The government is considering a censor board-stye system to certify content on services like Netflix. This comes on top of a self-regulation content code that many streaming services have voluntarily signed.

To demonstrate how such a regulatory code might impact creative expression in online content, we’ve taken the fourth episode of Sacred Games (Brahmahatya), and applied the code of conduct overseen by the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC code). This document lays out their guidelines, which TV content is subjected to via the self regulatory mechanism.

We have chosen Sacred Games and the Brahmahatya episode because of all the court cases and police complaints that have followed in its wake.

Important: Spoilers and explicit language follow.

Scene 1: Of TVs and smashed heads

The scene: Katekar is at home watching TV with his family, when at his wife’s prompting he lashes out at his son for playing truant, threatening to bash a TV into his head and muttering a swear word.

Katekar: Start attending those classes, or else
I’ll bash your head with the TV. Got it? (refer Theme 1 below)
Shalini: Let it go.
Katekar: Why should I let it go? Does money grow on trees?
[mutters] Motherfucker. (refer Theme 2 below)

Code violations:

  • Theme 1: Crime & Violence, Subject Matter Treatment, Point 6: No content shall “Have a traumatic, desensitizing or dehumanizing effect that could lead to psychological disorders or unsocial attitudes or behavior, particularly among minors.”
  • Theme 2: Sex, Obscenity & Nudity, Audio-Visual Presentation, Category ‘R’, Point a): No content under this category shall have “[p]rolonged use of highly coarse language or dialogues with explicit sexual connotations unless the storyline, or subject matter or the context justifies its use.”

What would change:

  • Everything in bold in the dialogue (above) would have to be changed/replaced)
  • Or, this entire sequence would be taken out.

How would it affect the show? One of the ways Katekar’s character is built is by contrasting his pleasant and cheerful act in front of Sartaj, and his rough-edged no-nonsense approach to family (and the torture that he inflicts on suspects). Without this scene, that character building loses some of its edge.

Scene 2: Sartaj held captive

What happens: The R&AW enlists a TV actress named Nayanika to get information out of Bunty, Gaitonde’s right hand man. She has close access to the gangster because he frequently has her come see him in full goddess attire. Bunty discovers that he is being surveilled, and finds the camera and microphone the R&AW hid in Nayanika’s bag. Sartaj rushes to the mansion to save her.

Bunty’s men capture Sartaj, and a tense profanity-laced exchange happens. Bunty has his men assault Sartaj, and has them knock him out cold. After the scene, Bunty flees with a captured Nayanika.

Some dialogues that will be affected: 

Bunty: Mr. Sartaj Singh. Weren’t you the last person to see Gaitonde alive?
He had such shitty bad luck.
[gestures at men] Anything in his pockets? […]
Return this when he leaves. It’ll be useful on traffic duty.
[hands henchman Sartaj’s magazine-less gun]
What’s this?
Henchman: Found it in his pocket.
[gives Bunty Sartaj’s anxiety pills]
Bunty: Don’t eat this shit. Your manhood will shrink from this… to this. (refer Theme 2 below)
Sartaj: [sarcastically] Really? Then I’ll have to beat women to feel like a man. (refer Theme 2 below)

Code violations:

  • Theme 1: Crime & Violence, Subject Matter Treatment, Point 2: No content shall “[p]resent violence as glamorous or an acceptable solution to human conflict.”
  • Theme 2: Sex, Obscenity & Nudity, Audio-Visual Presentation, Category ‘R’, Point a): No content under this category shall have “[p]rolonged use of highly coarse language or dialogues with explicit sexual connotations unless the storyline, or subject matter or the context justifies its use.”

What would change:

  • Everything in bold in the dialogues (above) would have to be changed/replaced.
  • The character of Nayanika may be removed altogether, because it would violate Theme 2, since she’s a character who sees little but pain, and is at Bunty’s mansion to fulfill a recurring goddess fantasy he has.
  • The scene where Bunty and his men exchange harsh words with Sartaj before beating him and ultimately knocking him out (the former having a darkly comic treatment) would be removed, because it would violate Theme 1. The exchange between Bunty and Sartaj would also be trimmed down.

How will this affect the show: Removing Nayanika would deprive the first season of one of the few significant female characters it has. If Nayanika is to stay, all the scenes of her abuse (save for one where Kanta bai gets her to eat some dinner) will also have to go, which will again deprive the show of the characteristics of Bunty.

Scene 3: Backup and umbrellas

What happens: Katekar is having sex with his wife as Sartaj Singh tries calling him for backup. Bunty has a tense exchange with Malcolm, a mysterious facilitator who is supposed to be exfiltrating the gangster out of India.

Some dialogues that will be affected:

Sartaj: Fuck you, Katekar. (Theme 2: Sex, Obscenity & Nudity, Audio-Visual Presentation, Category ‘R’, Point a)
Malcolm [to Bunty]: Interpol and RAW are out to fuck (Refer Theme 2 below) us. It will be difficult to get you out of the country.
Bunty: Didn’t you promise me…that you’d get me out of the country before June 17th if I give you the stuff? Do you think Bunty is an idiot? Do I look like a dickhead to you? (Refer Theme 2 below) I have nothing to do with your shit. […] Hey! I’m not done talking! I’ll deal with you later, motherfucker. (Refer Theme 2 below). I’ll shove an umbrella up your ass, and open it. (Refer Theme 2 below)

Code violations:

  • Theme 1: Crime & Violence, Subject Matter Treatment, Point 2: No content shall “[p]resent violence as glamorous or an acceptable solution to human conflict.”
  • Theme 2: Sex, Obscenity & Nudity, Audio-Visual Presentation, Category ‘R’, Point a): No content under this category shall have “[p]rolonged use of highly coarse language or dialogues with explicit sexual connotations unless the storyline, or subject matter or the context justifies its use.”
  • Theme 2: Sex, Obscenity & Nudity, Audio-Visual Presentation, Category ‘R’, Point d): No content can have “[p]rolonged depiction of crude movements of sexual activity”.

What would change:

  • All dialogues (above) in bold would be deleted.
  • The sex scene would be removed.

How will this affect the show: Removing Katekar’s brief sex shot as well as huge portions of the exchange with Bunty and Malcolm would render this entire situation a lot more confusing, not to mention less impactful (considering that we’re anyway still in the dark as to the exact nature of the relationship between Bunty and Malcolm). The Katekar scene would have to be replaced with some other activity which would render him unable to respond to Sartaj’s call.

Scene 4: Of wimps and prime ministers

What happens: A flashback describes how then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rolled back a women’s rights victory in the Supreme Court by changing the law on Muslim divorces, and subsequently commissioned the Mahabharata on Doordarshan to win back the hearts of Hindu voters.

Dialogues that would be affected:

Rajiv Gandhi did the same thing [as Malcolm]. He burnt Shah Bano and the country separately. In 1986, Shah Bano’s husband divorced her.  She went to the courts, and won. But our former PM, Rajiv Gandhi, a wimp, overturned the court’s judgement, and threw Shah Bano to the Mullahs. The Hindus criticized him for this. So he commissioned Ramayana to keep them happy.

Code violations:

  • Theme 5: Religion & Community, Subject Matter Treatment, Points 1 & 2: Content cannot “[d]efame religions or communities or be contemptuous of religious groups or promote communal attitudes or be likely to incite religious strife or communal or caste violence,” or “[i]ncite disharmony, animosity, conflict, hatred or ill will between different religious, racial, linguistic groups, castes or communities.”
  • Theme 7: General Restrictions, Subject Matter Treatment, Point 3: No content can “[i]nvolve defamation or contempt of court.”

What would change: This entire flashback would be gone.

How this would affect the show: Getting rid of this scene rids the show of some important historical context that sets up the following scene (below), where a Hindu–Muslim confrontation in a slum adda breaks out, and in effect impacts the rest of the show.

Scene 5: Religious gang violence

What happens: A scuffle breaks out between Hindu and Muslim members of Gaitonde’s gang when the former are in the middle of listening to a vitriolic propaganda tape against Muslims in the days leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Dialogue that would be affected:

[from a cassette] As long as you don’t get your god’s birthplace back…from those pigs!— [crowd chants] Jai Shri Ram! (Theme 5, refer below)

[Bada Badariya comes and snatches the tape player]

Bunty: Hey motherfucker, give that back! Give my tape recorder back! Hey motherfucker! How can you break the cassette, you cunt?
Bada Badariya: Shut up, motherfuckerWhat the hell was that you were listening to? About destroying the masjid? Motherfucker. (Theme 5, refer below) Have you lost it?
Bunty: I’ll listen to whatever I want, you cunt! Want me to take permission from you?!

[scuffle breaks out]

Code violations:

  • Theme 5: Religion & Community, Subject Matter Treatment, Points 1 & 2: Content cannot “[d]efame religions or communities or be contemptuous of religious groups or promote communal attitudes or be likely to incite religious strife or communal or caste violence,” or “[i]ncite disharmony, animosity, conflict, hatred or ill will between different religious, racial, linguistic groups, castes or communities.”
  • Same as above: Content cannot “[c]ounsel, plead, advise, appeal or provoke any person to destroy, damage or defile any place of worship or any object held sacred by any religious groups or class of persons.” [emphasis added]

What would change:

  • All the dialogues in bold above would be removed.
  • The language in both the tape as well as the scuffle would be toned down and generalised, to remove specific references to the Masjid.

How this would affect the show: All the characters in this scene are a part of Gaitonde’s gang, Muslims and Hindus alike. Even working together, they find themselves at flashpoints of dispute like this that are influenced directly by a national event (the destruction of the Babri Masjid). Getting rid of the feverish bigotry that this scene depicts would chop away not just context, but also a huge portion of the setting itself — the intent consumption of hateful propaganda, even when one is surrounded by, and working with, members of the community that the cassette tape assails. The rift in Gaitonde’s gang is critical to the rest of the show, and impacts all key characters and their arc.

Scene 6: Sibling rivalry

What happens: During the previous scene, one of Gaitonde’s Muslim gangmembers teases Bunty that he is seeing Mikki, the latter’s sister. Immediately following this, a furious Bunty confronts his sister on why she is seeing Chhota Badariya. Bunty has a heated argument with her, where the dialogue is laced with sexually charged profanities.

Dialogue that would be affected:

[in previous scene’s scuffle, Chhota Badariya speaks to Bunty]

Chhota Badariya: Your sister is waiting for me.
Bunty: [lunges at CB] Fuck you, you cunt!

[…]

In kitchen, Bunty speaks to his sister.
Bunty: Why are you into these Muslim guys?
Does he even get an erection?

[to someone off-screen] Keep working, motherfucker.

Mikki: He sticks it in deeper than you ever could.
Bunty: You bitch, I swear…
Mikki: Forget it.
Bunty: Stupid bitch. I’ll kill you and that Muslim guy.
Mikki: Fuck off.
Bunty:
You fucking whore. I’ll—
Kanta bai: Bunty!

Code violations:

  • Theme 2: Sex, Obscenity & Nudity, Audio-Visual Presentation, Category ‘R’, Point a): No content under this category shall have “[p]rolonged use of highly coarse language or dialogues with explicit sexual connotations unless the storyline, or subject matter or the context justifies its use.”
  • Theme 5: Religion & Community, Subject Matter Treatment, Points 1 & 2: Content cannot “[d]efame religions or communities or be contemptuous of religious groups or promote communal attitudes or be likely to incite religious strife or communal or caste violence,” or “[i]ncite disharmony, animosity, conflict, hatred or ill will between different religious, racial, linguistic groups, castes or communities.”

What would change:

  • Dialogs in bold would be deleted.
  • The abusive undertone of the relationship between Bunty and Mikki would be diluted beyond recognition.

How this would affect the show: This entire sequence is ultimately a stage for Kanta-bai to intervene, and show Bunty his place (“Women are goddesses!”). But this whole scene would suffer significantly thanks to both the above themes (both of which apply simultaneously to multiple lines). This deals a significant blow not only to the show’s overall treatment — of a certain unexpected progressiveness in the least likeliest of places — but also to how the characters of Kanta Bai and Bunty unfurl (and how Mikki is introduced).

Scene 7: Kukoo’s magic

“‘What about Kukoo?’ Do you know what Kukoo is?”

What happens: Gaitonde’s financier Paritosh bhai is concerned for the gangster’s reputation. He uses coarse and dehumanizing language to describe Kukoo, Gaitonde’s romantic partner who is a transgender woman.

Dialogues that could be affected:

Paritosh, Gaitonde’s financier, talks to him as Kukoo listens in discreetly.

Paritosh: Do you understand what I’m saying?
Gaitonde: Make me understand.
Paritosh: That Kukoo…
Gaitonde: What about Kukoo?
Paritosh: “What about Kukoo?” Do you have any idea what Kukoo is? And you’re waltzing around in public with her? She is…
Gaitonde: Big brother… think before you speak.
Paritosh:
The whores in your fashion show downstairs, all your investors, do you think they landed in your lap? No, your Kukoo brought them. Hiding them in her blouse, in her underwear — there is some extra space there, no? If you’re so obsessed with Kukoo and love, why not marry her? Go on, have some children, play house.

Code violations:

  • Theme 1: Crime & Violence, Subject Matter Treatment, Point 3:  No content should “[i]ncite violence against specific groups identified by race, national or ethnic origin, colour, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disabilities.”
  • Theme 2: Sex, Obscenity & Nudity, Subject Matter Treatment, Point 3: No content shall “[p]resent the figure of a woman, her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent degrading or derogatory to woman or depict women as mere objects or symbols of sexual desires or behavior.”

What would change:

  • The dialogues in bold would be removed.
  • The character of Kukoo as she exists, and the way her transgender identity is confronted — to a visual point unthinkable of on TV — would be completely watered down, if not removed.

How this would affect the plot: The language of this sequence down would be significantly toned down would take away from the significance of what is among Indian content’s few transgender characters of significance, and also leave unhighlighted this aspect of Gaitonde’s unpredictable kindness to Kukoo, which would take away significantly from Gaitonde’s charater depiction.

Scene 8: Godly cola

What happens: A soft drink launch event features a skit parodying characters from the Ramayana for comic effect. A fallen Lakshmana is revived by Rama. Only, instead of the Sanjeevani herb which requires Hanuman to literally move a mountain to obtain, Rama just feeds him some Apna Cola, Gaitonde’s new soft drink brand. Lakshmana springs back to his feet to applause.

Code violations:

  • Theme 5: Religion & Community, Audio-Visual Presentation, Point b): The guideline says that content cannot “[d]istort or demean or depict religious or community symbols or idols or rituals or practices in a derogatory manner.”

What would change: This sequence would be removed entirely.

How this would affect the show: Using characters from Hindu mythology was arguably nothing to get offended at in India at the cusp of liberalization, where all consumer products were new and interesting. While removing this scene wouldn’t do all that much in terms of damage to the show, it does rob it of a little contrast in how differently sensibilities would flare in the face of religion-based satire and parody — while this kind of a stunt would not exactly result in everyone being up in arms against the skit, a busybody or two being irked to the point of litigation (or a police complaint) cannot be ruled out. That little difference would ironically be gone in a regulated release of this show.

TV channels or the government?

You may argue that I have been unfair with my interpretations of these rules, and that they are too harsh a realization of a well-intended code that, to its credit, draws a distinction between how a subject is addressed (in terms of writing and overall treatment) and how it is actually portrayed on-screen.

However, it’s not the viewer who will be making these determinations: On TV, these determinations would have been made by network executives and their cautious-by-design legal team.

This is why you see weird instances of censorship like:

The rich vocabulary of swearing on Sacred Games would be removed in its entirety for TV, and in all probability, this show would never make it to TV.

Scary thought number one: Netflix, the most courageous of streaming platforms in India, has already signed a content code that strikes a lot of the same notes as the BCCC’s (sans the specificity), and might limit the kind of content it acquires or commissions. They have already begun to exercise caution, by allegedly avoiding acquiring Sexy Durga, a movie they were on the verge of buying, but decided against in the last minute because of the complaints that might arise. They have also begun adding disclaimers before each episode of their Indian originals, like Sacred Games’s second season, and the new show Bard of Blood.

Scary thought number two, if you think that Netflix would never agree to having their content seen by censors beforehand: they already do it in the UK and in South Korea. Of course, the British censor board doesn’t get a veto on the content. But it is unlikely that Netflix would enjoy a similar luxury in India.

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Note: This is a guest post for MediaNama by Aroon Deep