A few months ago there was a whisper through the brown girl network. I got texts, DMs, and Snapchats, and they all asked the same thing: have you seen Made in Heaven? Have you seen Four More Shots? In the South Asian diaspora, news travels quickly, and these shows—both on Amazon Prime—were the latest.
When I watched them—a few hours at a time, often late into the night—I immediately understood the significance. The handfuls of Indian dramas on streaming platforms released in the past two years are not Bollywood, nor are they the Hindi serials on my aunties’ television sets. Their ability to show the genitalia of a transgender woman, surveillance of a gay man by his repressed neighbor, or a pseudo-woke groom demanding dowry of his bride at the altar is a reality that had, for many years, remained on the cutting room floor because of the Central Board of Film Certification, an Indian government authority which censors media with a conservative lens.
Now, since streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (as well as homegrown platforms like Hotstar) remain outside of the central board’s regulatory grasp, they are capitalizing on their ability to allow creators to remain true to their story. In order to circumvent the heavy hand of censorship, some platforms, such as Netflix and Hotstar, have pledged to self censor based on their own interpretation of the law, while others, such as Amazon, are following their own rules.
“We are as compliant with the laws of the land as we are required to be,” said Vijay Subramaniam, director and head of content for Amazon Prime Video in India. “At the same time, we have an internal code. It is important to be authentic, allowing our creators to think unconstrained.”
Made in Heaven, based off the trope of the complex Indian wedding in Delhi’s high society, deftly navigates patriarchy, homophobia, and the caste system with a tenor somewhere between Gossip Girl and HBO’s Divorce. Four More Shots, meanwhile, was described to me as a brown Sex and the City. But with gut-wrenching scenes of a mother separated from her kid, or a bisexual Punjabi woman having a behind-doors relationship with a movie star, it is far closer to the reality of a middle class Indian woman eking out an existence in Mumbai.
“These girls had to be real, had to bleed, had to have flaws and yet had to rise above it all to be their own little un-superheroes,” said Rangita Pritish Nandy, the showrunner and creator of Four More Shots, who also grew up in Mumbai. “Amazon let us tell their story honestly, without being prudish and puritanical.”
The comparison is even more stark if you watch the Bollywood movies that have attempted to tackle similar topics. Earlier this year, established Bollywood producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, debuted Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (translation: I looked at a girl and felt something), the story of a girl, also in Punjab, who tries to come out to her family. Throughout the course of the two hour film, however, the main character, Sweety, and her girlfriend, Kuhu, never kiss, nor does anyone say anything outright about sexual identity except for a quirky playwright who tries to use his script as a tool to teach her family about equality, likely to avoid censorship.
It’s not necessarily Bollywood’s fault that its storylines remain far removed from the conversations happening in actual Indian society. The censorship board most recently threatened the release of the epic Padmavat because some Hindu sensibilities were offended by the Muslim character trying to steal away a Rajput queen. The board also repeatedly refused to allow the release of Gulabi Aaina, an award-winning film about transsexuals in India, that is now (after 14 years) on Netflix in India and otherwise. Recently, a censorship board member also attacked Karan Johar, a gay entertainment personality and movie maker, with a weird, now removed tweet about him having sex with his mother.
Some of this censorship has been reined in after India’s Supreme Court struck down Section 377, a British-era law that criminalized homosexuality, last September. But the censorship board, and other conservative voices, can still rely on draconian laws such as Section 292, which bans imagery that is deemed overtly sexual or lascivious, if they want to crack down.
Even with the advent of streaming platforms attempting to win over the Indian market, creators are often careful. “We self censor. It’s not like we don't show kissing—we swear in the show, but we won’t write a story that’s explicitly sexual or raunchy.” said Ashwin Suresh, founder of Dice Media, Pocket Aces, and the creator of the Netflix show, Little Things, about a young unmarried couple navigating work and social life in Mumbai.
While shows like Netflix’s Sacred Games, about the Mumbai underworld, and Made in Heaven, might not shy away from nudity and explicit violence or sexuality, the creators of Little Things took the route of sitcoms like Friends, employing a subtle mix of comedy and quirk factor. And Suresh, whose shows first became popular on YouTube, said that while he supports the lack of censorship on platforms like Netflix and Amazon, he also tries not to stir up controversy in his shows. “Indian culture is wired not to change. I expect to see some censorship,” he said.
This might seem overly cautious, but Indian censorship can influence global companies as well, even if there’s no clear and consistent way of cracking down on them. Last year Amazon pulled a number of products from its marketplace in India when they were deemed offensive. And it’s not absurd to think that companies like Netflix, trying hard to court and profit from the massive, young population in India will end up following any rules that allow it to keep its foothold in the country.
Ironically, though, it’s the India-based online streaming platforms run by media groups like Star and Zee that are taking the most risks, and critics say it’s not always for the sake of quality. “There’s a lot of exploitation, because there’s no censorship,” said Maanvi Gagroo, an actress who plays the leading role of Siddhi Patel on Four More Shots, in addition to starring on the YouTube series, Tripling. “They put in an intimate scene because they can, even if its not part of the narrative.” Other creators and actors also described these homegrown streamed shows to me as soft porn, or unnecessarily provocative.
Even with some platforms peddling cheap thrills, most creators say the massive shift in progressive storytelling has pushed the entire industry one step forward, even on an individual level. “We’re used to watching a lot of intimate scenes but I had personally never done that as an actor,” said Gagroo, whose character Siddhi starts as a virgin dabbling in an online dominatrix persona on Four More Shots. “But my director told me this show would end up liberating me as a person. And it did happen.”
For Nandy, who created the show based on her own life and those of her friends, the most important thing is to continue making shows that don’t shy away from the grit and complexity of Indian life, especially for women. “The truth is that Amazon just told us to make a great show, they didn’t stick us with any shackles and therefore every track, character,” she said. “And the storyline was not only special but also challenging because we had zero excuses—we had to crack a sticky, genuine and memorable show.”
And for the millions of Indians in and outside the country, it is both a thing of intrigue and relief that the stories we know to be true are no longer diluted by bureaucracy, allowing the evolution of culture, politics and society to live both on screen, and off.