How Bollywood Beats Censorship: The Power of OTT Platforms

This piece examines the problematic role of the Central Board of Film Certification, Bollywood’s impact on the Indian public and how OTT platforms offer an alternative space through which artistic and cinematic license can be exercised. Limited self-regulation offered to OTT’s is any day better than government censorship and needs to be defended.  

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The medium of film and television has evolved greatly as a consequence of the technological advances in the last decade. The introduction of Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hotstar, has enjoyed immense success, which can be attributed to their user-friendly and convenient interface. When theatres were shut during the pandemic, these services were the only recourse for the film industry and its audience to turn to. Content on OTT platforms does not require prior certification by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Thus, they can produce and air content that would be struck down by the CBFC if it were to be a theatrical release. The existence of video-on-demand gave Bollywood an arena to freely explore and address themes that would otherwise be blocked in the certification process. 

In February 2021, the Indian government introduced rules for OTT platforms to abide by, called the Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code. This broadly requires digital content providers to categorize content based on age groups, including options for parental locks, a three-tier grievance redressal system, and an Indian grievance redressal officer who assumes responsibility in case of a dispute. However, these are self-regulatory introductions and do not invite any intrusions from the Indian system. Of course, this has not stopped people from taking films to court on grounds of obscene language, hurt sentiments or violation of modesty. Case in point Mirzapur. But it is still better than government regulation in my opinion.

In India, Bollywood is seen as a medium through which morality is depicted and evaluated. The political, social, and ethical fabric of this country, however, is so complex that deviating from the prevailing order often culminates in overt unrest. The highly reactionary public immediately takes issue with what does not fit the standards of what is appropriate. Bollywood has for long held a strong grip on the Indian psyche. Most trends, wedding rituals, ideas of romance, etc. are inspired by cinema. It has faced immense criticism for using its influence to only benefit the industry by releasing content that appeases the general public, instead of deconstructing the prejudicial structure of our community.

This can be explained best in the context of sex scenes on screen. The depiction of sex, especially pre-marital, was seen as immoral and could not be freely shown on screen. The censor board wouldn’t have allowed it. To circumvent regulations, filmmakers resorted to creatively alluding to sex or using metaphors for it. When the industry declined in popularity and it became obvious that this would not suffice, they used sexual assault scenes instead for eliciting titillating and licentious emotions, presumably for their male audience. For instance, there is a scene depicting sexual violence against the female protagonist in Zakhmi Aurat (1988) that runs for almost six minutes. This contributed to the normalization of rape culture in India, setting a precedent for the objectification and sexualization of women, especially through violence and stalking. Item numbers are a lasting legacy of this tradition. 

In 2015, an Indian man in an Australian court faced accusations of stalking two women but managed to elude conviction by blaming Bollywood for the behaviour. His argument primarily reflected that since these practices are prevalent in India and glamorized by Bollywood, he could not be blamed. The judges did not press charges, claiming that he cannot be blamed owing to his cultural background. Granted, this judgement comes off as being shaded with notions of white exceptionalism, presenting stalking and harassment as concepts belonging to a third-world country like India. But it cannot be denied that this remains a prominent problem in our country.

Bollywood has changed with time. Movements and societal progression has forced it to evolve moral practices and concepts. There is at least a major backlash towards behaviour that would’ve been accepted before. Bollywood has shifted its approach minimally to align with the changes in the structure of social morality, meaning that the issues persist, but are perpetuated through undertones instead of coming across glaringly. However, films like Kabir Singh (2019) still make the rounds, putting forth heroes that attain heroism through asserting dominance over women.

OTT platforms have allowed the exploration of issues that are considered obscene or transgressive against the current moral and ethical fabric of our country. For example, Class (2023) explores teenage sexuality, drug-related behaviour, as well child neglect and discrimination amongst others. Since Bollywood exerts a powerful influence with regards to shaping the mindset of our citizenry, a series like this stands out since it allows for conversations that scrutinize the complexity of human life without attempting to create binary classifications. Whether the gaps offered by these platforms are being utilised effectively is up for debate, but at least there exists an alternate space for cinematic consumption. The Censor Board needs to reevaluate its history and practice since OTT platforms also require payments, which makes the material available on these sites available only to certain classes. However, OTT platforms have managed to establish themselves as an important instrument through which artistic and cinematic license can be exercise


Sources:

  1. India’s New Rules for Social Media, OTT Platforms  
  2. The New Norms for OTT Platforms, Digital Media
  3.  How Bollywood Normalised Rape Culture | BuzzFeed India
  4. Regulation of OTT Platforms
  5. Bollywood ‘bad influence’ helps Indian man escape

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Urvie Bhattacharya

Urvie is a first year student pursuing literature at the University of Delhi. She’s a blahcksheep because she doesn’t feel like a real person and is angrier than she should be.

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