A web show streaming on Amazon Prime has courted controversy for offending religious sentiments in India, raising questions about the censorship of online content in the country.
An Indian web series called Tandav (a dance form associated with Hindu god, Shiva) that dropped on Amazon Prime last week has come under scrutiny for “hurting religious sentiments” and being “anti-Hindu”. Soon after it aired, the show received flak from members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over its depiction of Hindu deities.
Tandav is a political thriller directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, starring critically-acclaimed actors Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, and Zeeshan Ayyub. The series is loosely based on real political incidents set against the backdrop of rising Hindu nationalism..
Facing multiple police complaints, the series creator Ali Abbas Zafar issued an unconditional apology over Twitter on Monday, Jan. 18.
The scenes in Tandav criticised by the right-wing leaders include a sequence that has Ayyub playing Hindu god Lord Shiva in a college skit, while an actor playing mythological sage-god Narad Muni is discussing how Lord Shiva could build a higher social media following than Lord Ram. The scene also features the deity speaking a cuss word that has been beeped out.
On Jan. 17, Manoj Kotak, a lawmaker from the western Indian city of Mumbai, expressed his outrage on Twitter, saying the show is “deliberately mocking Hindu Gods.” Kotak, a BJP member, wrote to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), asking for the series to be banned.
Subsequently, the MIB summoned the series’ creators, seeking an explanation from Amazon Prime.
While there are laws and policies to regulate print and TV content in India, online content had no oversight for the longest time.
Last September, 15 OTT platforms signed a self-regulatory code formulated by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), a non-profit industry body. The MIB did not find it adequate in the absence of a grievance redress mechanism and lack of clarity on what would comprise prohibited content.
Subsequently, the MIB brought OTT platforms under its purview.
Currently, the content is governed by the self regulation code which, according to platforms, abides by content-related laws. IAMAI is in the process of consulting OTT platforms and government representatives to finalise guidelines that will bring in clarity and will help platforms with the implementation of the code. While this left experts concerned over increased censorship of digital content, many argue that it does not give the ministry legal powers.
“There is no law that defines that a streaming service is to be governed by this ministry. So no matter which ministry the business rules of streaming services are allocated to, the ministry has no grounds to issue any kind of a diktat to these platforms to censor them,” Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of tech journalism website Medianama told VICE World News. However, Pahwa pointed out that political power is often exerted to censor content in the absence of a legal framework. “There have been multiple content codes issued to streaming platforms since 2018, and a self-regulatory code is still applicable. But the ministry may still put pressure on these streaming platforms to dictate what the self-regulatory code should be, though they shouldn’t have the grounds to do so,” he said.
VICE World News reached out to IAMAI president Subho Ray regarding the controversy, but he declined to comment.
Police in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has launched a probe against Zafar and Amazon's chief of Indian original Prime Video content, Aparna Purohit. The show has also been criticized for hurting “ethnic sentiments” and being “anti-Dalit” for showing a scene where a Dalit politician is insulted with casteist remarks.
There have been at least three such controversies accusing OTT platforms of being “hinduphobic.” In the wake of the Tandav controversy, a police complaint has been registered on Jan. 19 against the creators of another Amazon Prime show titled Mirzapur for “hurting religious sentiments” and using abusive language. Mirzapur, which details the rise of criminal gangs in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, had come under fire last October after the show’s second season was accused of peddling an “anti-Hindu” agenda.
In November last year, outrage over a kissing scene in Netflix show A Suitable Boy, sparked concerns about censorship of content on online platforms.
India is an important business market for Amazon. The e-commerce giant reportedly increased its investment in producing local content in India, with more than 80 projects in production or development stage.