After days of shrill cries of #BoycottNetflix on social media, the storm of self-fulfilling outrage over a kissing scene in the streaming platform’s web series A Suitable Boy, has found its desired outcome. On Monday, the Madhya Pradesh police filed an FIR under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code against two senior executives of Netflix, on the charge that the series had hurt the religious sentiments of a community by showing its lead character Lata, a Hindu girl, kissing her Muslim boyfriend against the backdrop of a temple.
The offence is non-bailable and cognisable, which means that the police can make arrests without a warrant.
Earlier that day, the BJP-ruled state’s home minister, Narottam Mishra, had thundered against this apparently foul act on the part of Netflix. Hinduism and Hindu culture had been assaulted, he said.
For the likes of Mishra, the sight of a Hindu woman and a Muslim man smooching before a temple is probably nothing short of armageddon.
More so at a time when the fiction of ‘love jihad’ must be fanned every which way, a fiction that is being screamed and ‘ordinanced’ into existence for the sole purpose of stamping out inter-faith love.
Fears Over Creative Freedom Being Shackled
The insane brouhaha over the kissing scene in A Suitable Boy is, of course, one more example of India’s ever irate offence brigade doing what it does best — take offence. But it is especially noteworthy now as it comes amidst the recent rumblings from the government and its minions on the need to regulate content on streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, SonyLIV, Zee5, Jio, and many others.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) brought video streaming platforms, also known as online curated content providers (OCCPs), under its ambit. (Digital news media have also been brought under the MIB, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Prior to that, the platforms were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity), which is logical, as they are governed by the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Industry experts fear that the change in the administrative authority — from hands-off Meity to the more ministering MIB — could be a prelude to the government rapping out a regulatory framework for streaming platforms and bringing in a list of prohibited content and no-go areas — a step that may constrain creative freedom and hurt consumer interest and choice.
Clearly, Govt Wants Online Content Regulated The Same Way TV Entertainment Is
The fears have been exacerbated by the fact that BJP leaders have been amping up the refrain that OTT (over the top) platforms must be regulated. Last week, Union Minister Babul Supriyo declared that these platforms would no longer have “unlimited freedom” in their content. In October 2020, BJP spokesperson Hitesh Jain, too, said that streaming platforms needed regulation. Minister for Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal, has expressed similar views as well.
Part of the reason the OTTs are facing the unpalatable possibility of the government laying down a rule book, or pushing it to adopt a strong content regulation code, is that they have been unable to come up with a self-regulated content code that is acceptable to all the players.
So far, there have been three versions of such a code — the first in January 2019, the second in February 2020, and the third, in September this year.
Framed under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the latest code was backed by as many as 17 streaming platforms. But the MIB decided to set it aside, ostensibly because it did not have an exhaustive list of prohibited content, and nor a satisfactory complaints redressal mechanism — satisfactory to the ministry, that is.
Clearly, the government would like to see online content regulated much like the way television entertainment is — by the broadcast content code under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 and the self-regulatory Broadcast Content Complaints Council which addresses grievances.
Why Online Content Should Not Be Subjected To The Same Rules As TV Broadcasts
The fundamental problem with this line of thinking is that the content provided by streaming services is not broadcast — it is pulled, as it were, from the internet, and is meant for private viewing. Hence, it ought not to be subjected to the same rules that apply to television broadcasts.
All the platforms agree that they should carry strict content and age descriptors and mechanisms for access control (child locks and so on), and most already have them in place. But imposing a list of prohibited content would lead to self-censorship and undermine creative freedom.
Besides, if you want to regulate content on streaming platforms, what about the gazillions of content all over the internet? Can you regulate out all the profanity, the perceived obscenity and so on from there and recast the internet according to the sensibilities of those who feel they have the power to decide what content the adult population of the country may or may not consume?
Such reasoning is, however, futile given that the business of streaming platforms in India is set to grow from USD 708 million in 2019 to USD 2.7 billion in 2024, according to a recent PwC report. That growth story, which should be allowed to play out unfettered, is probably irresistible to the regulatory instinct of the powers that be.
Why Many Streaming Platforms Already Practise Some Form Of Self-Censorship
Ironically, aware of the thin skins of the said powers that be, many of the streaming platforms already practise some form of self-censorship.
In February this year, Hotstar blocked an episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver which was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Recently, a reference to Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar was removed from an Alt Balaji/Zee5 show, reportedly at the behest of the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar.
Back in January 2019, the first iteration of the streaming platforms’ self-regulation code had a list of prohibited content, including: “Content which deliberately and maliciously intends to outrage religious sentiments of any class, section or community”. This was dropped in the subsequent versions of the code.
It remains to be seen if the government pushes for similar and other restrictive injunctions in the regulatory regime that it is currently mulling. If that happens, no doubt MP Home Minister Narottam Mishra and his ilk would be pleased.
But then expect streamed content to become as sanitised, mediocre and uninspiring as most of what is offered on Doordarshan and general entertainment television channels.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)