(Bloomberg)
(Bloomberg)

Why streaming platforms are no safe haven for feature films yet

  • Hotstar, Voot, ZEE5, Arre, SonyLIV, ALT Balaji, Reliance Jio, Netflix and Eros Now, have adopted a self-regulatory Code of Best Practices
  • While streaming platforms have the right to acquire the uncensored version of a film, most players prefer the CBFC version

New Delhi: A couple of weeks ago, YouTube put an age restriction on filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s acclaimed documentary 'Raam Ke Naam', opening the film with a disclaimer saying it may be ‘inappropriate for some users’. The 27-year-old film that explores the campaign waged by the Vishva Hindu Parishad to build a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and the communal violence it triggered, had been passed by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) with a ‘U’ (acceptable for universal audiences) certificate during release, aired on Doordarshan and won the National Film Award for Best Investigative Documentary.

YouTube did not respond to Mint’s queries on its censorship policies but 'Raam Ke Naam' is not the only instance of a film losing out on some sections of an online audience, a space traditionally considered free and conducive to creative expression. Adult comedy 'Hunterrr', currently available on Netflix and Amazon Prime, has several sequences cut on the latter, besides being taken off services such as Hotstar and Viu after backlash on social media for its explicit content. Movies like 'The Dirty Picture' have also been censored massively on Amazon.

To be sure, nine video-streaming platforms, including Hotstar, Voot, ZEE5, Arre, SonyLIV, ALT Balaji, Reliance Jio, Netflix and Eros Now, have adopted a self-regulatory Code of Best Practices under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), prohibiting the showcasing of certain kinds of content online, classifying it into age-appropriate categories and providing a mechanism for grievance redressal. However, there is no specific mandate on films already certified for theatrical exhibition.

“At present, The Cinematograph Act doesn’t cover over the top (OTT) platforms, the censor certificate is only issued for (films meant for) theatrical exhibition. In the absence of any regulation or act, any platform will be framing and executing its own policies and guidelines. So the whole question of why an OTT platform alters content does not arise from a legal perspective," according to Girish Dwibhashyam, head, content, consumer engagement and business development at Indian video -treaming service Spuul.

Today even a platform such as Facebook employs 30,000 people to monitor user-generated content, Dwibhashyam added. Some other services use artificial intelligence and machine learning. So different methods are being used to streamline content, censorship only being one of them.

“And as of now, they have the right to do that," Dwibhashyam added.

Also responsible is the open and free nature of the web itself.

“Though the digital world is supposed to be democratic, the pressures are the same as when one is bringing a film to theatres," said 'Hunterrr' director Harshvardhan Kulkarni, referring to the backlash for his film after which it was taken off Hotstar and Viu.

“The kind of policing and mob mentality you witness is bizarre. And unlike the CBFC, it’s not just one board. Everyone is a critic online," Kulkarni said. The pressure for writers and directors to compromise and abide by the radicals whom the Internet has given a platform to, wasn’t prevalent earlier.

To be sure, while all streaming platforms have the right to acquire the uncensored version of a film, most players currently prefer the CBFC version.

“Principally, it can be done (taking the uncut version) because there is no norm or rule saying it can’t. But it’s a call that the streaming platform takes and these (self-regulation and censorship) principles work well from the point of view of catering to the lowest common denominator (among the audience)," according to Ali Hussein, chief operating officer, Eros Now. Hussein was referring to the common tactic employed by streaming platforms — to play as safe as you possibly can with content according to the nature of your brand and target audience to reach out to bigger numbers. Not too much happened as far as (the censoring or lack of it) theatrical content on digital platforms was concerned, but there should be developments soon, he added.

“For every fan, there is a cynic. That has always been the case, but there was no social media earlier (to make it evident). But I do not think that will change as long as there are quality narratives, in fact audiences will have more responsibility for stories that are told (by being able to criticise freely) ," Hussein said.

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