At 2am on March 29, film producer Gaurav Dhingra got an email and a missed call. They were from Netflix. Angry Indian Goddesses, a film Dhingra produced, was due to release on Netflix in a day. It had released in the rest of the world a couple weeks earlier. In 2015, when Netflix bought the film, Dhingra asked for assurance from them that they would release it uncensored everywhere, including India. Netflix agreed. After all, the censored version of the film was only required for theatrical exhibition, not for people watching it online.

Yet, come 2017, Netflix didn’t want to take the chance. They gave Dhingra and his partner Pan Nalin, who directed the film, an ultimatum: send the censored version and they would release it in India, or they would hold on to the rights and never release the film in the country. The production company, Jungle Book Entertainment, relented. Because of how Netflix accepts video from studios, the producers had to remaster the censored version for online release, and this ended up delaying the film’s online release by weeks.

Netflix did not respond to a question on this version of events. The service has since silently reversed its censorship of the film in India — the unedited version is now available on Netflix in India.

Why streaming services censor

There’s really no legal reason for streaming services to censor their content. The Cinematograph Act and its rules are the basis on which film censorship is carried out in India, and it only regulates censorship of films in theaters, home media, and TV. There is no law that requires censorship of films and shows that are streamed online. In fact, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting explicitly said last year that it does not censor online content, nor does it have any plans to. This month, an official at the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting told MediaNama that neither the Censor Board nor the Ministry itself have internally floated any proposals to set up a censorship mechanism for shows and films distributed online.

To that end, Netflix largely avoided censoring films and shows. Indian films would only be censored on Netflix if Indian studios gave them the censored version. And even then, that same censored version would be exhibited globally. Angry Indian Goddesses’s India-exclusive censorship is an indicator that Netflix is getting cold feet about leaving content uncensored in India. The fact that they silently reversed that censorship is reassuring, but that doesn’t mean they’re not bound to repeat it in the future.

That being said, they’re late to the party. Amazon Prime Video has been censoring its catalogue since its launch in India last year. Amazon’s approach to censorship is as strange, arbitrary, and constantly shifting as it is unnecessary. For instance, the service blurred out nudity from some shows and deleted an entire scene featuring a bovine skeleton from The Grand Tour. More recently, the company seems to be sending mixed signals about how it will deal with censorship in the future, hosting a separate uncensored version of the TV series American Gods, and leaving female nudity alone while blurring out male genitalia. Meanwhile, American Playboy, a biographical series on the Playboy empire czar Hugh Hefner, is uncensored entirely. Every Indian film, including those that are available uncensored on Netflix in other territories, is censored.

This behaviour may best be ascribed to caution. Dhingra said that everyone had investors to worry about, and this made them less willing to stick their necks out, even though there were no legal risks in doing so.

Brief history

Online self-censorship of films started either with iTunes or Google Play, both of which religiously only upload CBFC-certified versions of all films online in India, whether the titles themselves are Indian or not. This presumably set the stage for other services like Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video, both of which only have CBFC-censored versions of films. That may be because of how films are distributed by studios rather than caution on their part, though. In the case of Google Play and iTunes, however, censorship is a deliberate and thought-out move. CBFC certificates are a part of all films’ posters on both services, indicating that these versions of the film are censored.

In the film Queen, the censor board blurred a close-up shot of a bra. While Netflix released the original version of the film, Google Play (and presumably iTunes) have put up the version approved for theatrical release.

MediaNama has reached out to Apple and Google to understand the reason for its compliance with media laws that only apply to theatrical release and home media.

Why this has to stop

Aside from the fact that it is not legally required, self-censorship by streaming video providers is worrying because it sets a precedent that others will follow. When large companies like Amazon, Google and Apple censor their content, that risks becoming an industry standard that smaller providers would be tempted to follow. On top of that, stopping censorship or having inconsistent censorship policies, like Amazon, draws more attention — had Amazon simply left all Prime Video content uncensored, there would only be one story about it; but now, with every development in how they approach censorship, they will be in the spotlight.

While these companies may see their self-censorship as legal safe harbour, there’s a good chance that it’ll be perceived as self-regulation. And if other streaming services start serving uncensored content, that might just end up inviting regulation with uniform rules. If all streaming services are uncensored to begin with, the cost of regulating them would likely keep the government away from stepping in to regulate.

And let’s not forget the most important reason: censored content is just plain annoying.