An underworld don calls former prime minister of India Rajiv Gandhi a ‘fattu’ because the politician chose to overrule the court order in the 1985 Shah Bano case on women’s rights. The word, mouthed by actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Sacred Games, was loosely translated as ‘pu***’ in the subtitles. What followed was a PIL in the Delhi High Court against Netflix’s first Indian original series, demanding removal of ‘derogatory’ dialogues, as well as ‘objectionable’ scenes in the series. Interestingly, Lust Stories, a film created for and streamed on Netflix, is the most popular among its offerings. With web streaming services becoming the order of the day, one wonders if there is a need for regulation of the offerings and if it is even possible.
As Supreme Court advocate Apar Gupta, who is also co-founder of Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy firm, says: “There is no regulator for OTT or internet content in India. For now, OTT platforms are largely self-governed under the various applicable laws in the country for different broadcasting medium, including the Information Technology Act and the Cinematograph Act, which are largely sufficient to address the key concerns. Players need to follow self-censorship to screen their content or else they might end up in a court.” The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) can block websites that have objectionable content, such as those with copyright infringement, like torrent sites. “Apart from that, there is no regulatory mechanism in place,” says Shailesh Kapoor, CEO of Ormaxe Media, a Mumbai-based media consulting firm.
Internet, obviously, is a grey area, unlike films and television. The Cinematograph Act regulates censorship of films in theatres and on TV. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 provides a basic framework to regulate the operations of cable television broadcast in India, including censorship of content. The I&B ministry has also set up a Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC), a self-regulatory body, for general entertainment channels, which takes up complaints against TV content. But unlike cinema halls and television channels, where anti-tobacco warnings are screened, OTT services are not regulated as yet in India. On OTT platforms, as of now, there is no censorship, except for prohibition on pornography. Earlier this year there was talk of TRAI developing a consultation paper to regulate OTT platforms.
Last year, the health ministry had written to TRAI to issue an advisory to streaming platforms to comply with anti-tobacco rules and display messages and warnings in scenes showing tobacco products or their use. Rules require a no-smoking ad to be played at the beginning and interval of films, and also a warning line on the screen while a smoking scene is on. The smoking scenes in Sacred Games and in many other online content, including films, come without any anti-tobacco warnings. As per reports, the health ministry is now looking at provisions in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to try and regulate streaming giants for anti-tobacco warning. When contacted, Netflix refused to comment on the issue. In the absence of a regulator, self-censorship has become the norm for OTT platforms.
“Each OTT platform takes its own self-regulation decisions. For example, Netflix tends to follow the same norms across the world with minimal self-regulation, but the company puts an advisory at the start of the show on the recommended age band for the content, also mentioning the presence of nudity, violence and foul language, if present,” says Kapoor. Platforms like Hotstar and Amazon Prime have somewhat stronger self-regulation norms in place with ‘provocative’ images blurred. Eros Digital, the digital arm of movie production and distribution studio Eros International, says they follow self-censorship for original content. “All big screen films are always censored by the Central Board of Film Certification and for other original content there is a team in place for final checks on the creative before making it available for viewing,” says Ali Hussein, COO, Eros Digital.
Spuul, an online subscription-based video streaming service headquartered in Singapore, follows the rules and regulations of the territories they operate in. “We operate in 150 countries with India being the key market. We comply with the local laws here, while in the Middle East we follow different regulations. We try to keep in mind the local sensibilities of the customer,” says Girish Dwibhashyam, head (content), Spuul. But Spuul doesn’t play the tobacco warning advertisement, which is mandatory in cinema halls. “A viewer can watch that advertisement but it is optional and not mandatory. So far we have only censored nudity for certain markets,” he adds. Industry insiders, however, feel that unwanted regulation will hamper creative expression. “Considering that most OTT content is viewed through individual devices, it provides a space for video service providers to provide bolder content in terms of language, violence or nudity, which is otherwise prohibited in television. Prohibition of any content online will only increase piracy,” says Vidya S Nath, senior research director, digital media practice, Frost & Sullivan. Clearly, the biggest censor is the viewer herself.