On Tuesday, Tandav became the first web series streaming on a major OTT platform to edit its content after direct intervention from the government. Two scenes regarding which complaints had been made and were mentioned in an FIR filed in Lucknow have now been edited out.
It was also the first such intervention by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry since OTT platforms and news on digital platforms came under its purview on November 11, 2020. Before that, no ministry had direct oversight over them.
The I&B Ministry summoned Amazon Prime and the show’s makers for an explanation even before the first FIR was filed against it, in Lucknow on Sunday night. Since then, several other FIRs have been filed against Tandav, in UP, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The complainants include BJP MLA (Ghatkopar West, Mumbai) Ram Kadam. Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said formal action would be taken in accordance with the law.
On Wednesday, the Bombay High Court granted three-week transit pre-arrest bail to Tandav director Ali Abbas Zafar, producer Himanshu Krishna Mehra, writer Gaurav Solanki and Amazon Prime content head Aparna Purohit, as a police team reached from Uttar Pradesh for a probe in connection with the Lucknow FIR filed against the four.
The four said they feared arrest, and submitted that the content in question has been removed and they did not want to stir any further controversy.
While several OTT shows have been accused of offending religious sensibilities or maligning political personalities earlier as well, the complainants had either gone to court or filed an FIR before the government’s stand was sought.
Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hotstar, three of the largest OTT players in the country, did not respond to queries from The Indian Express on the government’s direct intervention like this, and its potential impact.
Before it brought OTT platforms under its purview, the government had asked them to come up with a self-regulatory body and code. However, a model suggested by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, and a proposed Digital Curated Content Complaints Council, had not got government approval, with the ministry stating these lacked independent third-party monitoring, didn’t have a well-defined code of ethics, and did not clearly enunciate prohibited content.
While television also has a self-regulatory body and code, the I&B Ministry, based on complaints or inputs by its Electronic Media Monitoring Centre, can punish channels for violations of the Cable TV Network (Regulations) Act. However, the show is given an opportunity to respond, and a decision is taken by an inter-ministerial committee.
The I&B Ministry held two meetings with director Zafar and producer Mehra, on Monday and Tuesday, following which they issued a statement saying they would change the content that had drawn complaints, and thanked the government for its “guidance” and “support”. The makers also issued an apology for “unintentionally” hurting anyone’s sentiments.
The first of the two scenes edited out of Tandav — both are in the first episode of the nine-part series — features the protagonist named Shiva Shekhar (actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), playing the role of Lord Shiva in his college play, wearing trousers, T-shirt, rudraksh mala and bearing a trishul, with a cross painted across his face. He is discussing with another student playing Narad Muni the rising popularity of Lord Ram, during which he uses a cuss word that had been beeped out. Shiva goes on to address students in the audience directly and, in an obvious reference to the JNU ‘sedition’ row, asks what they want “azadi (freedom)” from.
The second scene that is now removed has ‘Prime Minister’ Devaki Nandan (actor Tigmanshu Dhulia) speaking disparagingly to a Dalit politician, Kailash Kumar (Anup Soni).
In their submission to the Bombay High Court, the Tandav makers said the Lucknow FIR does not make any direct/indirect allegations against them in their individual capacity. Additional Public Prosecutor Yogesh Nakhwa opposed their plea, saying the accused should appear before a Lucknow court and seek relief there. After hearing the submissions, the court granted transitory anticipatory bail for three weeks.
The UP Police team that is in Mumbai wants to record statements of people affiliated with Tandav, and has sought support from the Mumbai Police. A member of the UP team said they saw Tandav during their train journey to Mumbai.
The Lucknow FIR has been filed under IPC Sections 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups), 295 (injuring or defiling place of worship), 505 (1) (B) (public mischief) and 469 (forgery), and the Information Technology Act.
The complaint registered by BJP MLA Kadam names Zafar, Mehra, Solanki, actor Saif Ali Khan, Purohit and Amazon India country head Amit Agarwal. The FIR in Jabalpur, MP, was filed by a little-known Hindu outfit.
Other major OTT shows that have had complaints filed against them include Sacred Games (like Tandav, also featuring Saif Ali); A Suitable Boy; Paatal Lok; Leila; and Mirzapur, among others. Congress leaders had been among the complainants against Sacred Games, alleging insult to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. A Suitable Boy faced the heat for a scene of a Muslim man kissing a Hindu woman at a temple; while a BJP MLA had filed a case against Paatal Lok makers for using his photograph. A Shiv Sena member had filed a complaint against Leila for allegedly defaming the country.
In February last year, Hotstar had blocked out an episode of American show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.