Aishwarya Ramesh
Points of View

Will tension around Amazon Prime's 'Tandav' tighten the I&B's noose around OTT content?

The show has come under the scanner due to its references to religion and caste.

Amazon Prime Video’s latest webseries ‘Tandav’, that premiered on the platform on on Friday (January 15), has come under the scanner over its references to religion and caste. Specifically, a couple days after its release, BJP MP Manoj Kotak tweeted that he had officially written to Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar asking for a ban on the series, because according to him, it contains scenes that “mock Hindu Gods”.

BJP member Kapil Mishra also filed a complaint for the removal of the web series from Amazon Prime Video's platform.

Yesterday, hashtags ‘Tandav’, ‘Ban Tandav’ were trending in the morning, and ones like ‘Remove’ and ‘Remove Tandav’, in the evening, on Twitter.

The cast and crew of Tandav also issued an official statement –

"We have been closely monitoring viewer reactions to the web series 'Tandav' and today during a discussion, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting have informed us regarding a large number of grievances and petitions received on various facets of the web series with serious concerns and apprehensions regarding its content hurting the sentiments of the people.
The web series 'Tandav' is a work of fiction and any resemblance to acts and persons and events is purely coincidental. The cast and crew did not have any intention to 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 and crew of 'Tandav' take cognizance of the concerns expressed by the people and unconditionally apologize if it has unintentionally hurt anybody's sentiments. "

Recall that in November 2020, The Government of India brought digital news apps and OTT platforms under the purview of the I&B ministry.

In 2019, Prime Video’s rival Netflix was in a similar spot when Delhi BJP spokesperson Tajinder Bagga filed a police complaint against one of the directors of the series, Anurag Kashyap for "intentionally hurting Sikh sentiments by adding a scene which disrespects Sikh religious symbol Kada".

The scene that Bagga referenced in his complaint was one where the protagonist - policeman Sartaj Singh (essayed by Saif Ali Khan) takes off his Kada (a traditional bracelet) and throws it into the sea.

The first season of the show also faced controversy as one dialogue in one of the episodes references late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a derogatory way. A Congress member from West Bengal filed a complaint with the Kolkata Police. The complainant also accused the show’s makers of "misrepresenting facts during his regime".

While those in the business of content creation and production have consistently been vocal about their preference for certification over censorship, one wonders whether the ongoing tension around this webseries may accelerate efforts to censor content put out on OTT platforms.

Edited excerpts.

Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO, Ormax Media

The OTT space is no stranger to controversy – this happened before with Amazon Prime’s show Pataal Lok too. I think the nature of social media is that you can orchestrate a trend or some people can start a trend and others will join in. A lot of times, this is not necessarily representative of a view of the vast majority of people who might not have a problem with something at all.

On its own, I don’t think any property creates that sense of getting the (I&B) ministry to act – they’ve anyway given an indication that they don’t want to get into censorship. Rather, they are pushing a policy of self-censorship or self-regulation. There’s also a question of how much time this policy will take to come out because the OTT sphere has just come in under the I&B ministry recently.

Shailesh Kapoor
Shailesh Kapoor

It’s impossible for the Ministry to watch every piece of content, available on the Indian internet, in a bid to regulate it. Forget Amazon or Netflix – YouTube itself has 1000s of hours of content and it’s not possible for the I&B Ministry to watch it all, review, and regulate it. They might look at a set of guidelines rather than censorship.

There were a lot of people who didn’t have a problem with Tanishq’s latest ad but that doesn’t mean they’ll start a counter-trend supporting the company.

Also Read: Why did social media call for a boycott of jewellery brand Tanishq?

If you talk to a normal OTT audience, they may not have such a strong view on things. And this gives people (trolls) a false sense of success, encouraging others to jump on to trends.

I don’t think OTT platforms are too worried about this though. A few months ago, Akshay Kumar’s film Laxxmi Bomb also faced similar criticism over its title containing the name of a goddess, but it was handled and the movie was released. People don’t even remember that now. These kinds of trends can also die down really fast.

Poonam Kaul, film producer of The Last Color (former Apple India CMO)

Everything in the country today has become polarised - black or white – there’s no space for the in between. If you are pro government-led policies, you are seen as a rightist and if you’re anti-government led policies, you’re a leftist. Anything you say could be trolled either way - and the same extends to content too.

Also Read: Have bullies and bigots taken Tanishq's advertising hostage?

I haven’t seen Tandav as yet but going from the initial reactions - some say it’s a good show whereas others claim it’s an attack on religious sentiments. I say, let content be. You have to put certain regulations around it, but everything today is becoming politicised, trolled– that’s my concern. Let’s not polarise and politicise content.

Poonam Kaul - producer of the film The Last Color
Poonam Kaul - producer of the film The Last Color

Take the Tanishq ad for example – look at how that simple ad with a beautiful narrative got trolled. Pulling the ad off by Tanishq was a knee jerk reaction and playing to the trolls. I think somewhere people/ organisations have to start taking a stance for what they believe in.

Also Read: Learning from the Tanishq episode: When ads cause controversy, should brands stand by the work or apologise?

Thanks to internet access, people can watch content from all over the world, so what will you achieve by censoring content from India? Putting a noose around content out of India is not going to be solution, and it’s not the right thing to do. That’s the point where self-regulation has to come in.

Also Read: The OTT Censorship Scare: What’s In Store in 2021?

If you look at theatrical released films, you have a censor board that gives certifications to films such as ‘A’ or ‘U/A’, if a character is smoking or consuming liquor in the film there has to be a disclaimer – this is absolutely fine. This is the norm in most of the other countries also, but going beyond this level will end up stifling content.

Look at the kind of brilliant content that is being generated on the internet today, it has new standards are being set for creativity. If we try and curtail that, we’ll be going back in time.

Kushal Sanghvi, former India Lead – Integral Ad Science (ex-business head, Reliance Entertainment and Digital)

When I watched the show, I was quite surprised that Amazon Prime had given a nod for this type of show on their platform. It has sensitive footage of the parliament, from protests and so on.

However, it’s still early days for this show. Many people still haven’t seen it and it’s entirely possible that the people who are part of the OTT ecosystem haven’t seen it yet. I expect that there might be action taken sometime this week.

Dr Kushal Sanghvi
Dr Kushal Sanghvi

Divisive sentiments among states and religions are gaining steam, especially on social media. People are doing it just for the sake of building conversation and influence; a lot of people are interested in taking that route. It’s a bit of a dampener for those who actually do want to enjoy shows and content without judgment.

Also Read: Religion, Twitter trolls and the great Indian brand apology note…

Unfortunately, when the content created manifests itself into this divisive way of thinking - it will have a compounding effect on our thought process when it comes to creating content. This will affect conversations on the editing table, and while writing the storyline of these pieces.

Also Read: "We really aimed for a killer pilot": Vikramaditya Motwane on Sacred Games

The director, Ali Abbas Zafar has written quite a few famous Bollywood movies (Khali Peeli, Dear Zindagi, Sultan, Bharat, Tiger Zinda Hai) and this is his first foray into the OTT space. It appears as if he was given a free hand on the platform, the content might have been more censored otherwise.

The effect of the controversy surrounding Tandav may have an impact on content that portrays India in particular. This means that content that references our constitution, the Republic of India, the people in power, the people voting, might come under the scanner. The Minstry might step in, in some capacity but let’s hope they don’t come down too hard.