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Sense & Censorship

Should digital platforms enjoy absolute freedom in the content they stream or is it time to rein it in?

For a very long time, there were just the movies and television as mediums of entertainment. There was a clear and almost impermeable boundary between the two, in terms of content, performers and the audience.

And then, a couple of years ago, the digital platforms took entertainment by storm. It was a game-changer in many ways. Suddenly, filmmakers were faced with infinite possibilities, in terms of show formats, reach and the freedom to experiment with content.

Without the pressure of censorship, writers and content creators have been able to create stories that would have been unthinkable on any other platform that we have. Social, political, religious and sexual inhibitions have been shed with content on shows like Sacred Games, Inside Edge, Made In Heaven, Mirzapur, Four More Shots Please!, Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story, Tripling, Permanent Roomates, Lust Stories and many other series on platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, ALTBalaji, Voot, Viu, Hungama, TVF, etc.

This medium received a huge boost when A-list actors Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Vicky Kaushal, Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, R Madhavan, Abhishek Bachchan and the most recent addition of Akshay Kumar joined this league, to explore a new world of content.

But, in the last few months, there has been some debate on censoring digital platforms after the audience objected to the content on certain platforms. Amid the din, there has been talk of many platforms adopting a self-regulatory policy to avoid any other entity calling the shots on censorship.

With these issues becoming more and more talked about, we spoke to some leading players in the digital world, writers, filmmakers and other industry professionals, and asked them to weigh in with their opinions on the subject. Here’s what they had to say:

Netflix Spokesperson

With the growth of entertainment choices today, there has never been a better time to be a creator or a consumer of entertainment. We firmly believe there must be the freedom to create and the freedom to choose. Earlier this year, along with other OTT players, we signed a self-regulation code in India to ensure an environment that protects the artistic vision of content producers so that their work can be seen by their fans. This code also empowers consumers to make viewing choices that are right for them and their families.

Vijay Subramanium, Digital and Head Content, Amazon Prime Video, India

Amazon Prime Video is a premium on-demand entertainment service that offers members the greatest choice of what to watch and how to watch it.  We provide customers with compelling content they love and creators a forum to create unique and passionate stories.  We always ensure that we follow the laws of the land and we are fully compliant.

Sameer Nair, CEO, Applause Entertainment

Censorship per se is a flawed concept. Freedom of creative expression is a fundamental right that must be safeguarded. That being said, it is important for creators to exercise this freedom responsibly. It is a fine line between what is or not acceptable by a larger audience, but it is the duty of the creative community to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. Reality and Art co-exist, sometimes complementing and sometimes conflicting, both of which are part of the evolution of society.

At Applause, we want to be a catalyst in offering premium content to consumers and create bold new stories for the Indian audiences. As a studio, we want to dazzle, delight, disturb and disrupt. In the telling of these stories, we don’t feel the need for excessive nudity, sex, violence and abusive language; we focus on telling great stories that can be viewed by individuals and families alike.

It is essential that content creators respect traditional values and social ethos while creating any content for the Indian audiences. While we are focused on delivering high-end, rich drama, we must always remain cognizant of this. At Applause, we ensure we self-regulate the content and empower consumers to make informed decisions, to choose the kind of content one should watch.

Vikram Malhotra, CEO, Abundantia Entertainment

In my opinion, the entire concept of censorship for digital platforms needs to be viewed with the perspective that entertainment delivered through digital and/or internet-based platforms is still a very new phenomenon in our country! The entire market is in its infancy and the excitement around it at all levels, including content regulation and censoring, is understandable. A scan of more mature markets around the world will reveal that digital platforms that have succeeded and sustained have done so on the basis of the quality of their content and their value-for-money/time propositions. It would be hard to find a digital platform that has succeeded only because its audience could consume content on it that would not be ‘allowed’ anywhere else. Because the market is at such a nascent stage in India, and given its so called unregulated nature, there is a tendency to believe that creators and platforms would only focus on offensive themes, sex, violence or sensationalism. The truth is far from it! There will be some who will consider this a free pass and adopt a no-holds-barred approach but, to me, this will be a very short-sighted approach.

On the regulatory side, I have a lot of faith in the ability and understanding of our regulatory system to understand this medium and treat this differently than conventional media. And again, because this world is so new to these systems, we tend to only see knee-jerk reactions. I am confident that as better understanding comes in and the frenzied excitement reduces, creators, platforms and regulators will see a framework where freedom of expression is supported and at the same time, sentimental boundaries are respected. 

I look at self-censorship as a sub-set of a creator’s or a platform’s content sensibility and audience understanding. At Abundantia, we have a certain content philosophy and we believe that one man’s entertainment does not need to be another’s irritation! I have been part of several boundary-pushing stories that have, on many occasions, shaken up the beliefs and thinking of our audience and gone against conventional thought-process but never have these stories offended or disturbed the beliefs of anybody. Similarly, responsible creators and platforms will have ‘self-censorship’ built into their thinking at an intrinsic level not because they want to restrict the ability of their stories but because they would want their stories to reach the right audiences and connect for the right reasons.

To each her own! Independence and free thinking are paramount for all creation to succeed. But such success should not come at the cost of the overall well-being of society. I believe that a combination of responsible creation and distribution on one side and smart and liberal frameworks on the other side will make this business truly value-creating on both sides of the equation.

Ali Hussein, COO, Eros Digital

Eros Now has opted to follow the model of self-regulation, which is different from censorship of any kind. We have collaborated with other OTT services under the aegis of IAMAI (Internet And Mobile Association of India) to draw up and implement a Code of Best Practices for self-regulation. Self-regulation is about empowering the consumer to make informed choices. This also enables Eros Now to offer more engaging and cutting-edge content to its viewers and subscribers. We believe this strategy is a lot more progressive, keeping in mind the form of Internet video, giving the power back to viewers and benefitting the ecosystem at large.

Siddhartha Roy, COO, Hungama Digital Media

Increased usage of smartphones has made the Internet easily accessible for everyone, including children. This has made it important to ensure that digital platforms are targeting audiences with age-appropriate content. At the same time, the country’s Internet revolution has also given birth to storytellers who are not scared to defy convention. It is equally important to preserve their vision and ensure that stories are narrated in their original formats without any modification. It’ll be interesting to see the industry utilise technology for age-appropriate targeting while retaining creative freedom. Platforms will also need to demonstrate maturity and avoid taking undue advantage to sensationalise.

Karan Bedi, CEO, MX Player

At MX Player, we believe in giving our viewers ‘everytainment’ - that is entertainment for every mood. However, as content makers – we ensure that we are narrating stories in a responsible manner while still allowing the creative teams - be it writers, directors or artists to experiment with formats, genres, and content. OTT platforms have changed the way audiences consume entertainment and I believe that we should empower the discerning viewer to make informed choices about the kind of content they want to consume and form guidelines which help in this regard.

Every business model has different business strategies, so while the idea is to compile a set of industry best practices, the code should only have guiding principles. We believe that both MX Player and our various peers in the market have the maturity to entertain responsibly.

We have a huge width of content spanning over 1,00,000 hours of entertainment across languages, genres, and formats. With 75 million daily active users, we would like to provide entertaining content for every taste palate. We want to ensure that each of our narratives are made in the best possible aesthetic manner, without unduly curbing the creative liberty of our partners/ talent pool, while remaining cognizant of our audience and culture.

Vishal Maheshwari, Viu India, Country Head

With the onset of the digital medium, content has seemed to have found the liberty it requires since censorship hasn’t been enforced on VoD platforms like in the case of other traditional media. As creators we are well aware of the fact that even though we enjoy an extensive amount of creative freedom, there are certain guidelines that need to be adhered to keep the cultural sensitivities in mind.

We at Viu have always been conscious of sharing quality localised content that resonates with the millennials. We intend to deliver engaging and compelling stories that grip the audience, in a safe digital environment. We believe that current laws on content regulation are adequate and advocate adopting a voluntary censorship code which helps to give creative freedom to the brand, but also adhere to the sensibilities of a nation and its culture, and contribute towards making the digital sphere a safer space for the audience.

One of the sole reasons for the ever growing success of the OTT space is truly the creative freedom it provides. This liberty allows content producers to be able to supply what the progressive audience demands. Self-regulation according to us is necessary owing to the fact that the audience belongs to a vast and diverse cultural backgrounds across markets, in a country like India. Despite that if censorship was to be considered even in the digital space, the audience will eventually seek out other means to view the content that appeases them.

Siddharth Anand Kumar, VP Films and Television Saregama India and Producer at Yoodlee Films 

I feel censorship lies within the locus of your moral compass and how you define it in your craft. We are essentially filmmakers and content creators and as a creator of a work of cinematic art, I will have a definite view point on what is important for my film, what it demands and what I need to include to get across my story. I also like to believe that I am a responsible filmmaker who is well aware of the cultural and social ramifications of the country we stay in. So I feel censorship is important but it should start from the filmmakers themselves. Yoodlee Films creates content that is out-of-the-box, fearless and yet relevant and relatable to an ever evolving audience. We also pride ourselves in being responsible filmmakers who know exactly how efficiently we can convey our story across. To that extent we do believe that for the digital space, self-censorship is important to enable filmmakers their creative liberty which finds itself stifled when they opt for a theatrical release. Having said that, like any subjective call, self-censorship can be abused easily. Content creators need to be mindful of that. I think the onus to censor and the extent they would want to censor lies with each individual platform. For content creators like us, we will go by the sanctity of the story and how best can we bring it to the screen without compromising on the creative vision.  Case in point: two of Yoodlee Films - Ajji and Ascharyachakit had subject matters which were edgy and traversed unconventional routes. Both films are now available on Netfix because the films were true to its milieu and it reflected relevant topics of our times. Like I have said, I believe OTT platforms allow creative people and writers a platform where they can express their work without commercial trappings. So at Yoodlee, we respect a filmmaker’s vision and do what’s best to express this on screen responsibly.

Anand Tiwari, Founder, Still and Still Media Collective

For me the whole idea of censorship is very difficult to talk about in a one line answer. The censorships we are dealing with, it really depends on the society, the cultural, religious and other aspects of it will really decide the censorship society puts itself through, whether it is censorship regulatory from a government body or whether there is a self-censorship system or whether there is no censorship whatsoever. It is a topic that each country, each society is dealing with in their own rights. Of course, there are times when one system will seem righter than the others to a certain population. We believe that self-censorship is the right way to go. If every content creator out there is responsible with the kinds of stories that they want to put out and the way they want to put them out, they are not showing sex or violence in their stories just to titillate the audience and doing that only when it is an integral part of their story with the proper warnings provided for the discretion of the audience, then there will be no need for government or other bodies to censor any of our content. We at SSMC do believe that self-censorship is the best way to go forward. Self-regulation is very important for a content creator but at the same time, a creator should not restrict themselves to making things that are insular, too safe. We, as artistes, are meant to nudge the society into changing the way they think or at least representing them in the best possible way. Every content creator should have some amount of self-regulation so that we never come to a place where we do not need outside censorship. Of course, this is a utopian dream of mine but if we all start being responsible about it, I think we can demand from our government, in a very fair way, that they need not have a regulatory body above all of us which needs to censor our content. That will happen if every creator is honest to his content.

Vishnu Mohta, Co-Founder, Hoichoi

We do take censorship quite seriously and always do a proper QC of the content before they are uploaded as our intention is to solely provide entertainment and not hurt anyone’s sentiments in the process. The kind of creative liberty video streaming platforms have at the moment, it makes them a fantastic medium to showcase aspiring and inspiring content. As our app caters to 250+ million Bengalis residing worldwide (almost equal to the population of USA), it gets to travel to new horizons. We feel that as long as a platform takes sole responsibility of what they choose to exhibit, and utilise the freedom for the better, a censorship concept shall never be needed. hoichoi, from its inception, has had an internal self-regulatory committee to QC the content produced and acquired to make sure sentiments are not hurt. As mentioned earlier, we are here to entertain and we covet to diversify ourselves for our worldwide audience-base to leave a lasting impression. Self-regulation is a priority for us, especially because our platform is in different countries whose culture and ethnicity differ from each other. Keeping their beliefs in mind, we present and curate content to match and cater to their values and in turn, thrive to become their platform of choice.

Sameer Saxena, Chief Content Officer and Head, TVF Originals

Censorship, in general, is probably not the right word to use. I think the right word to use here is certification. You can certify things; that this kind of content is suitable for this age bracket. But the thing with censorship, as such, is that the word gets used in the wrong context most of the times. I think it has to be more tilted towards certification where you give certificates based on the content, rather than making changes to or cutting the content. I think it’s very appropriate and completely up to the creators, as to how they want to narrate and depict a story and create a piece of content. We, at TVF, have defined boundaries and mostly chosen to keep the majority of our content clean. These are defined by the stories we are telling. For a show like Yeh Meri Family, we know that the concept doesn’t let us do anything that a family audience won’t be comfortable with. With Tripling, we breached that a little, one might see here is a cuss word being used here and there. All of this is based on the content and the story. It is something that we have always followed. Self-censorship is something that we have been doing all this while and will continue to do so. If we come across a story tomorrow that needs a certain kind of language or visuals, we will go ahead and make it. But we won’t make it without any reason or just to grab eyeballs. What is increasingly prevalent these days is people deviating from the thought of creating good content to get eyeballs. We won’t be going down that route. As long as you’re staying true to the story, you should have the flexibility to do what you want to do and tell the story in the manner you want to. Following which, one can then have a certification instead of censorship attached to it. Maybe on an OTT platform where there is no certificate, if you want, you can have a slate in the very beginning. You may want to do that sort of self-regulation.

Sumeet Vyas, Writer-Actor

I am not in favour of censorship of the web as that would also mean censoring information. You would either have to be one of those dictatorship countries, where they censor everything, or fully democratic and allow people to decide for themselves. Put regulations in terms of who can watch a particular type of content. Put in place a process for age verification if you are all that sensitive about content that is out there on web.

Censoring web content is a half-baked idea and it is foolish to consider it just because a bunch of people are making a noise about some web series being too violent or too sexually explicit. That would be a very undemocratic move. Personally, I don’t write content that is sensitive. I do not write political content or content that makes me afraid of being censored.

But I can understand where those who write that kind of content are coming from. Still, I don’t believe that just a few people can decide what is good and what is not for other individuals. I cannot tell you to avoid something even if it is not good for you. It’s suffocating when somebody tells you what to watch and what not to.

Karan Anshuman, Content Creator

Censorship is an obsolete concept that has no place in today’s world. Individuals and their basic freedom should not and cannot be clamped down upon in any manner. It’s as simple as that. An enforced ratings system for films and technology on television and streaming services can go a long way to ensure children are not exposed to the wrong kind of content. As for self-censorship and self-regulation, it is not something that stems from ethics but is motivated by fear: fear of state, authority, and unsaid rules and repercussions resulting from transgressions beyond arbitrary lines drawn in the sand by self-appointed defenders of morality. Society will find equilibrium in their expression if left to their own devices.

Siddharth P Malhotra, Director

If censorship is done the right way, it could turn out to be a good thing. Of course, a lot depends on who is doing the censoring. Right now, there is a lot of content out there on the web whose express intention is to attract eyeballs. As long as the censorship is not random, without any aesthetic understanding of whether the scene needs it or not, I have no problem.

The web is accessed by everyone, from children to elders, and there are some who make pornographic or violent content in the name of web shows. We are a huge population and we have the power via our cinema to influence a lot of people. Filmmakers should therefore act in a responsible way and be accountable.

Vasant Nath, Writer

I believe the freedom we enjoy right now is very precious. It has allowed some of the writing from our country to push boundaries and show that we are at par with the rest of the world when it comes to writing. That is something to be proud of. The only concern I have is when filmmakers misuse this freedom by using explicit material when not necessary. We are all worried about someone going too far and it backfiring on everybody else.

I hope people exercise restraint and let better sense prevail when writing. It is true that sex and violence grab eyeballs, and I see people taking advantage of this. However, our audiences are advanced and are looking for good storytelling; they are not looking for shows that feed off sex. The industry needs to invest in good stories.

Also, self-regulation calls for a balance. It is a fine line. If you respect your material as well as your audience, you will be able to strike that balance.

Swati Singh, Writer

There are many types of censorship. It may be political censorship or censorship of adult content. As far as the Internet is concerned, I do not think there is anything you can do to limit people’s exposure to extreme content of any kind, political or otherwise. So I think it is a losing battle. Earlier, when they tried to curb access to websites that were pornographic in nature, it did not work.

There is talk right now where the UK government has basically said that they are going to try and regulate the library content to keep tabs on how much is made out of England and how much is made for the population over there. Maybe that kind of regulation is acceptable. But censorship of any kind is a no-no. 

There is also the idea of regulating the kind of content which can aid local artistes which can tell streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon to showcase more local stories and to have their libraries full of local content. I am all for that kind of thought when it comes to these two giants that are coming from outside. As far as censoring the content per se, they can try but I do not think that they will be very successful. You cannot regulate the Internet in that sense unless you become a country like China.

Adeeb Rais, Director

As a filmmaker, one of the best advantages of creating content for the digital world is that one does not have to worry about censorship. We are free to tell our story exactly how we want to - without it mandatorily being put under the scanner by a body that may or may not share my sensibilities or those of the audience I am catering to. I feel censorship is a concept that can be completely avoided. 

I also feel it is unfair for a body comprising a handful of people to decide what is and what is not suitable on behalf of everyone. I think every filmmaker anyway does use some form of self-censorship, even if unconsciously, at the scripting and shooting stage. A filmmaker decides how bold he wants to be, in terms of the language or events he chooses to depict. That said, filmmakers should be responsible and make sure they do not cross the line that makes their content disrespectful to any community.

- Bhakti Mehta, Titas Chowdhury

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