Could censorship spell the end of Netflix and chill?

By Dushyant Shekhawat

The current government seems to have a give-and-take relationship with the people of this country – we gave them our votes and they seem to be taking away everything we love. I can live under a beef ban and a porn shadowban, and I’ve even survived demonetisation, but now I’m scared they are going to come after the one thing I might actually die without: my Netflix subscription.

This week, a mass panic set in among the people who prefer to spend their weekends prone on the couch. An article in The Print reported that Netflix representatives had met with the officials of the I&B Ministry, and agreed to self-censor its content. Ring the alarm! The best part about online streaming is not having to put up with the puritanical censorship that mangles TV shows and films. We shell out good money for the privilege of watching uncut content, the way its makers intended, so the news of any kind of censorship at all will make subscribers as happy as Yogi Adityanath in a Kansas steakhouse.

Thankfully, before I could split an artery, Netflix denied the story about opting for self-censorship. For this weekend at least, those Netflix and Chill plans can remain in place. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that this a false dawn, just a temporary setback in a long-term plan to muzzle freedom of expression online.

The Self-Censorship Bogeyman

Self-censorship is a bogeyman that has been stalking streaming content in India for months now. It’s almost like Acche Din, you feel it’s right around the corner — the only difference is nobody is waiting for self-censorship to arrive. Since September this year, reports have been floating around about how Video On Demand (VOD) services are likely to adopt an industry-wide set of guidelines to prevent “offensive content” appearing on their platforms.

But what exactly is “offensive” content? A complaint filed in the Delhi High Court accuses VODs like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, and others of airing “vulgar, sexually explicit, pornographic, profane, virulent, religiously forbidden and morally unethical content”. Wow. That’s a lot to unpack in one complaint. But here’s another, this one from a PIL filed before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court in October this year: “The screening of pornographic contents, vulgar gestures and talks are overriding the Indian culture and morality,” it states. These are vague, nebulous accusations, and the people making them sound as clueless as Donald Trump tweeting about Diwali.

CBFC: certification or censorship?

Look no further than former Central Bureau of Film Certification (CBFC) chief Pahlaj Nihalani’s petition for proof. In arguing against cuts made to his most-recent film, he tried the schoolboy gambit of “but teacher he was yelling louder!” by attempting to paint VODs as amoral peddlers of filth. Here’s an extract from the petition, reproduced verbatim: “It is an unhidden fact that recently, a company known as Netflex started a Website known as ‘Secret Game’ which has become very popular however, all the films and programmes shown in the said website are purely adult programme and it could be said the same are in the nature of blue films.” Such a savvy man. Clearly, Pahlaj is too sanskari to Netflix and Chill, but can we really blame him? The poor guy mixed up website with web series. This is the man who was in charge of India’s film certification board not too long ago.

With great minds like Pahlaj Nihalani dictating what adults are allowed to watch, it’s no wonder that TV shows and movies being broadcast in India feel neutered. I tried watching Gladiator on Star Movies, but they cut out the best parts of every action scene. Because of course, Russell Crowe can stab someone, but I’m not allowed to see the blood. The madness doesn’t stop at TV, but extends to movie theatres as well. And it’s not just violence, but anything which might offend the sanskari sensibilities of our state-appointed nannies. The poor version of 007 who swaggers into Indian theatres must have the world’s worst case of blue balls, since the camera always cuts away right after he locks lips with one of the Bond girls. And even in films which have been awarded an A certificate such as A Star in Born, Lady Gaga’s breasts are blurred.

This points to an unsettling tendency of the establishment to simply proscribe anything that doesn’t suit its perspective. We are a nation that fails to understand the concept of regulation. Our first resolve is censorship, and somehow the ones in power believe that is a solution. The behaviour of the CBFC is a symptom of this attitude. A body meant originally for certification, the CBFC has of its own volition assumed the role of censor, banning films outright like they did with Black Friday, or demanding wanton cuts and delaying releases like they did with Lipstick Under My Burkha. The approach of our moral custodians to art can be summed up by the mantra, “If we can’t understand, or of it makes us uncomfortable, then it must be banned.”

Apart from the obvious fallout of this censorship reaching VOD services (GoT episodes will be half their length, duh), there is another long-term danger to VOD regulation. A piece in The Guardian titled “Web Censorship: The Net is Closing In” paints a bleak portrayal of what could happen if states are allowed to clamp down on internet services unchecked. VOD regulation is one of the first steps on the road to the “Balkanisation of the internet,” where the internet is no longer a borderless, global, egalitarian platform, but an interconnected network of intranets, each adhering to its own set of regulations that deprive users access to information and entertainment their governments don’t want them seeing. “What started as the world wide web will begin to look more like the world itself, full of internal divisions and divergent interests,” the report warns.

Just like the free press, the free internet is also under threat. We’re on the cusp of what could be a transformative time in the history of how we view content online, and entertainment as we know it might never be the same. This could be our reality sooner than we think.

I’ll start preparing for the end of Netflix and Chill. But can I just please watch the final season of GoT in peace?

Dushyant Shekhawat is an author with Arré and really likes his mustache. He grew it himself. You can find him somewhere between “Here” and “Now”.

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