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Regulation is already strangulating artistic freedom of creators: Gursimran Khamba at MediaNama’s discussion on Online Content Regulation

“The moment the government steps in and tries to regulate [online content] I just inherently expect it to be a lot more ham-fisted than what it is right now. So, I think it’s choosing the lesser evil (self regulation) I would rather go with what we have right now,” said Gursimran Khamba, founder of Light@27 and co-founder of the AIB comedy group at MediaNama’s discussion on regulation of online content, held in Delhi last week with support from Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and in partnership with the Centre for Communications Governance at the National Law University, Delhi.

“Most content creators have resigned to the fact that it’s having to choose the lesser evil. I think of self regulation as a broad, vague, [and] open to interpretation code of conduct, as it sort of exists right now, is marginally better because I think it provides you slight flexibility in terms of how much you can push the platform, how much you can push the conversation, how much you can push content without obviously breaking the law of the land,” Khamba added.

“Creators aren’t making content that they would otherwise have, because a lot of ideas get shelved at stage 1” – Gursimran Khamba

Ambika Khurana, director – public policy, Netflix

Content creators and platforms are becoming risk averse

“How worried are you as an artistic guy in terms of how this entire environment of regulation will oppress or strangulate artistic freedom,” Ambika Khurana, Director (Public Policy) for Netflix asked Khamba. “That is already happening”, Khamba responded, adding that “If I use the word Army in a platform office, it’s ‘okay thank you very much, nice knowing you.’ Everybody is really scared in terms of even experimenting…everyone’s inherently become extremely risk-averse.” Today, most creators work on content that is limited to just two buckets – content that is clean and positive, or content that talks about murders and psycopaths. As a creator, Khamba said, he now has to reconsider if certain content – despite being promising – would “fly” or not. A “chilling effect has happened in terms of the kind of concepts that people are pitching, the kind of stuff being made”.

“A movie like Haidar won’t [even] get made” – Gursimran Khamba, responding to a question about what kind of feedback a streaming platform would give for a movie like Haidar today.

Recounting the arrests of some children for playing the popular game PUBG, Khamba said that this affected those streaming themselves playing PUBG online as well “[the arrests] had such a chilling effect on even a 15-year-old kid [who] is like – so, am I even supposed to play a game or not and put it on my YouTube because I don’t want people knocking on my door because I don’t want to inadvertently say something while I’m playing the game.”

Avinash Ramachandra, a policy professional, questioned the purpose of a regulation of online content, saying “Are we going to become a better nation because we strangulated the online OTT (over the top) content? I don’t think so at all.”

Is a self-regulatory code any better?

While Khamba had said that a self-regulatory code was the lesser of the two evils, he noted that it wasn’t without its fair share of problems, especially when platforms want you make their content edgier, but also want to be careful.

Creators are generally told to go hard on what they want to say, but then platforms “are the first people who pull back immediately because suddenly there is a reality check from everybody else,” Khamba said. Sometimes this is owed to the platform having other considerations:

“Some platforms which are not just platforms and they also have other businesses, there is a responsibility that we are told to take as creators, that your content should not lead to a delivery boy getting beaten up on the street somewhere, which you as a producer don’t realise, but apparently, that’s the implication.” – Gursimran Khamba

Gursimran Khamba, founder, Light@27

“With every specific platform, it’s a very clear guideline that we are given as creators, that, this content is meant for private viewing, hence, we have to make it edgy. 60% of most content is actually watched on mobile phones anyway. So, even when we are doing production design, there are a lot more close-ups, there are not too many wide shots, stuff like that. It is meant specifically for a guy who has a five-inch screen in his hand. The Netflix, Amazon, in this room will vouch for that. So, the entire approach that viewer content creators take is that it is meant for private viewing and not for public viewing.”

At the same time, self regulation depends on the whims of the platform CEO. ” I think it’s extremely laughable because every platform in this room knows it has a code. That code also really boils down to how much the CEO likes the story and how much the CEO really wants to back it,” said Khamba. “I’ll give you an example”, he said. “We were just shooting [his latest project]…it’s a political satire that hasn’t been released yet. It is set in the cultural ministry of India. I wasn’t allowed to put a flag in the Cultural Ministry office because, just in case the character says a joke which is offensive, with a flag in the background, we are going to get rogered. I was on speed dial with the public policy team. It’s hilarious, right?

It’s not about sex. It’s about politics.

According to Khamba, the self-regulation debate is not about content that is sexual in nature, but mostly about political content. Khamba, in fact said that producers insist on adding sexual scenes because such scenes “notes laate hain, daalo, daal sakte ho to (bring in money, put them in if you can)”.

“I personally feel the entire self-regulation debate will boil down to and will also inherently shift depending on the government empowered. A Sacred Games can get away with making a Rahul Gandhi joke in Season 1. I doubt they will be able to get away with making a [redacted] joke in Season 3. And those are just daily realities of how we live as creators.”

Regulation is bad for domestic platforms’ business

Hungama’s Ashish Behl said that domestic platforms are pushed towards becoming more edgy because of competition: “we are competing with all the global players. We have to reach those kinds of benchmarks. For that, I have to get into production quality, make content which is slightly edgy.” Recounting a show on Hungama, Behl said that they had to censor certain scenes which were sexual in nature.

“If we start getting censored then I don’t need to do dhandha (business). I might as well do something else.” – Ashish Behl, Hungama

Ashish Behl, Hungama

Supporting what Behl said, Khamba highlighted that international platforms inherently are more open to different kinds of content because they have a little bit more leverage, and are not afraid of litigation as much as Indian platforms do.

Different considerations for paid services?

“How do you differentiate between the same content that has been streamed on an Amazon Prime which will be looked at differently, but can also be uploaded on YouTube. So are you going to have a situation where the same content will have creator restrictions because it’s on a paid streaming service and more freedom when it goes on YouTube?” MediaNama’s founder and editor, Nikhil Pahwa asked.

Khamba said that creators have to understand the boundaries of streaming platforms and UGC (user generated content) platforms. Referring to Leila, a movie which recently caused a controversy:

“A Leila might create slightly less public controversy because it’s on Netflix because lesser people will watch it since they can’t afford a six hundred rupees’ subscription. I am pretty sure, if you put Leila on YouTube for general viewing, you would have had ten more cases right now.” – Gursimran Khamba

Khamba meanwhile said that some scenes might be okay for one platform, but not for the other. “It depends on what is one platform’s definition of good taste, if a platform okay with making X kind of statement or X kind of joke or kind of content where the other platform might not be able to,” he said.

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