As a good sickular libtard, I have taken in a huge amount of Netflix and other OTT platforms since March. That’s where the planet has not screeched to a halt, in which life does not skulk around behind masks and a six-foot distance, in which the breath that keeps us alive does not kill us.
But lockdown only threw the lure of a good story into sharper relief — it has always been irresistibly powerful, from the time when we huddled in caves and told stories around the fire to keep the nameless horrors of night at bay. Storytelling, dance, art, music, are atavistic human impulses. Plot, imagination, nuance, humour, beauty, wisdom, truth, that thing about someone else’s journey that finds resonance with your own, as well as that thing about someone else’s journey that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. The most powerful stories reflect some truth, perhaps challenge received wisdom, introduce you to other ways of being, move you. They push the envelope of your own thought and experience. They expand your humanity.
That is why art is so often uncomfortable and thrilling, and why we have so many forms of it, whether visual, textual, or performed. That is also why authority and orthodoxy doesn’t like art that challenges its worldview.
Modi’s government, always eager to take the country a giant step backwards, wants to bring Netflix and other digital content under government regulation. That’s taking things far beyond the usual individual crank lawsuit. It naturally sets the ground for rank abuse of power targeting some of the best independent journalism and commentary in today’s India (that’s a whole other column). But it also opens storytelling to the censorship of two kinds of powerful bonehead: one whose idea of art and entertainment is a kind of sanitised playpen filled with shiny plastic toys and religious pap; and a second who can whip up “antinational” intentions, religious malice, sedition, or moral depravity in art, and use it to further a political ideology.
The furore about a Hindu woman kissing a Muslim man near a temple in A Suitable Boy is less because of a carnal moment in a sacred space, and more because it suits the BJP to push the fabricated idea of “love jihad” to regulate love, whip up hate, divide, and dominate.
Censorship does not expand, it limits. It does not protect, it punishes. It does not lift society, it crushes its voices. It’s one thing to have a vigorous debate about art, to dislike and disagree with it. But to clip its wings when it is not physically hurtful to anyone, is to clip spirit and possibility.
The Modi government loves ideological and moral policing, and the mere idea of getting embroiled in lawsuits has a chilling effect on creativity. Remember the Tanishq ad? The Supreme Court recently said, of Arnab Goswami, that if you don’t like him, don’t watch him. If that can apply to a news channel whose daily endeavour is to foment social division, that same element of self-preserving choice applies to arts and entertainment.
Adults live lives full of grit, imperfection, sex, disagreement, violence, dissent, swearing, pluralism, moral and ethical greyness, and ideological heterogeneity. Art should be free to reflect that, and adults should be free to experience it. Indian audiences have taken to Netflix like ducks to water because while they might also enjoy television and movie theatre releases in which words like ‘ass’ are censored, most adults have an ability—and the right—to watch something in which people swear, or conduct intercaste or interfaith, or non-heteronormative relationships, or plot to overthrow a government, or gamble, without their heads exploding. If the non-paid social media response to the idea of regulating OTT platforms says anything, it is this: Stop infantilising adults.