Are online shows obscene?

Should content on online platforms such as Netflix be monitored and censored? How can they show nudity when films made for the cinema halls can’t, a petition wants to know

Kiara Advani and Vicky Kaushal in Lust Stories, a film produced for Netflix. It featured explicit lovemaking scenes, as did Sacred Games, the sensationally successful series about a Mumbai underworld don played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

Last Friday, the Bombay High Court issued a notice to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting over a public interest case seeking regulation of content online.

The petitioner, Divya Ganeshprasad Gontia, finds content on online platforms such as Netflix “vulgar and obscene.” The PIL argues that broadcasting nude or vulgar scenes in a cognisable offence under the Indian Penal Code, the Cinematograph Act, Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act of 1986 and the Information Technology Act of 2000.

Advocate Shyam Dewani, the petitioner’s lawyer in Mumbai, spoke extensively to Metrolife about the case.

“There is a falling standard when it comes to web series nowadays. It started with just movies but now, with the form becoming popular, competitors have started making other shows. The more liberal the forum became, the more obscene the content became,” he says. Many shows are now vulgar and hurt religious sentiments. There must be some restriction, he argues.

No web series can be above the law and creators should follow guidelines, Dewani contends.

“There are extensive advertisements promoting shows on these online portals and even children have access to them. Other countries have regulations like parental control, for example, so why can’t we?” he says. 

Shows like ‘Gandi Baat’ on ALTBalaji and ‘Sacred Games’ on Netflix feature ‘vulgar content,’ and are offensive to women, the petition alleges.

One of the ways in which this could be curbed, the petitioner argues, is for the I&B ministry to set up a pre-screening committee for web shows, films and other content released directly on these platforms. 

Even though these shows have been marked ‘18+’ as their certification, there is no authority making the certification, says Dewani.

“Who are you to self-certify your own show? If content for movies also followed the pattern, there would be a huge hue and cry. So regulating it is all we are asking for,” he says. 

Akriti Bopanna, policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, says it is true that sections of the IPC say you can’t broadcast nudity and vulgar content. 

“Because online portals directly publish on the Internet, there is no one to check them. There’s a sense that since there’s no censor board, they can get away with anything,” she says. 

The audiences are different for online platforms, however.

“While we see films that are bold and good for society, there are others that are the complete opposite. There are no hard and fast rules to say if this is good or bad for freedom of speech. Right now, this could go either way,” she says. 

Here’s what others in the entertainment industry say.

 

Danish Sait, Actor: Moral policing isn’t good

“I’ve grown to realise that we can’t have a blanket rule to anything in our country. The online medium is the one section of society that is desperately trying to be liberal but that’s also under the scanner now. I understand that kids are exposed to and impacted by the digital world, in which case, this doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. But it also feels like everything is looked at from a moral policing point of view. Even I find some shows explicit. But as an adult, I make the choice to move on. I think this can be solved if there is parental control. So, for the rest of the world, live and let live.”

 

Kubbra Sait, Actor (Cuckoo in Sacred Games)They shouldn't dictate terms

“Censoring online content is unfair. If the content is not something that causes any communal rift or affects the peace and dynamics of our country or society, it should not be censored. We need the authorities to give us guidelines on who can consume it, but they shouldn’t dictate what the content should be. 

Children are uploading videos of harming themselves, and that is not regulated. Artistes have reached where they have now because they broke barriers set in the past. If a committee starts dictating things to us, we will go back to regressive content. We used to applaud husbands slapping their wives for infidelity, and understood that two bobbing flowers was a symbol of sex. It’s 2018 and we’ve evolved. So please give us the freedom somewhere. Let me choose the content I want and watch it where I want.”

 

Rasika Dugal, Actor: Don't curb free expression
“I have never been in favour of censorship. I feel you should consume
and make sense of the material according to your own sensibility. But there seems to be an understanding in society that some things need regulation. As an artiste, I am against that. Having said that, if there are already certain checks and balances in place, which aren’t curbing your freedom of expression,
then it shouldn’t be a problem. I hope, when this eventually rolls out, it doesn’t become a place from which everything is looked at from a moral
high ground and doesn’t take away from your freedom of expression.”

 

Pawan Kumar, Director: Self-censorship works better

“At the end of the day, censorship is a personal choice. No matter how much the government does whatever it does, people will find a way to watch what they want. By restricting like this, I think you are only affecting creative jobs. There could be good content that we might miss out on. Then again, content creators will always find newer ways to bring out their stories, whether it
is adult-oriented or sensitive issue-oriented. The more you barricade it, the more new mediums will come out. It’s an on-going journey. I think what should probably be done is to educate one about self-censorship; you decide what to watch and not to.”

 

Why the furore?

Many films and series on Netflix feature explicit scenes of lovemaking. The narratives of Lust Stories and Sacred Games are spiced with scenes rarely seen before on the big screen in India. Content for web content is not screened by any authority, and therefore enjoys greater freedom than regular films, which must go through a certification process controlled by the government.

Ball in court

The High Court has sought responses from the ministries of information technology, law and home affairs. They have to respond by October 31.

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