The recent release of Amazon Prime Video’s “Tandav” created enormous controversy in India. Many viewers accused the show of offending religious sentiments. “Tandav” is a political drama with several popular Indian actors including Saif Ali Khan who also starred in the contentious “Sacred Games” and Dimple Kapadia who was seen in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” The actors ran into trouble when, in six different states, multiple police cases were filed (FIRs) against the program’s creators and cast.
The fictional series’ focuses on clashes between a political leader and a student activist. In the two scenes causing the most backlash, one actor portrays the Hindu Lord Shiva using objectionable language; in the other, an actor portrays the Prime Minister insulting a leader of a less privileged class, which is viewed as discriminatory.
The rising number of complaints against the show prompted India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to summon Amazon Prime Video Executives for questioning and an explanation of the controversial content in the series. Director Ali Abbas Zafar released a statement apologizing for any unintentional disrespect caused by the show. Following a second round of talks with the Ministry, Zafar released a statement on Twitter confirming that the disputed scenes will be dropped from the series, effectively resulting in censorship.
Despite the public mea culpas, criticism mounted forcing creators and cast to ask India’s Supreme Court for interim protection from arrest, which the apex court denied. In its ruling, the court emphasized that “freedom of speech is not absolute” and “You cannot play the role of character that hurts the sentiments of a community.” Given the intensity of grievances against “Tandav” and other streaming platform content (“Mirzapur”), the Information and Broadcasting Ministry announced that they would soon provide official guidelines to regulate content available on these services.
There have been numerous attempts of censorship in India; film and/or series content is flagged for containing material deemed objectionable. Netflix faced a boycott when in its series “A Suitable Boy,” one of the episodes depicted a Muslim man kissing a Hindu woman allegedly within the premises of a temple. The scene hurt the sentiments of people of a particular religion and resulted in filing of police cases against the Vice President of Content and Director of Public Policies at Netflix India.
Ultimately, in a country as vast and varied as India, some content is bound to be offensive to certain parts of the population. Self-regulation, as practiced internationally is surely the way forward to protect the freedom of expression guaranteed by the India’s Constitution. Following this path will not only enhance the credibility of the media industry, but also inspire confidence in the responsibility of the content creators while protecting their independence and lessening the pressure on the judiciary.