I spent nine hours last week watching the first season of Amazon Prime Video’s new serial Mirzapur, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Set in the badlands of eastern Uttar Pradesh, the story moves at breakneck speed, is well-acted, and technically superb. It is also gut-wrenchingly violent, features graphic sex (though not frontal nudity like in Netflix’s Sacred Games) and has more expletives per piece of dialogue than any Indian film I have ever seen.
Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have exposed us to what Indian filmmakers are capable of creating, when they are allowed to do so without bowing to the usual constraints.
This is because they are not subject to censorship by Indian authorities. Both services provide their own ratings—13+, 16+, and so on, (and mention that the show features nudity, foul language, etc.), and it is up to the viewer to use his own discretion.
Which has already got our moral police all worked up.
Last month, lawyer Divya Gontiya filed a PIL (public interest litigation) before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court raising concerns about the gory content and sexually explicit scenes in some web series. “The screening of pornographic contents, vulgar gestures and talks are overriding the Indian culture and morality," Gontiya said in her PIL.
According to a news report in Hindustan Times dated 6 October, “the high court was unhappy with these channels for broadcasting pornographic contents, crudity, sexual or derogatory language, besides violence of various degrees…It directed the ministries concerned to set up a pre-screening committee for web series, and monitor them as well as advertisements, before they are released on online media."
Both Netflix and Amazon have dozens of shows for children, clearly demarcated. Certainly some of the shows made for adult consumption have some nudity and foul language, but is that pornography?
Not by a long stretch, in my mind.
And how are these “overriding the Indian culture and morality"? Our puranas and epics are filled with enough violence and promiscuous sex, as is our ancient art.
Besides, the web is giving our talented young writers and directors the chance to bypass the hypocritical prudishness of mainstream Indian cinema and the timidity of our censor board. Netflix and Amazon will take these films across the world, and surely that will be good for Indian cinema, which is seen as a slightly-wonky stereotype in the West.
But who’s listening? This month, after an NGO (non-governmental organization), Justice for Rights Foundation, filed a petition complaining of “unregulated, uncertified, sexually explicit, vulgar, profane, and legally restricted content" on platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar, the Delhi high court sought the government’s response on prevailing guidelines and licensing policies on the regulation of content. The court asked the central government to respond within four weeks.
The issue is that, since they are not having to look over their shoulders at the censors, Indian film makers have felt free to go where they have not dared before.
Have they overdone it?
After all, a romantic comedy like Little Things on Netflix is also liberally strewn with the f-word. But isn’t that how many westernised urban couples speak? By bleeping out the f-word, or laying down other restrictions, the censor board will only be pretending a reality that does not exist.
A couple of years ago, the board made a fool of itself by recommending dozens of cuts in the film Udta Punjab. The ruling was overturned by the Bombay high court.
We in India have never understood the meaning of creative freedom. Unless it is something absolutely insupportable, such as child phonography or directly inciting violence or criminal acts, why should audiences be deprived of a creative work?
And if audiences disapprove, the film or web series will flop anyway. The market will take the right decision.
Isn’t it much better if films are graded for adult content, or sex, or foul language, instead of taking the scissors to them, and let the audience take the call? This is what happens in most civilized countries.
If shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime are going to soon sport the cuts, blurred images, and beeps like we have on TV, it will be a sad day for creative freedom.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of The Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.