NEW DELHI – Bollywood has once again fallen into the crosshairs of India’s nationalist Hindu ruling party – and major western streaming services like Amazon and Netflix are increasingly in the middle.
At the weekend, two separate criminal charges were filed with the police against the makers of “Tandav”, a new web series with a large budget on Amazon. The fast-paced political drama, which seems to borrow heavily from India’s political scene, could get awkwardly close to current events and the country’s major controversies.
The complainants, which include a politician from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, have insisted that the government pull the series off the air or remove key scenes. Among other things, they accused the series of not respecting Hindu gods, disparaging members of individual castes and defiling the office of prime minister.
If the police believe the complaints are well founded, Amazon and the show’s organizers could be brought to a criminal court.
Ali Abbas Zafar, the director of “Tandav”, published a statement on his Instagram account on Monday that the show “is a fiction and any resemblance to actions, people and events is purely coincidental.” However, the statement states that the cast and crew “take note of the concerns expressed by the people and apologize unconditionally if it has inadvertently hurt the feelings of others.”
Officials at Amazon have refused to comment.
Show defenders say these complaints are excuses. The pressure on Amazon to drop the series is part of an increasingly intolerant atmosphere in India that even affects Bollywood, India’s film and entertainment industry. Actors, comedians, producers, artists, and anyone who dares even indirectly question the government can put their careers at risk, they say.
“If you take a stand, you have to pay a price,” said Sushant Singh, a Bollywood actor who has openly fought against several government policies. “You don’t even get surprised these days. And you don’t know how to react anymore. “
These attitudes complicate the ambitions of both Bollywood studios and large corporations to reach a large Indian audience with their laptops and smartphones. Like the Hollywood film industry, Bollywood has increasingly turned to streaming as pandemic restrictions hit the theater business.
Global companies are helping to provide the platforms for Indian viewers. Big streaming services like Amazon, Netflix and Hotstar, which are owned by Disney, have invested heavily in a country where they see great potential for growth.
But at times they got caught in the increasingly restrictive political environment in India.
Two months ago, an on-screen kiss put Netflix in a similar situation. Hindu nationalists were outraged that a series on Netflix showed a Hindu woman kissing a Muslim man in front of a Hindu temple – a scene in which Hindu nationalists felt several taboos were violated. The Hindu nationalists have urged authorities to investigate Netflix and called for a boycott. No charges were filed.
The real objection to “Tandav” may simply be that it is too real. The opening episode looks almost like a newsreel. It ranges from peasant protests to student protests to police killings – all events that have taken place in recent months under the government of Narendra Modi, India’s nationalist Hindu prime minister.
It does not shy away from sensitive topics. In one scene, a fictionalized Indian prime minister belittles a lower-caste politician and touches on the sensitive issue of the ancient Hindu social system.
Even the title of the episode is provocative. It’s called “dictator”.
“They are using abusive language and trying to defame the post of prime minister, which clearly points to our current prime minister,” said Ram Kadam, a BJP lawmaker who filed one of the criminal charges.
The authorities in Uttar Pradesh state, where many police officers were recently killed and led by one of the closest allies of Mr. Modi, a Hindu monk who has become prime minister, appear particularly offended. You said in a file with the local police that the Amazon series portrayed the post of prime minister “in a very indecent way.” On Monday, state officials warned that the filmmakers should “prepare for the arrest”.
In recent months, Mr. Modi’s party officials have stepped up pressure on some of the country’s most successful artists. Critics see this pressure as an attempt to suppress views that challenge the nationalist ideology of Hindus, who seek to turn India into an open Hindu state and marginalize non-Hindu minorities.
Drug authorities have persecuted leading actors on marijuana possession charges. A popular comedian was recently jailed for allegedly joking about Mr Modi’s right-wing husband, Amit Shah, despite the fact that authorities have failed to provide evidence that the comedian said what they claimed.
The pressure extends to other areas of life. An Indian airline pilot and distinguished military veteran was fired this month after tweeted that the prime minister was “an idiot”.
Indian cinema tends to be culturally conservative, with sex scenes and profanity being discouraged by Indian censorship. Until recently, however, online content in India fell into a gray area.
In November, the Indian government ruled that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, currently headed by Prakash Javadekar, a close ally of Mr. Modi, has the power to regulate online content.
Hindu nationalists are now calling on the government to intervene.
Online broadcasts are “full of sex, violence, drugs, abuse, hatred and vulgarity,” wrote Manoj Kotak, a BJP lawmaker, recently in a letter to Mr. Javadekar. He concluded his letter by asking the minister to set up a regulator for online content and “in the meantime to ban the controversial web series ‘Tandav'”.