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New Delhi: The year 2022 will see OTT (over-the-top) streaming platforms take up big-budget projects, many starring popular, mainstream faces. But content creators are wary of increased scrutiny by the government and various fringe groups as seen this year. This has resulted in services looking to play safe and self-censoring more than is often necessary. 

While taking recourse to legal advice on scripts and even shot material has been the standout trend this year, creators hope some niche, risqué subjects will continue to be attempted to preserve the essence of the digital medium.

This February, the government of India formally tightened its control over digital and OTT platforms, introducing a three-tier mechanism that it termed as a ‘soft-touch regulatory architecture.’ While the first two tiers bring in place a system of self-regulation by the platform itself and by the self-regulating bodies of content publishers, the crucial third calls for an oversight mechanism by the central government. Disagreements over the extent of creative liberty to be accorded to content creators have split the video streaming industry into two self-regulatory bodies.

While broadcaster-led apps such as Disney+Hotstar, Sony LIV and Voot preferred to play it safe under the aegis of the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF), companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have formed a self-regulatory body under the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) as they want to retain the option of working on edgy themes. These moves come in the wake of the crackdown on shows like Tandav on Amazon Prime Video, FIRs were filed against whose makers for hurting religious sentiments this January. Other titles like Mirzapur, Ashram and Bombay Begums have also been embroiled in controversy.

“The mandates (from platforms) are definitely changing but that is also part of the natural evolution cycle as OTT goes from being a new, unrecognised medium to a large business that needs to tap audiences beyond the youth. Any such social construct will need governance and you can’t shy away from that," said Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films and television, Saregama India, which owns boutique studio Yoodlee Films, calling this a sign of legitimacy. Right now though, Kumar said platforms are playing safer than they need to and self-censorship can be dangerous.

Most of the leading OTT platforms are already sensitized to the type of content-related backlash that can be faced in India, said Keerat Grewal, partner at media consulting firm Ormax. “Politics and religion are the two key areas across which most platforms have self-imposed guidelines for, to ensure they do not ruffle any segments. However, this restriction has not led to any change in appeal for the medium, since there is a wide expanse of narratives that platforms are exploring, which do not need to get into controversial spaces," Grewal added.

A big result of the increased scrutiny though can be seen with OTT platforms strengthening their legal departments and firms flagging problematic portions either on scripts or on shot material. At the same time, wanting to gain more mass-market acceptance has led platforms to launch big-budget shows featuring mainstream names, with the possibility of families congregating to watch web content, often on large television screens. Applause Entertainment is making Rudra-The Edge of Darkness for Disney+ Hotstar starring Ajay Devgn, while Amazon Prime Video has shows lined up with Akshay Kumar and Shahid Kapoor. Netflix has lined up projects with Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Zoya Akhtar and Vishal Bhardwaj.

“As a production house, we like to tell stories in a way which are relevant to the parents, youth, grandparents, kids unilaterally - then we know we have forged a connection with the audience," said Amita Madhvani, partner at Ram Madhvani Films that has made Aarya for Disney+ Hotstar and Dhamaka for Netflix. Madhvani added that it helps to collaborate with the platform on legal inputs at the script level itself.

Grewal pointed out that unlike TV, which is shared by the family, OTT in India is still pre-dominantly a mobile screen experience, allowing for makers to cater to multiple segments of audiences. “The Indian OTT universe of 353.2 million is however skewed towards the male gender with a 59% share. This increases to 66%, among the 96 million active paid subscriptions in India. In line with this reality, some of the top of performing shows on OTT are from the male-skewed genres of crime, thriller and action. Making these shows age and gender inclusive only helps them get a wider audience, irrespective of them being suitable for family viewing or not," Grewal said.

However, several platforms emphasize they would like to retain their risqué essence to stand out. “There are some big platforms that are becoming more mainstream and trying to cater to pan-India audiences through their choice of stories and actors but it would be incorrect to generalise. There are some stories that you can’t tell on linear mediums and that we welcome as storytellers," Sai Abhishek, original content head, South Asia, Discovery Inc said adding that the idea is to balance to see what works and what doesn’t.

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