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Brief: What led to Tandav’s censorship, and what it means for streaming regulation in India

In a significant first, Amazon Prime Video agreed to censor its political drama series Tandav, and has removed two scenes in the first episode. MediaNama confirmed that the scenes were removed from the show. Tandav attracted complaints from politicians and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting got involved. We have reached out to Amazon and the Ministry for comment.

What offended people

Right wing groups and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati flagged two scenes, both in the first episode, as offensive: the first was a stage play where Shiva and Narada muse over what they can do to improve the deity’s social media reach (“Should I put up a new photo,” Shiva asks at one point.) The other was a scene where Devki Nandan Singh, the prime minister, castigates a Dalit politician after the latter asks to get his two cents in on an issue.

The fallout

The pushback to the show was likely far from organic, being egged on by the usual conservative ecosystem that trended #CensorWebSeries and protested a single shot in A Suitable Boy featuring a kiss with a temple in the background. Leaders like Kapil Mishra and Ram Kadam voiced their disapproval of the show. But the ranks of people claiming to be outraged by the show increased like rarely seen before for a web series. More FIRs were reported after the first one in Lucknow, this time in Gautam Buddha Nagar and Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, in Jabalpur and Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, and in Noida in Uttar Pradesh. Legions of right wing leaders sent letters to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, which summoned Amazon and the show’s creators. Former UP Chief Minister Mayawati said that the show needed to be censored.

How the show’s creators responded

Initially, Ali Abbas Zafar, the show’s creator, “unconditionally” apologized “if [the show] has unintentionally hurt anybody’s sentiments”. As complaints mounted and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting got involved, Zafar put out a second statement pledging to remove the two scenes from the show.

What is the impact?

Is this the first time the government has censored a web series?

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While some indicate that this is the first time that explicit government action is resulting in a show being censored, this is not the case. I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar personally intervened in a smaller controversy surrounding the ALT Balaji/Zee5 show Virgin Bhasskar to rename a hostel featured in the show. Zee5 also suspended the release of a show after Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy reached out to Zee group chair Subhash Chandra.

What does this mean for censorship of web series in India?

There are two things that may happen: the first is that the streaming industry may feel under greater pressure to give in to some of the government’s demands to make self-regulation of streaming content more stringent. For instance, a list of prohibited content and greater independence in the complaints mechanism are two of the government’s asks that the industry has tried to reach a middle ground on with an “implementation toolkit”. That middle ground may not be so convincing to the government anymore.

Second, the chilling effect: Given the sheer scale of the backlash against the show’s creators and cast, creators and streaming services may shy away from commissioning content that scrutinizes religious themes, or other things that may lead to mobs being mobilized. This has already been happening, with several shows in recent memory, such as A Suitable Boy and Paatal Lok, being the subject of right wing complaints that have translated into some legal action. Not all streaming services may have the appetite to give creators the freedom to challenge these forces.

Where are we on regulating streaming services?

With government oversight over television and cinema being particularly stringent in India, frustration has grown in some quarters over what is perceived as a free pass that streaming services get (though they, too, tread with caution, as their censorship record shows). Recent opinion pieces on DNA and News18 (twice) have cast streaming services as irresponsible and unregulated, with Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh arguing for regulation. CBFC chief Prasoon Joshi also made clear his support for regulating streaming services, something he had only loosely implied earlier. Now that creators choosing unconventional themes have been cast as an irresponsible content industry run amok, and the we may be closer to the end of the debate than we are to the beginning.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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