Amazon Prime Self Censors by Removing ‘Madam Secretary’ Ep, Why?
A couple of days ago, it came to notice that Amazon Prime Video had taken down the first episode (of season 5) of its show Madam Secretary that dealt with Hindu extremism and nationalism. As a part of the plot, the episode also mentions how minority communities like Muslims are being attacked in India, and how the government has not taken any definitive action against that.
All this is of course completely fictional and the American political drama, Madam Secretary, traces the life of a fictional character, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord played by Tea Leoni. In the episode that was taken down, McCord is seen trying to get India and Pakistan to sign a nuclear disarmament treaty.
Why has the episode been taken down? There were a few tweets that criticised the show, but that’s about it. No regulatory body of the government has asked the platform to do so, which makes it seem like a case of self-censorship.
Over the last few weeks, there’s been chatter about how the government intends on creating a framework for censorship for OTT platforms. A recent report has mentioned that the I&B ministry would prefer ‘self-regulation’ than actually setting up a statutory body.
Now Madam Secretary, produced by CBS is not a really massive show for Amazon Prime as far as India is concerned. It doesn’t have a major Indian actor, or Indian links really. The episodes have been available for a while, and just a couple of tweets might have lead to the episode in question being pulled down.
Did Amazon Prime Video fear a backlash from the right wing or Hindu groups, because of the issues that were raised with the content of shows like Leila, Sacred Games and more recently their own The Family Man?
In September 2019, a Shiv Sena member filed a case against Netflix, that they were ‘defaming’ Hindus through their shows. He said that Sacred Games was problematic because it portrayed an Indian social reformer ‘Guruji’ in poor light. With Leila the allegation was that the city of Aryavarta was shown in the series as a ‘Hindu’ nation that was bigoted and Muslim hating. (Leila is actually set in a dystopian society, wherein divisive politics has taken over)
Last year, there was also a sub-plot in one of the episodes of Priyanka Chopra’s Quantico, where her character foils a plot by Indian nationalists to carry out a nuclear attack in Manhattan and frames Pakistanis for it. Her character Alex foils the plan after noticing a Hindu symbol, a ‘rudraksha’ on the chain worn by one of the terrorists. This happens on the show, right before a major summit on Kashmir is supposed to take place. When this was aired, there was heated protests from the right wing trolls on social media, most of them attacking Priyanka, but the episode wasn’t taken off. The series continues to be available on Netflix.
But as a response to the protest, ABC network did issue an apology which said, “ABC Studios and the executive producers of Quantico would like to extend an apology to our audience who were offended by the most recent episode, The Blood of Romeo.” ABC added that “the episode has stirred a lot of emotion, much of which is unfairly aimed at Priyanka Chopra, who didn’t create the show, nor does she write or direct it. She has no involvement in the casting of the show or the story lines depicted in the series.”
Priyanka also put out a tweet reacting to the same saying, “I’m extremely saddened and sorry that some sentiments have been hurt by a recent episode of Quantico. That was not and would never be my intention. I sincerely apologize. I'm a proud Indian and that will never change.”
Which is why, Amazon Prime’s decision to take off the episode seems puzzling and mysterious because even after all the backlash from Hindu groups over various shows, nothing has ever been taken off any platform till date. Also, on the same platform a couple of months ago, the Manoj Bajpayee starrer The Family Man, often takes a critical stand of the government, with the depiction of something like ‘lynchings’ and also the Kashmir conflict. There’s a scene on the show, where a woman employed with the National Investigative Agency, is conversing with her colleague at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. She is seen telling him that Kashmiris were being suppressed by the government, by shutting down their phones and internet and using measures like the Armed Forces Act. In its affiliated magazine Panchjanya, the RSS critiqued this narrative and said this was spreading hatred against Hinduism. They also alleged that The Family Man was creating sympathy for terrorists and made it seem ‘cool’. The show’s narrative is quite obviously a critique of the current political climate, and yet nothing was really censored or taken off the platform.
In the second season of Sacred Games, a character on the show made some uncharitable remarks about Rajiv Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi responded by saying that he believed in ‘freedom of expression’ and some comments by a fictional character cannot change what his father did.
The stereotypical portrayal of Muslims and Islamist terror has not raised any eyebrows though. Bard of Blood on Netflix presented Muslim characters as these stock caricatures, who were just there to look ‘evil’ and ‘menacing’. Muslim characters seem to regularly feature in plot lines as kohl-eyed terrorists. And this stereotype has existed for years in films and now on web shows, and everyone seems to be perfectly fine with it.
Like I mentioned earlier, post all of this there’s been chatter about how exactly is the government going to censor online content? And are platforms so worried about the backlash and governmental control, that they’re going to self-censor at the mere hint of a controversy? Will elimination of any kind of political stance or opinion happen at the script level? And what does that do to creative expression? All of this seems very ambiguous because the government hasn’t yet formulated any guidelines for web shows, like it has for films.
A lot of web shows are replete with all three, sometimes unnecessarily so, but no one seems to bat an eyelid. But a political stance? No. People are ready to pounce, sometimes just on the basis of a trailer.
This is a medium that has flowered because of the lack of a mediator like the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Boundaries have pushed when it comes to the exploration of relationships, sex and why shouldn’t that extend to a take on politics. If platforms begin to play safe, it will be the death of creativity and also defeat the purpose of their mere existence. Which is that as a viewer I get to vicariously live stories that traditional film or television formats would never allow, and that’s a pity. We reached out to Amazon Prime Video for a comment, but hadn’t received one at the time of filing this story.
(The Quint is now available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)