Mind your language, the censor board is watching

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on November 06, 2020

Cut it out When censorship comes to OTT platforms, shows such as Sacred Games (left, a still from the series) will suffer collateral damage when censorship comes to OTT platforms   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NETFLIX

Web dramas spouting cuss words gratuitously are likely to invite the heavy hand of censorship

* They cram their productions with such execrable sex and violence that even the most ardent seeker of artistic freedom would yearn for some leash. Profanities fly freely, leading many to wonder if there is a need to tame producers of online film content.

Like me, if you’ve just finished watching the second season of Mirzapur, I have a question for you: Did you go all giddy at the torrent of profanities that littered its 10 episodes? Or did you applaud the makers of the Amazon Prime series for capturing the common argot of the streets?

It made me all woolly-headed and, midway through the series, I considered quitting watching. Someone with a little time on hand should count the number of mother and sister abuses in Hindi gratuitously spouted in Mirzapur 2; it must be a record.

No, my idea is not to single out Mirzapur 2. Far too many over-the-top (OTT) series and films have shed all notions of restraint and turned profane. It must be liberating for the content producers of these web series to be outside the bounds of censorship. For long, Indian film directors have had to deal with the savagery and idiosyncrasies of censorship. For them to suddenly have a platform where film content goes uncensored must be cathartic.

Sadly, however, many producers have gone rogue. They cram their productions with such execrable sex and violence that even the most ardent seeker of artistic freedom would yearn for some leash. In particular, profanities fly freely, leading many to wonder if there is a need to tame producers of online film content.

Unsurprisingly, voices in the government are growing in favour of censoring content and it is unlikely to be long before OTT films and series too get bowdlerised. The OTT platforms had earlier signed up to impose a self-regulatory code of best practices under the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), but after a slew of complaints, the ministry of information and broadcasting, straining at the leash to regulate at the best of times, is ready to step in and wield the shears.

To be sure, the voices in favour of censoring web series are mostly protesting what they see as Hindu-phobic content. Several of these groups had earlier found Paatal Lok, the brilliant police procedural-cum-thriller on Amazon Prime, biased against Hindus and had sought its ban. More recently, some of these groups objected to a series called XXX Uncensored on grounds of patriotism and claimed it disrespected the Indian armed forces. All the series did was to show the wife of an army officer cheating on her husband. Zee5 and Alt Balaji, who had jointly produced the show, quickly deleted the ‘offending’ scenes.

In another instance, the same groups found fault with Chippa — an amiable film on Netflix about a boy in search of his father in Kolkata — claiming that it insulted Hindu gods. Director Safdar Rahman had to delete some scenes.

The offensive from so-called ‘Hindu’ groups is expectedly being taken by the hyper-patriotic government with utmost seriousness. The door is ready to be slammed on the glasnost we were experiencing for the past four years since the arrival of OTT content. The self-regulation proposed by IAMAI was always untenable.

Not so long ago, I decided to watch a series called Undekhi (meaning ‘unseen’) on Sony Liv. Reasonably absorbing dramaturgy, but just so littered with crude execrations that it left me wanting to watch it on mute, making it unsunee (unheard) too.

Just tryZee5, Alt Balaji, Voot, MX Player, Jio Cinema, et al; the film content is mostly dismal. Shows such as Gandii Baat, Kavita Bhabhi, Virgin Bhasskar, Ragini MMS: Returns, Mastram, and Mona Home Delivery have explicit scenes and profanities galore. These risqué dramas are aimed at taking advantage of the collapse of theatrical film shows because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Expecting these platforms to self-regulate could scarcely have been anything more than a forlorn hope.

Unsurprisingly, the rising trope of sex and violence in sundry web series is being cited as a contributory factor in the rise of crimes in real life. When censorship comes to OTT platforms, as it will, it is layered and cerebral shows such as Paatal Lok and Sacred Games that will suffer. That’s always been cinema’s bugbear; the good and the bad are lumped together and punished. Historically, even in a heavily censored environment, films have been accused of promoting crime.

Just as an example, cast your mind back to 2015, when director Pahlaj Nihalani was appointed head of the censor board in what was widely perceived to be a farcial move, given the short films he had produced venerating PM Modi in the 2014 elections. Nihalani set about with his pair of sharp scissors, loquaciously talking about how he disapproved of films glorifying crime and how he would weed out onscreen cussing. So, we had the ‘f’ word beeped out and curses and double entendres deleted. He famously told a producer who protested cuts in his film to use words such as mirchi (chillies) or maikalaal (mother’s son) in place of abuses — as an easy way out.

Nihalani’s harebrained ideas went out the window with him. Meanwhile, profanities have been snowballing. But their excessive and indiscriminate use threatens to bring OTT producers in an inevitable conflict with the censors.

Restraint would have helped web-based film content. Instead they are going potty mouth with a vengeance.

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

Published on November 05, 2020

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