With the advent of web-exclusive shows, India is seeing an unshackling of the censorship chains that are put on content in traditional media.
Last month, a friend working for a social media company had been given the task of announcing a film and making sure it trended. The initial plan was to announce the film in the morning, but this was altered, given that it was a slow day in terms of news, and that it would trend better in the evening slot. However, the entire bandwidth of the evening slot was captured by Pahlaj Nihalani — the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had sacked the CBFC chief, five month before his term ended. His removal saw no less than four hashtags trending on Twitter, and my friend had to re-work his strategy and come up with a new plan for his film. Nihalani’s name had always been in the news, of course, for asking film makers to cut content which he felt didn’t live up the standards of Sanskari India. The last films that suffered under his watch were Lipstick Under My Burkha and Indu Sarkar — the former was refused a certificate, and only later passed, with 27 cuts (most were for profanity and kissing).
Through all the tumult of Nihalani’s reign, however, Indian video content on the internet remained largely unaffected by the diktats of the censor board, because no guidelines are in place. In fact, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has said that it does not have the power to censor any content online, and that it is “not pursuing the creation of a regulatory framework” that would allow them to have any online censorship powers. Though the internet may have no censorship yet, the content is governed by other acts in the country, like the Information Act 2000 and Indian Penal Code 1860. Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 relates to obscenity/ nudity in electronic form, with imprisonment that may extend up to 5 years and a fine that can extend to Rs 1 lakh. On subsequent conviction, it may extend up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine that may extend up to Rs 2 lakh.
Sapan Verma of East India Comedy tells me that no censorship on the internet lets you say what you want to, but it still doesn’t protect you from threats and FIRs. He says, “It is a 1000 times better than TV and radio, but you still have to observe self censorship. I have to drop jokes. At live events, you can say whatever you want to say, because the people who have come to see your show are very sensible. If they are paying 1000 bucks for a show, they know what they are going in for.”
Over the last few years, we’ve seen an influx of web series, from brands like All India Backchod (AIB), The Viral Fever (TVF), Y Films, Filter Copy and others. Their shows — like Permanent Roommates, Bang Baaja Baraat, Pitchers, Little Things, On Air with AIB, A.I.S.H.A — My Virtual Girlfriend, Love Bytes and Man’s World — have made audiences sit up and take notice. Then there are other producers who are pushing the envelope on the sexual side, be it Vikram Bhatt (who made a series about BDSM called Maaya), Alt Balaji (which turned Devdas on its head by having a girl play Devdas) and Shailendra Singh, who has titles like Sexoholic and Consensual Sex? playing on his YouTube channel.
And then there is Ram Gopal Varma, who launched his web show, Guns and Thighs, with a seven-minute long trailer containing frontal nudity and wall-to-wall profanity (the trailer was released three months ago, and not many know the status of the show itself). Does no censorship mean one can easily show nudity and abusive language without the fear of cuts, though? An industry veteran, on condition of anonymity, told me that there is no clear definition of how to differentiate between what is soft porn and what is bold. He said “Sexual content as a terminology is very ambiguous, as it has different meanings for different people. Game of Thrones has sexual content, but for many it is just bold content. For some it means porn, and porn sites have been available on the net since time immemorial. For some, any kind of intimacy is also sexual content.”
Commenting on what no censorship means to a creator like The Viral Fever, Shreyansh Pandey, AVP Content Strategy says, “No censorship on the internet is definitely a big advantage for all creators. For a very long time, a lot of entertaining stories could not see the light of day. We as creators get an opportunity to create content on topical Issues and translate the same into a conversation. However, a lot of people tend to dissect it down to just nudity or cussing. It helps creators push boundaries, with a lot of new genres to experiment and create. With great power comes great responsibility, so we have self censorship to retain the value of the brand.”
Vikram Bhatt, when he first announced his first web series Maaya, referred to 50 Shades of Grey. His explanation was that 50 Shades was the easiest form of connect he could share with the audience. In an interview with me, he said “To each their own. I think people should see it and then make a choice — if you are making a show about a woman’s BDSM fantasy and there is absolutely no nudity in the show, I don’t know what is soft porn about it. Forget frontal nudity, there is no backward nudity. Sexual content is easily available on the internet, and thanks to cheap data, most people are watching it.”
He also added “Porn is usually nudity or an act of copulation or titillation. Magazines like Debonair or Playboy were called soft porn because they used to show topless women. Now, if you say that one love making scene makes it soft porn, then all Hollywood TV shows are soft porn. Why is Game of Thrones not soft porn? There is much more love making and nudity there than in my shows. It is not soft porn because people have double standards. An Indian person who has any sexuality is soft porn, but when an American person does it, it is art.”
In fact, producer Vikas Gupta (he produced Class of 2017 on Alt Balaji) goes a step further and says soft porn is available on TV. “There are shows where the hero is coming out of the bathroom in a towel, and the curtains are flying, and he sees a girl, who trips. He holds the girl, who is breathing heavily. They are not kissing… it stops there, but that is soft porn for villagers, because they have not seen something like this. Films like Malena, or Irreversible, which has a famous rape scene — in small towns of India, this is sold as porn. So for some people it is cinema and for some people it is porn, the audience is different. But there is always going to be someone like Kanti Shah, who is making porn — they have no other language but just titillating the audience.”
During the infamous AIB Roast, MTV’s Raghu Ram had said “AIB, you fuckers, you sit here and diss me at Roadies when you basically have the same philosophy with your videos… gaali do lake chu***e dekhenge.” (swears again) “I just gave you 50 more views,” There is an inherent truth to what he said on stage — a lot of creators use cuss words for shock value, under the garb of freedom of expression. Anirudh Pandita, the man behind channels like FilterCopy, Dice Media and Gobble, believes the content that he produces is relatable, and often content with abusive language may not lead to it going viral. “We do have cuss words in our videos, but that depends solely on the script. There is a misconception on the internet that bad language and nudity get you more clicks. This doesn’t help in building a good content brand.”
There are other creators like Ruchir Joshi (Culture Machine) who believe that just having cuss words in a video is not content. People will get bored and would want to see a story. He adds “The digital medium is a platform where one can talk about anything, but I also feel there is a certain sense of responsibility which one should have internally, and that only comes from being aware. Creators have a responsibility to present the content in the most interesting way possible, without being mean and hurtful. Creators have been realising that you can’t get good content out only by being sensational. You need more meat to convey the message.” As an example, he points to a video they did with Nawazuddin Siddiqui for their channel Blush, about cursing. The video had him reciting the A to Z of creative cuss words. These weren’t sexist in nature, and it was still creative.
Despite the liberal outlook of the creators, they are cautious of certain topics, like religion and politics. Joshi explains “It is a very thin line that the creators need to tread lightly, because people are waiting to get offended. Self censorship comes from being aware about what one can or cannot say.” Verma believes that no topic is taboo — it is just how you approach the content. “At EIC, we talk about a lot of topics including political ones – the key is how far you would go and how edgy you want to make it. One can do all kinds of silly jokes, serious jokes, hard hitting jokes on the beef ban. People have been more comfortable talking about sex, in comparison to politics and religion,” he adds.
In today’s day and age, where information is shared at the click of a button and people have very short attention spans, technology has made it difficult to control what one can or cannot consume. Sameer Saxena, Head TVF Originals, believes that in today’s times, everyone has access to all types of content, and that censorship is not going to affect the broadcasting of the content. He adds “The creators can be a bit more responsible and maybe put out a disclaimer in the beginning, if they think the content is not suitable for a certain age. So maybe a certification can be thought of, but definitely not censorship.”
Major players like Amazon Prime and Netflix have guidelines when it comes to content, be it original or acquired. In the case of Amazon Prime, it was very cautious when it began its streaming video service in the country — it blurred and censored a lot of content. A lot of this has gone now, as the legal team said that showing a few things was not illegal. Vijay Subramaniam, Director Content, Amazon Prime Video, says “At Amazon, we remain customer-centric, with a responsibility towards offering the right balance for customer preferences and respect for various legal as well as cultural sensitivities. As the medium for delivery of content in India is relatively new, we understand there may yet be ambiguities for regulatory interpretations, but it’s not accurate to believe this is unregulated space. Therefore, we are mindful of any applicable laws and the overall regulatory landscape in India to the OTT space. We will continue to offer compelling content from across the globe to Indian customers, while ensuring we respect the laws of the land. We keep the customer at the center of everything that we do, and evaluate content based on customer demand. The release of Lipstick Under My Burkha uncut on Prime Video is a testament to this commitment. Additionally, we offered two versions of the popular series American Gods, giving customers the power to decide the content they want to consume.”