Early in January 2019, several online video streaming platforms – amongst them Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar, and Eros Now – decided to self-censor content on their platforms for Indian viewers based on some general guiding principles. Soon enough, viewers on these platforms reported several scenes blurred in various movies. What are the possible implications of this move?
One argument is that this only brings online video streaming platforms at par with movie theatres and cinema halls. In India, all movies and series must be mandatorily certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) before they are allowed to be screened in movie theatres, cinema halls, or on TV. The CBFC often orders some scenes to be cut or blurred out, failing which viewership is restricted to an adult audience only, or worse still, the film is not allowed to be screened at all. Scenes which are even remotely “obscene”, substantially against social morality, or which have the potential to create social friction are frequently the target of such restrictions. The CBFC’s ambit, however, does not extend to films streamed online. This attempt at self-censorship, based on general guiding principles which largely reflect how films are censored by the CBFC in practice, will – in theory – bring films streamed online on these platforms at par with those screened in movie theatres, cinema halls, and on TV.
The concept of self-censorship is not new. Advertisers, newspapers, TV channels, and other content publishers and disseminators across the world engage in varying levels of restraint in the content they publish, i.e. self-censorship, in-house or through a common self-regulatory mechanism set by a professional body. For instance, advertisers in India abide by the standards set by the Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory professional body constituted by advertisers and their representatives themselves. This policy of self-censorship by video streaming platforms is hence not unprecedented in the Indian media industry. However, it does raise its own, unique set of concerns.
First, the unofficial ‘code’ video streaming platforms have committed themselves to at the moment is too vague, general, and broad. It risks building into the process a large degree of discretion, which may manifest itself as arbitrariness. At worst, it may lead to several versions of the same movie or series airing on different platforms. That will surely have disastrous business implications.
Second, there is a glaring lack of an appeals process. Video streaming platforms appear to have carte blanche so far as self-censorship is concerned. An appeals process needs to be built in for the same reason courts of appeal exist – as a remedy against fallible human judgment.
Third, where are the filmmakers? Excluding filmmakers and film professionals from the process of censorship leads to peculiar, laughable results. For a case in example, consider the Amazon Prime Original series, The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. Mrs. Maisel routinely uses expletives while performing as a comedian – that is part of her unique charm. She even exposed her breasts before a club audience while performing an act. These acts get her arrested twice for public indecency, but she continues with them, largely unchanged. That is her unique charm, and it is a central quirk of the character. Now imagine if these expletives were to be censored, and the scene where Mrs. Maisel exposed her breasts cut out. It would strike at the core of the personality of the central character of a show, and therefore ruin the entire show completely. The persons best qualified to appreciate such artistic and cinematic nuances are film professionals, not tech corporates sitting in the air-conditioned offices of a video streaming platform. Delegating the job of censorship to non-film professionals risks this nuance of filmmaking getting lost in the process of censorship.
Self-censorship by online video streaming platforms raises some critical concerns which need to be addressed. It is imperative that online video streaming platforms come up with a clearer, more specific and well-defined code to be guided by while censoring content. An appeals process – both in-house and, at the level of a self-constituted professional body – should be built into such a code. Film professionals must be involved in the entire process of framing a code. Content does not fall on a binary scale of obscene/not obscene. Cinematic nuances, amply illustrated by the example – for instance – of The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, need to be kept in mind both while framing the code and during self-censorship.
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