When I saw Kaala’s Hindi version pop up on Hotstar, something was off. The runtime of the Hindi version was around seven minutes shorter than the Tamil version on Amazon Prime Video. Why this difference? Was it because they cut something out of the Hindi version? Probably not — the runtimes mentioned on the censor board’s website for both versions were roughly the same.
Even Vikramaditya Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, which is on both Netflix and Hotstar, is a few minutes shorter on Hotstar. When I compared one scene from Kaala side by side on both platforms, it was noticeable that Hotstar was speeding up the film by around 5%. After being asked about this on Twitter, the company said that this is the difference between NTSC and PAL speeds, and they use PAL which is slightly faster:
Hey! That is the difference between NTSC and PAL running speeds. We use PAL format which is slightly faster.
— Hotstar (@hotstar_helps) September 1, 2018
This doesn’t seem to be a valid reason. PAL and NTSC are TV standards that operate on fixed frame rates and time constraints. Streaming video on the internet does not have either of those restrictions. And yet, here we are — pretty much everything on Hotstar, even HBO shows and Premium Hollywood movies, are sped up. Even Motwane, who directed Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, stepped in on Twitter to call out the absurdity of the excuse:
Why would you do that for your online platform as well? I can understand you doing it for TV broadcast which needs to be PAL, but why for hotstar? That's playing off a computer or a device which doesn't care for PAL or NTSC. Thoughts @sidmeer?
— Vikramaditya Motwane (@VikramMotwane) September 1, 2018
Respecting artists’ vision
It’s possible that Hotstar got studios (or an intermediary) to give them sped up videos to be consistent with the PAL frame rate, and plopped that exact same version on the streaming service too. This should not be happening.
And yet, the company thought that a sped up version of the film complying with clashing TV standards was a valid excuse. Hotstar has been aware that its content is sped up compared to other online services since at least last year, but doesn’t see the problem here. Does the company really believe that NTSC and PAL need to apply online?
This is not Hotstar’s only sin, mind you. They also crop every movie they receive from Fox (their parent company!) to fit in a 16:9 frame. This means that for most films shot in widescreen, Hotstar cut off a quarter of the picture. This time, the company argued in a customer care email that this is how they got these films from the studio — but did not seem to be interested in fixing the issue. If Hotstar doesn’t consider something a mistake — like putting the same broadcast encode of a title online — they don’t stop doing it. And that’s likely at the heart of this issue.
The reason the company seems to be speeding up films doesn’t seem to be advertising — premium content is not interrupted by ads — but rather an incomplete dedication to maintaining artists’ creative vision.
Even behind its paywall, where the entire guts and gore (and other body parts) of shows like Game of Thrones are allowed to flourish, Hotstar never shows the uncensored version of Indian films. It likely knows — as we have pointed out before — that it doesn’t need to censor films online. And yet, it let the Censor Board’s absurd cuts on Kaala — and likely all other Indian films — continue to be the only version of the film available on its service. Here studio conservatism and/or producers’ apathy towards these issues could share equal blame. And Hotstar isn’t alone here either — after a brief break with Lipstick Under My Burkha and Arjun Reddy, Amazon has gone back to putting out the same cut up versions of films it acquires. This, even after the government scrapped their committee to regulate online content.
At least Amazon Prime Video has improved; it no longer censors English-language content, and doesn’t usually add its own censorship on top of titles in India anymore. But Hotstar is obstinate — for a company whose only job it is to stream video online, it’s stunning that nobody inside it seems to have questioned any of this. None of this would fly at a streaming service like Netflix, and yet at Hotstar, these errors and their consequences spread their wings. And viewers and creators are poorer for it.