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Business News/ Industry / Media/  Content creators on edge as noose tightens around OTT content

Content creators on edge as noose tightens around OTT content

  • The Supreme Court has issued notice to Amazon Prime and the Centre on a petition that called for a ban on Mirzapur, alleging it 'maligns the image of Uttar Pradesh.'

Photo: iStock

NEW DELHI:With both the Central government and the Supreme Court cracking down on web shows, content creators foresee tough times. Writers and directors say that absence of clear guidelines or regulations for now is leading to fear of over-censorship by the platforms which will water down edgy content for fear of a backlash leading to court cases and FIRs.

Two recent web shows, Tandav and Mirzapur 2, both on Amazon Prime Video, have ruffled feathers in particular. Eventually the Tandav team made changes to portions found objectionable, making it the first show to officially modify content since OTT content was brought under the I&B ministry ambit last November. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court also issued notice to Amazon Prime and the centre on a petition that called for a ban on Mirzapur, alleging it “maligns the image of Uttar Pradesh."

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These developments have made content creators anxious.

“It is quite clear that religious or political sentiments are not to be played with in such a polarised environment," said Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films and events at Saregama, which owns a boutique studio called Yoodlee that has made films such as Axone and Chaman Bahaar, available on Netflix.

Kumar echoes the sentiments of many writers and filmmakers who already see top OTT platforms asking them to play safe and avoid problematic themes that take on religion or touch upon other sensitive political issues.

A studio executive said on condition of anonymity that they were asked to drop a cop show involving Indian and Pakistani actors by a streaming platform. This December, director Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, set against the anti-Tamil pogroms that led to the Sri Lankan Civil War was not released in India for fear of hurting Tamil sentiments.

Netflix declined to comment on the story, as did other platforms like ZEE5, SonyLIV, MX Player, ALTBalaji and Hoichoi. Amazon, Disney+ Hotstar, Eros Now and VOOT did not respond to Mint’s queries.

“We now get scripts with highlights on portions that could get us into trouble, such as how the term ‘terrorist’ is used or suggestions to remove religious and political words altogether," the studio executive said referring to legal advice that most companies seek.

Platforms were already circumspect given the controversies around shows like Leila, Sacred Games and Ghoul, said a filmmaker who did not wish to be identified. “But for the Supreme Court to act so quickly on a petition that comes from the back of beyond is a clear sign of the state wanting to control the narrative and platforms can’t afford to take chances now," the person said.

“There is no blanket rule but each OTT platform deploys its own strategy depending upon its subscriber base. The idea is that freedom of expression can be exercised with reasonable restrictions and most of the producers or content creators approach this practically," Chandrima Mitra, partner at DSK Legal said referring to the advice law firms like theirs give OTTs. It is very easy to file a legal claim in India and given the absence of films in theatres, streaming content is under greater scrutiny.

A senior executive at a streaming platform said the government is unlikely introduce any code to censor content but will continue to intervene, as and when required, demonstrated in the recent Tandav case. MIB declined comment.

“In a democracy, you should be able to tell your story the way you see it. These subjects must be tackled no matter what the pushback. That's what makes OTT different from film," said Apurva Asrani, writer of Hotstar’s recently released Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors.

To be sure, after several hints from the government, 15 OTT platforms had come together under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in September 2020 to sign a code of self-regulation, formulating a framework for age classification, appropriate content description and access control. MIB, however, rejected the code and asked IAMAI to look at other mechanisms which allow for an independent monitoring organisation like the Digital Curated Content Complaints Council (DCCCC) along with enumeration of prohibited content.

“A lot of these controversies are simply arising out of the herd mentality concept and we have to be careful to not get into the majority survives syndrome," said Tarun Katial, former CEO at ZEE5 who had worked on the IAMAI code. The government is clear it doesn’t want to censor OTT content, and it is only a matter of time before a balance in achieved between creative expression and audience sensitivity, Katial added.

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Lata Jha

Lata writes about the media and entertainment industry for Mint, focusing on everything from traditional film and TV to newer areas like video and audio streaming, including the business and regulatory aspects of both. She loves movies and spends a lot of her free time in theatres, which makes her job both fun and a bit of a challenge given that entertainment news often just talks about the glamorous side of things. Lata, on the other hand, tries to find and report on themes and trends in the entertainment world that most people don't notice, even though a lot of people in her country are really into movies. She’s a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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