelling which promote existing evils of India society like casteism and misogyny. 

This has also led to self-censorship. Netflix India has already censored some parts out from 'Vikings' while Amazon Prime Videos has removed parts of movie, 'A Death in the Gunj'. 

The bloom of Over The Top (OTT) digital streaming platforms in India has offered a range of opportunities for independent artists. Writers also enjoy the liberty to produce any narrative unhindered by a regulation but that is set to change.

On November 9, 2020, the cabinet secretary issued a gazette notification to amend the Government of India (Allocation of Business Rules), 1961 putting digital streaming platforms under the purview of the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

There are no details available on how the Ministry plans to regulate digital content but many have speculated that the programme and advertising codes prescribed under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994 may serve as a template to frame the new rules.

On November 16, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister, Prakash Javedkar said the government upon receiving suggestions from the public was “deliberating on” what could be done in this field and is advocating for “responsible freedom”.

There is no limitation of a range of content on digital platforms for  both personal and community viewing. The state should not get into what one should watch and with whom

This move has received criticism by many on social media including filmmaker Hansal Mehta who tweeted, “First clampdown, then lockdown and now shutdown. One day there will be a takedown.”

Karan Anshuman the writer-director of the popular show Mirzapur wrote on Twitter: “The govt is giving in to the basest demands of prudes. How is this progress in any manner? Don't like it, don't watch it. Don't impose your regressive views on a billion people.”

Patal Lok had ignited criticism from both right and left wings. On the other end of the spectrum are people like Kangana Ranaut who feel the content should be fit for “community viewing”.

During her spat with Eros Now, an OTT streaming platform, the actor tweeted, “Community viewing enhances our awareness. When we know someone is watching what we are watching we want to be who we want them to think we are. We make conscious choices, censorship of what we feed our brains and emotion is very important and censor can be our own conscience as well.” 

Theatre artist Pradipta Singh feels what one can watch with their family or in their personal space is very subjective. “There is no limitation of a range of content on digital platforms for  both personal and community viewing. You are now free to watch any content on your phone or laptop within the confines of your personal space. The state should not get into what one should watch and with whom,” he says. 

Fastest growing market

India is the fastest-growing OTT market in the world, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 28.6 per cent. In terms of total OTT video revenue, India will overtake South Korea, Germany and Australia to be the sixth-largest market in 2024.

“The reason why OTT platforms are on the rise is because people are fed up of watching content aired on television where one do not have the liberty to portray the entire perspective. OTT platforms do not impose anything on us, the viewer has the right to choose what he or she wants to see”, says Pavel Singh who made the film 'Tasweerein' recently.

Pradipta Singh talks about how OTT platforms cater to every ideology to build business. “These platforms are already streaming content which are ‘nationalist’ and favours the government in power. 'Bhaukal' (a show on MX Player) glorifies police brutality but at the same time you have a show called 'Aashram' on the same platform, which upset Hindu fundamentalists,” he says. “You can choose what suits you.”

OTT platforms have also helped low-budget films. “The reason that most independent film-makers prefer to go online is because the OTT platforms act as a safety net. They can be assured that the government won’t play foul and take their art down,” says Samya Khanna, an aspiring director. “If the government steps in now, these creators or artists might be under constant threat if they are being vocal about unpleasant truths.” 

Many have raised apprehensions that the government’s step to regulate OTT platforms will not be restricted to curbing simple freedoms such as showing nudity, swearing and violence. 

Independent film-makers prefer to go online because OTT platforms act as a safety net. They can be assured that the government won’t play foul and take their art down

Censorship in Post-truth World

We have seen that backlash against the content being streamed on OTT platforms mostly spurt from social media. The Center government had gone to court over the movie 'Gunjan Saxena' since it allegedly portrayed the Indian Air Force in a bad light. The documentary, 'Bad Boy Billionaires' also faced legal hurdles. 

But do we need no oversight at all? “There should be an overlooking advisory body only to give suggestions. If one regulates content it will practically lead to censorship which has its own motives and ideology. The role of civil society is important in curbing content which promotes hate, racism or child pornography so that the advisory body can hear it out,” said Pradipta Singh. “There should be a space to raise your voice but that should not amount to taking down the content. It may put up warnings or disclaimers. However, in all practicality, it will only pay lip service to the entire debate whether to regulate OTT content or not.” 

Content in Western countries is mostly self regulated and categorised according to age of the audience. Most instances of films being banned in USA are those found to be indulging in child pornography.

“The only form of certification that needs to be there should be to specify whether a content is fit for children to watch or not. However those specifications are already offered by OTT platforms,” says Pavel Singh. “Adults, however, have the right to watch what the creator wants to convey and then judge the content. If what the person wants to convey gets censored in the process it is a tragic scenario for the artist as well as for the audience.” 

Adults have a right to watch what the creator wants to convey and then judge the content. Censorship will be a tragedy for both the artist and the audience

Censorship can be a way to control what population thinks. “In this post-truth era where everyone has their own version of reality, the institutions that certify art are usually controlled by privileged men who censor down anything which is disturbing and contradicts their ideology. They won’t be able to do justice to the art,” Pavel Singh adds. “For instance, in a scene of movie 'Super Deluxe', we find a transgender being harassed by the police. I don't think a government body can afford to be critical of the police community by allowing such a scene.” 

Problem with Regulating Problematic Art

Adult content offered by some OTT platforms only caters to the male gaze. Such content is mostly made by male creators for the male audience. These shows, like 'Gandi Baat', carry wrong or exaggerated notions of sexuality and might even mock certain identities. But can that be dealt with through regulation or good content outweighs the flaws? 

“There are a lot of problems with the popular content in OTT platforms but at least they talk about the problems existing in our society, like the caste system in 'Aashram' or islamophobia and discrimination against a transgender in 'Patal Lok'," says Pavel Singh. “On the other hand, despite having a Central Board of Film Certification we still get to see sexist dialogue, problematic story-line in our films. Popular movies like 'Dabang' or '3 Idiots' were cleared by the Censor Board but they objectify women or glorify violence.”

River Ghosh, a film editor, brings up his personal experience. “Coming from a middle-class family who has been exposed to watching films from an early age most of us are not accustomed to watch sexuality being portrayed in mainstream films. I believe that might be a factor for such backlash over sexuality,” he says. “I am aware of content that may be classified as ‘soft-porn’ but I believe it is only for marketing. On the other hand, there’s also Sex Education on Netflix where sexuality itself is the narrative. It educates us in many novel ways.”

Speaking about sexual content on OTT platforms Pavel Singh asserts, “Art and architecture goes hand in hand. One does not censor Khajuraho (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) for people. So censoring art is an impossibility,” he says. “The viewers are not fools; they can distinguish between portrayal of sex in a Mahesh Bhatt film from a Deepa Mehta film or a Meera Nair film.”

Though there are instances where sexuality or marginalisation is used to objectify the characters or motivate viewers in a negative way,  OTT platforms also offer space for creators to talk about certain subjects which is usually tabooed on television

Though there are instances where sexuality or marginalisation is used to objectify the characters or motivate viewers in a negative way,  OTT platforms also offer space for creators to talk about certain subjects which is usually tabooed on television. “In 'Sacred Games', for the first time we meet the character of Kuku who is a transgender and is given importance in a mainstream Hindi narrative,” says River Ghosh. “In 'Patal Lok', the transgender character was played by a transgender actor to talk about marginalisation and discrimination in terms of sexual identity.”

Community viewing is outdated

OTT platforms have become very personalised. People watch content on their mobile phones while coming back from work and the recommendations algorithm is also personalised. “Everyone has a unique identity and can relate to different things. If someone is not comfortable he or she is free not to watch that particular content and choose something else on the same platform,” says Samya Khanna. “Regulation in a post-digital era is not viable because we always get to watch any movie we want to in some way or the other.”

Pavel Singh feels people are the ultimate losers in all of this. "The content which suits the ruling dispensation brainwashes the public by propagating an illusion that things are perfect in our society,” he laments.     

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