Prasoon Joshi, the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, has entered the chat. In an opinion piece published in the Indian Express on Wednesday, he essentially argued that online content creators need to toe the line, inserting himself and the censor board into the online content regulation debate. “Some will misconstrue and say that I am hinting at some sort of policing,” Joshi wrote. “Please do not be misled or trivialise what I am honestly putting up for a rational and civil discussion,” he wrote.

MediaNama’s take

Joshi’s disclaimer holds as much water as the piece itself; it is essentially packaging his personal distaste for an envelope-pushing piece of content (the Amazon show Rasbhari) in a screed arguing that filmmakers should restrain themselves from making content that might be uncomfortable to some Indian viewers. Of course, he uses terms like “socio-cultural nuances” and “consumer sentiment” to sugarcoat that argument, but the overarching point is clear if you read between the lines. A Mint editor wrote a similarly reasoned article in March after watching the film Guilty on Netflix. All this builds pressure to create the Digital Content Complaints Committee, which the streaming industry is largely resisting (Joshi pointedly name-checked the committee).

This op-ed is a slippery slope that lead all the way down to censorship, whether self-imposed or otherwise. We have previously talked about how the DCCC — which would have powers to penalise streaming services by allowing users to complain against content — is a dangerous and unnecessary idea that could lead to increased censorship of streaming services, similar to what we see on TV. If a movie or show is really not in sync with viewers’ values and preferences, it will simply not be a hit. So all that remains of Joshi’s argument is that he would rather that filmmakers take fewer risks, which is an abhorrent idea.

In India, streaming platforms already liberally censor at the slightest whiff of blowback from viewers (with Netflix being a recent inductee into that clique of caution). This rhetoric from someone in Joshi’s position could do to streaming platforms’ freedom what Vijayakanth’s moustache does to attacking rowdies.

To be clear, the CBFC has no control or say over online content, a fact that it has confirmed on multiple occasions. And so, its inserting itself into this debate is worrying.

CBFC board member on content regulation

Joshi isn’t alone in the censor board to raise an eyebrow on online content. A few days ago, actor and CBFC board member Vani Tripathi Tikoo made similar remarks on the subject at an ORF webinar. Here’s what she said:

CBFC works only on theatrical content, and we have nothing to do with OTT. There is no regulation on OTT yet. There is a lot of discussion, there’s a whole discussion board around it. That’s actually between the Ministry and— the [Digital Content Complaints Committee] is still a work in progress from what I’ve understood.

I think OTT is still a very nascent platform as far as storytelling is concerned. We don’t know how many eyeballs it has. We first need to understand this space. I keep telling people, we have to understand how many people are consuming this content, how it is being consumed, and what the consumer choices are.

I do feel the lens for film certification should not be used in OTT. I think, as I said, [there is a] distinction between what is in my palm and what is collective. When you watch a movie in a theatre with a thousand-odd people who are strangers to you, the impact is completely different from watching it in private or with three members of your family. That distinction needs to be understood.

I think self-regulation is the way. The industry and streaming platforms have to take cognizance and responsibility for what they stream. They need to empower people and consumers about parental controls. They just take it upon themselves and think everybody will understand what parental control is. Parental control is a new paradigm as far as India is concerned. Prople do have a lot of net connectivity, we are a very data friendly country. But as far as responsibility toward the data is concerned, people need to be empowered; there is nothing wrong in doing capacity building as far as all that is concerned.

But self-regulation as of now is what the way forward is. They have to invest their time, resources, money, and understanding. Every country is culturally different — in France, frontal nudity is not a problem, but gangster films are; but in the US, frontal nudity is a huge problem, and gangster films are what they are known for. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsece, so on and so forth. Every country has a certification board and a cultural nuance. A similar kind of cultural nuance for India needs to be understood. What works for a sixteen year old in America may not work for a sixteen year old in India.

As far as that is understood, I am sure self-regulation will be understood.