MediaNama obtained a trove of around 100 complaints that were filed against the series Tandav to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting under the RTI Act. The Internet Freedom Foundation and The Quint first made the complaints public. While the rules themselves were in the making for a long time, the fires fanned by political outfits — dutifully described by mainstream media as “controversies” — around such shows helped set the ground for the regulations. Let’s take a look in detail at the complaints.
1. Templates, templates, templates: While the I&B Minister has spoken about complaints on streaming services, he left out a crucial bit: a substantive portion of these complaints are copy-pasted from a template. The most common template, used 22 times, termed Tandav as a “Hinduphobic” show. At least one organization, Maharashtra-based Hope Foundation (not to be confused with this non-profit of the same name), also used this template. Here’s a sample:
- “Anti-hindu”: This series is Anti-Hindu whose sole motive is to shame Hindu religion and portray Hindu deities in a wrong way. There is a clip from the show ,where the cast of the webseries plays a stage performer appearing as Lord Shiva and makers have shown the deity in a flippant light,the use of Lord Shiva on-screen has hurt the religious sentiments of HINDU’s globally which is totally unacceptable.
The template goes on to incorrectly accuse the show of depicting smoking and drug abuse without a disclaimer (none is required online).
2. “Tukde tukde gang”: Many of the complaints belied their actual political motivations, even as they tried to frame their grouses on religious grounds. A couple dozen complaints were original, but they were mostly brief or repeated talking points from existing templates.
One complaint by a Mumbai-based Vinod Mishra singles out the actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays Shiva in an on-stage student production featured in the show’s first episode: “in [Tandav’s] first episode Mohammad zeeshan aayub is dress as lord Shiva and insulting him this man zeeshan aayub is anti nation member of tukde tukde gang sir I request you to take serious acction against makers of this web series as well as zeeshan aayub.”
3. “Amazon Prime customer” template: Two complaints approached the issue from an unusual angle: “Just one question, when Amazon cares so much for timely delivery and quality of product with customer satisfaction, why it is just restricted to products ordered and NOT on the Prime video content as it has been seen web series post anti Hindu, anti Sikh (religious sentiments) […]” That template is signed, “Thanks, Amazon Prime customer.”
4. “We never retaliated”: And yet another template — which appears six times — bemoans that Hindus have been too tolerant (what a ghastly trait for a community!):
- “Instigating communal disharmony”: “It is relevant to state that these web series are intentionally made to hurt the sentiments of Hindus because we have never retaliated against such contents,” the template says. “Just to make money and to gain popularity along with free publicity producers like “Ali Abbas Zafar” [— yes, they put his name in quotes —] don’t mind instigating communal disharmony in the society.”
- Islamophobia a common theme: The template goes on to express anger that Islam cannot be portrayed as freely as Hinduism can, which has emerged as a common dog whistle among extremist commentators:
I cannot imagine the consequences if a Hindu director mocked other religion “Gods” for marrying a small girl child or a virgin woman giving birth to a baby. heavens would have broken loose and come down pelted stones and petrol bombs vandalizing police stations, houses and torching vehicles.
“Can anyone use such dialogues for any other religion in India, No !!!”, another complaint bemoaned (sorry for that comma after the quotation mark, I just had to retain those three exclamation points.)
5. Policy brief lists supposedly problematic scenes: The most curious organizational response was a document “For internal use” by the Public Policy Research Centre, an organization with close ties to the BJP, which took the effort to compile a table of its objections. A few choice excerpts from their list:
Showing Muslims as victims and facing state persecution
In this scene, a Muslim character is shown speaking to his friend that there is sustained and continued persecution of Muslims in the country at the hands of the administrative authorities.
In this scene, the characters are shown raising slogans against the Brahmin community through slogans of ‘Azaadi’ which are used by far-Left and Islamist elements.
Showing Professor and his student in compromising position
This scene shows a professor getting physically close to his student, […]. This is completely against the noble Guru-Shishya traditions of our nation.
6. Complaint locations and senders: The states that are most represented in the complaints are Maharashtra (12), Delhi (6) and Uttar Pradesh (6). This is just from the complaints where the authors identified their city of residence, though. Here is a sample of some organizational and individual complainants: Indian Human Rights Cooperation Trust, BJP Uttarakhand worker Shāntā Bamarāṛā (transliterated from Devanagari as no English spelling could be found), Hope Foundation, Public Policy Research Centre, Rajput Karni Sena (Women’s Wing) Mumbai, Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Mahasabha’s youth wing, Yuva Jagaran Manch, and Akhil Bharatvarshiya Brahman Mahasabha.
Where these complaints fit in
But the complaints — as low-effort copy-pastey and hate-filled as they are — are a small part of the firestorm that engulfed Tandav, Amazon, and soon enough, all streaming services. A number of small time politicians and police stations had FIRs filed against the show on flimsy grounds, and forced Aparna Purohit, Head of India Originals at Amazon Prime Video, to present herself for questioning at a police station in Kanpur, over 1,200 kilometers away. Amazon had to get the Supreme Court involved to stay coercive action against Purohit after the Allahabad High Court refused to grant her anticipatory bail.
All this goes to say: the complaints, and the government’s accommodation of their frivolity, have their sights squarely aimed at discouraging storytellers from telling stories that portray the bigotry and rising ethnocentrism of the country. The actual Intermediary Rules don’t say that, but they don’t need to. The complaints make it clear what the desired outcome is, and the government appears — for the moment — to have succeeded in paving the way for that outcome.