In the last one year, the OTT medium has gone through major upheaval with controversies and even calls for boycott. Government regulations are being termed an assault on free thinking & democracy.
By Reya Mehrotra
Not too long ago, over-the-top (OTT) platforms were being touted as the next big thing. Filmmakers and audiences both flocked to OTTs to present and consume content that would rarely be dealt with in mainstream cinema. Be it social taboos, politics, corruption, same-sex relationships or gender equality, the ‘no-holds-barred’ medium was a hotbed of diverse and experimental content, giving filmmakers complete freedom of creative expression.
The hold of the medium increased exponentially last year when the pandemic struck and the subsequent lockdowns kept cinema hall doors firmly shuttered. Stuck to the confines of their homes and with no other avenues of entertainment, people across the country logged in to OTT services like fish take to water. With even silver screen releases shifting to OTT, there was a huge surge in viewership.
The intensified attention, however, brought with it a lot of viewer scrutiny, leading to eyebrows being raised and content being increasingly questioned and frowned upon. Take, for instance, the Mirzapur controversy. The crime thriller web series on Amazon Prime Video was served a Supreme Court notice for portraying the city of Mirzapur in a bad light and FIRs were filed against the makers. Similarly, the web adaptation of author Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy (1993), which released on Netflix last year, came under the scanner for showing a Muslim man and Hindu woman kissing in the backdrop of a temple. Sentiments were hurt, apologies were demanded and boycott calls were made.
The controversy had not long been laid to rest when another one erupted. Amazon Prime Video’s web series Tandav drew viewers’ flak and ire soon after its release for ridiculing Hindu deities. Soon after, the makers, as well as the OTT platform issued an apology, promising to delete the controversial scenes.
And now, the latest blow comes in the form of the new government regulations, announced on February 25, which bring OTT platforms—which were so far under the ministry of electronics and information technology (Meity)—under the purview of the I&B ministry. This, in turn, opens content on OTTs to censorship, which many are terming an assault on free thinking and democracy. However, on March 4, a Supreme Court bench, hearing the anticipatory bail plea of Amazon Prime Video’s commercial head Aparna Purohit (against whom an FIR had been filed for hurting religious sentiments over the Tandav row), raised concerns over the need for screening of shows as they sometimes showed ‘pornographic content’.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the OTT medium—once hailed as the harbinger of change—is today becoming a part of a bunch of mediums under intense scrutiny and regulation, which is a direct result of its popularity. All this brings us to the question: what lies ahead for OTT platforms in India? Going ahead, what will be the distinction between content on OTTs and the big screen?
The biggest reason that OTTs became a magnet for creators and actors alike was the creative freedom offered plus the plethora of opportunities for everyone. While Bollywood is often accused of nepotism, OTTs are very inclusive. Earlier, few celebrities would venture to the small screen, shying away from the medium except for reality shows. But OTTs opened the floodgates, presenting them an opportunity to be part of quality content that had a place for everyone. Many careers were launched and relaunched. Take, for instance, Amazon Prime Video’s The Family Man. The action thriller web series starred acclaimed actor Manoj Bajpayee whose potential, many say, Bollywood couldn’t fully utilise.
Calling the show a global success, Bajpayee says, “You can’t ignore OTT. I was at Cannes a couple of years back and I saw a young boy, 18-19 years old, on the red carpet. There was such a huge crowd around him. It even led to a traffic jam. People were saying they had never seen such a gathering around a red carpet event. And who was he? A French Snapchat star. That’s the power digital media has. With The Family Man, we have experienced this power… digital has invaded our lives to this extent, penetrated so deeply in every household.”
Bollywood’s favourite finds Pankaj Tripathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui have been part of many successful web series as well. Similarly, Saif Ali Khan has also garnered critical acclaim for his turn on OTTs. Those who have fallen short of opportunities on the big screen have also taken the OTT route to re-establish their careers. Take, for instance, Tabu who essayed the role of Saeeda Bai in A Suitable Boy. Actor Prachi Desai, too, has announced her OTT debut in an upcoming murder mystery. Then there is actor Jaideep Ahlawat, who was appreciated in movies like Raazi, Gangs of Wasseypur, etc, but what truly gained him recognition was his role as Delhi cop Hathi Ram Chaudhary in Amazon Prime Video’s web series Paatal Lok.
Talking about the democratic nature of OTTs, actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas had also said at the Jaipur Literature Festival that she felt happy seeing so many writers, directors, actors and shows across languages getting opportunities on streaming platforms. One of these actors is Adarsh Gourav who starred with Chopra in Netflix’s original The White Tiger, which she also produced. “He is a treasure. Gourav really walked into Balram’s shoes (the character he played) and worked at a tea stall to learn the nuances of the job. That’s what I want to champion,” Chopra said in a conversation with Shobhaa De. The White Tiger was based on Aravind Adiga’s novel of the same name, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. “A movie with Indian actors and based in India was trending on a global platform like Netflix. This is a huge thing. We didn’t have representation in the West, but now that is changing,” Chopra had said.
Actor Rajesh Tailang, who has been part of Mirzapur and the Emmy Award-winning Netflix show Delhi Crime, credits OTTs for giving work to everyone. “Talent is being recognised. Not just of actors, but directors and writers as well… everyone is getting a chance,” he says.
As everyone lined up to have a taste of OTT success, so did major production houses. Netflix’s 2019 series Bard of Blood, featuring new talent Shobita Dhulipala, Jaideep Ahlawat, etc, was produced by Shah Rukh Khan. Actor Anushka Sharma and brother Karnesh Ssharma also produced successful content for Amazon Prime Video (Paatal Lok) and Netflix (Bulbbul).
“The emergence of OTT has definitely presented more opportunities for talent to come forth,” says Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India, an OTT platform by Zee Entertainment Enterprises. “The fact that the canvas is wider has given a lot of deserving talent the opportunity to connect with the audience. OTT does not have the pressure of the box office, which probably gives it the freedom and additional confidence to explore the various facets of storytelling,” says Kalra. “However, Indian cinema, especially over the past few years, has provided immense opportunities for budding talent and that can’t be credited just to OTT platforms,” he adds.
However, now treading cautiously, OTTs like Amazon Prime Video have decided to cancel shows that are likely to lead to controversies. New seasons of The Family Man and Paatal Lok have been cancelled, while some shows have been postponed indefinitely. Netflix’s Bombay Begums, starring Pooja Bhatt, is under the scanner, too, with the National Commission For Protection of Child Rights asking for it to be stopped. NCPCR alleges that it normalises casual sex and drugs for minors which is “inappropriate portrayal of children.”
Tightening the reins
After the controversy around Tandav, director Ali Abbas Zafar released a statement announcing that the controversial scenes would be dropped. The statement read, “We have utmost respect for the sentiments of the people of our country. We did not intend to hurt or offend the sentiments of any individual, caste, community, race, religion or religious beliefs or insult or outrage any institution, political party or person, living or dead. The cast & crew of Tandav have made the decision to implement the changes to the web series to address the concerns raised towards the same. We thank the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for the guidance & support in the matter. We once again apologise if the series has unintentionally hurt anybody’s sentiments.” (sic)
After the I&B ministry’s announcement of the new regulations and a week after a top Amazon Prime Video official was questioned by the UP police about Tandav hurting religious sentiments, the platform, too, issued an apology on March 2. “Amazon Prime Video again deeply regrets that viewers considered certain scenes to be objectionable in the recently launched fictional series Tandav. This was never our intention, and the scenes that were objected to were removed or edited when they were brought to our attention,” said the statement. It further added that it would continue to develop entertaining content with partners while complying with Indian laws and respecting the diversity of culture and beliefs in the country.
While movies releasing in theatres need to have certification from the CBFC under the Cinematograph Act of 1952, content on TV follows the dos and don’ts laid down by the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act of 1995. Before the government announced the new regulations, OTTs had remained untouched by regulations and censorship.
However, the need for self-regulation was felt and, in February, around 17 online streaming providers had announced the adoption of an ‘implementation toolkit’ that pressed upon self-regulation as one of its core principles under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). However, the Centre’s announcement of the regulatory guidelines on February 25 caught the OTT sector unawares.
Though most of the new guidelines make for self-regulation norms, others—like an inter-departmental committee that will have oversight over the self-regulatory body headed by a retired SC or HC judge or an eminent person; proposed appointment of an officer from the I&B ministry with the power to block access to any content; and a grievance redressal mechanism—are worrying OTT players. Apart from a three-tier regulation mechanism, the Centre has also asked digital platforms to categorise content into themes like violence, nudity, sex, language, drug and substance abuse, horror, etc. Content should also be based on age suitability like Universal (U), U/A, 7+, 13+, 16+ and 18+ Adult (A) under the IT (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Act 2021.
After the announcement, top executives of the online platforms met on March 1 for the next course of action and deliberated on nominating the IAMAI as the self-regulatory body that is to be formed. The self-regulation code had been put forward to the government in September as well, but it was rejected as the I&B ministry felt that a third-party monitoring mechanism was lacking. Now, players are worried with the announcement of an inter-departmental committee, with the right to block content, as the third party. However, I&B minister Prakash Javadekar, who met key OTT players, tweeted on March 4 that he had a ‘fruitful meeting’ and that the representatives welcomed the laws. “The Ministry and industry will partner together to make the OTT experience better for all audience,” he wrote. On March 11, after another meeting with OTTs and Digital News Publishers Association, Javadekar reinstated that the new rules had been welcomed by both the parties while they also offered a few suggestions.
Pitching for creative freedom, Bajpayee had said last year in an interview to Financial Express on Sunday, “I would only pray that there is no censorship. I am morally opposed to banning and censorship in any form. As a citizen of the country, I want creative people to have the freedom to express their opinions in the manner in which they wish to. At the same time, I would hope that they do so responsibly. OTT will lose its charm if it comes under censorship. At this point, that’s the fear looming over every creative person. I want the OTT space to be liberating. I want filmmakers to keep flying and soaring with ideas, creating fresh experiences with each outing.”
Actor Rajesh Tailang agrees, saying that censorship should lie in the minds of the makers and it is upon them to make responsible content. Author Prachand Praveer—who wrote the 2016 book Abhinava Cinema, an introduction to world cinema as per the rasa theory of Indian classical aesthetics—believes in censorship of ‘worthless creations’. “Censorship should be done against idiocy and worthless creations, which is a difficult and monumental task. The important idea is to keep the artwork alive rather than to deal with propaganda, commotion, hatred,” he says.
OTT vs 70mm
When the pandemic struck and OTTs became the ‘living room’s cinema hall’, many wondered if the medium could threaten the multiplex business in the long run. But today, things look hazy on that front, as it remains to be seen how the new norms will change OTT platforms. And with the home affairs and I&B ministries permitting the reopening of cinema halls with 100% capacity, time will tell if the interest of the audience remains with the newly-regulated OTTs.
But evolution is and has always been the name of the game, and this goes for OTTs as well. Director Nitya Mehra, whose 2016 debut Baar Baar Dekho did not fare well but OTT debut Made in Heaven was a blockbuster, feels that as we evolve there will always be newer things and challenges to overcome. “When TV came, people on radio were worried. OTTs have given theatres a run for their money, but each format finds its own space. There are enough human beings on this planet to consume it all,” Mehra said in a news interview.
Producer Tanuj Garg, who is backing Taapsee Pannu’s upcoming film Looop Lapeta, says the reopening of cinema halls would usher in the era of co-existence of the two mediums. “(We will be) back to 100% capacity for cinemas soon. Contrary to perception, I don’t believe the theatrical medium will ever pass away in #India. Time for OTT and cinemas to co-exist peacefully,” he tweeted in January.
Perhaps that’s the reason Netflix has announced 41 new Indian titles for 2021, the biggest tranche the platform has announced in one go from India. ZEE5 India’s Manish Kalra, too, is optimistic and believes that OTTs will co-exist with theatres. “Digital platforms have helped keep the entertainment quotient high during the pandemic. We saw platforms acquiring films slated for a theatrical release, but had to release digitally.
Our strategy was focused on acquiring meaningful films and not just big-budget ones and this proved successful. We continue to see viewership on these films increasing in spite of most of them launching last year. This is another advantage of OTTs… there is a longer shelf life for content,” says Kalra.
OTT will lose its charm if it comes under censorship. At this point, that’s the fear looming over every creative person
— Actor Manoj Bajpayee
Censorship should lie in the minds of the makers… it is upon them to make responsible content
—Actor Rajesh Tailang
OTT platforms and movie theatres will co-exist in the future
—Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India, an OTT platform by Zee Entertainment Enterprises
Some regulation was needed as, in some cases, even pornography is being shown on such platforms and a balance has to be maintained
— Supreme Court of India
Last year, many wondered if OTTs could threaten the multiplex business. But today, things look hazy on that front, as it remains to be seen how the new norms will change content on OTTs