Hindu nationalists in India are outraged over a kissing scene in a show called A Suitable Boy that dropped on Netflix last month.
Set in post-partition India, the six-part series directed by Mira Nair is the story of a young girl’s quest to find love with her family’s approval. One of its pivotal scenes shows its Hindu protagonist, a college student named Lata, kissing a Muslim boy named Kabir, against the backdrop of a temple. This scene has left some leaders of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) outraged, who believe that it “hurts religious sentiments”.
The district collector of the central Indian town of Maheshwar, where the controversial scene was shot, has clarified that the kissing scene does not appear to be filmed inside a temple. A Suitable Boy is based on a 1993 English novel of the same name by Vikram Seth, and was originally produced by the BBC.
A BJP leader has filed a police complaint against two Netflix executives demanding that the shows makers apologise and remove the “objectionable scenes” that promote “love jihad”, a right-wing Islamophobic theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriage for the sole purpose of converting them to Islam. If convicted, the Netflix executives could get three years of jail time and a heavy fine.
In India, intentionally hurting religious sentiments is a punishable offence. According to experts though, an investigation into this matter is unlikely. “The scene is not punching down or ridiculing a minority community. It feels more like a way for some politicians to control the media because they realise how much influence it has on people,” Sucharita Tyagi, a film critic who has featured in a Netflix social video, told VICE World News.
The outcry against Netflix comes in the backdrop of the BJP reigniting the “love jihad” debate.
On Nov. 24, Uttar Pradesh became the first Indian state to pass an ordinance that outlawed forced religious conversions, seen by many as a measure to discourage interfaith unions. The punishment includes a jail term up to three years and a fine of INR 10,000. In the last one month, representatives of four state governments also announced their intention to introduce laws on “love jihad”.
In October this year, Indian jewelry brand Tanishq was forced to take down an advertisement on an interfaith couple after right-wing trolls harassed and threatened them for promoting “love jihad”.
This isn’t the first time Netflix India is embroiled in a dispute. It courted controversy in 2018, when its critically acclaimed show Sacred Games took a dig at former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The temple kissing controversy comes just a few weeks after India announced that streaming platforms like Netflix would now come under the control of India’s Information and Broadcasting ministry. This has raised concerns about censorship of digital content in the country.
“Given the track record of the government when it comes to dealing with freedom of expression, this seems to be a step to control content on the internet,” Nikhil Taneja, a filmmaker who has produced content for digital platforms, told VICE World News. Taneja feels the only way to combat rising censorship of digital content is for filmmakers and actors to stand in solidarity with the content they make on a public platform instead of staying silent.
“We saw it [censorship] happen with the James Bond film Skyfall, where a kissing scene was cut short only in India,” said film critic Tyagi. She pointed out that in the past, many Indian films or series have faced backlash for exploring religious themes. Last year, the film Chapaak (splash in Hindi), which was based on true events and chronicled the life of an acid attack survivor, became the subject of a controversy after members of the right-wing alleged that the attacker shown in the film was Hindu while the real perpetrator was Muslim. “Everyone must be responsible for the messaging they put out, but this kind of censorship infantilises adults who are capable of making their own assumptions,” she said.
Netflix is likely to close 2020 with more than 4.6 million paid subscribers in India. Last year, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced that the company would be investing $400 million over two years in Indian content, acknowledging that India had emerged as a major market for the American platform.