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Technology and censorship

Netflix v Modi and the battle for Indian cinema’s soul

Streaming platforms gave Indian filmmakers newfound freedoms, which are now under threat from Modi's government.

conceptual illustration

One afternoon before the pandemic, I went to a decommissioned hospital in West London to meet the Hindi film director Anurag Kashyap on the set of his new Netflix production. The old maternity unit where he was filming had never been entirely cleared out. Members of his crew, recently arrived from Mumbai, were maneuvering around vestigial baby cots and gurneys. As an assistant director shouted out instructions in Hindi and English, Kashyap had a word with his lead actress, who was lying supine on a bed in a blue hospital gown. The actress, a former model with hooded eyes and high cheekbones, nodded without changing her position. Then, just as unobtrusively, Kashyap made his way behind the monitor.

Kashyap has developed a cult following in India since his first Hindi film, Paanch (Five), was banned for extreme violence in 2003. He has written, directed, and produced dozens of films for Bollywood. When Netflix launched in India in 2016, it hired Kashyap to co-direct its first original series, Sacred Games, about an underworld don in Mumbai who ensnares an upright police officer. As soon as Season 1 landed, it was obvious that the platform had a superhit on its hands.

The series, based on a novel by Vikram Chandra, a popular Indian novelist who now lives in Berkeley, California, starred A-list Hindi film actors. Since streaming services weren’t, at the time, subject to the rules of India’s Central Board of Film Certification, Kashyap was able to transcend the grammar of Bollywood. His characters engaged with each other naturally—they swore, they talked politics, they had sex. To viewers exhausted by the predictable spectacles of Bollywood song and dance, Sacred Games was a thrill. The series marked the first time that streaming in India became more than just another source of light entertainment, like YouTube, or a vehicle for international shows.

Anurag Kashyap
Anurag Kashyap plays himself in the 2020 film AK vs AK.

Netflix was so pleased, Kashyap told me, that it gave him a bonus. “That’s why I can buy new shoes!” he said with a laugh, gesturing at his fresh high-tops with the tip of his cigarette. India is often described as the world’s largest democracy, but freedom of expression has never existed there as it does in the West. To Kashyap, Netflix represented a promise not only of wealth but, more important, of liberty.

This promise is important not just to Kashyap and other filmmakers, but to the 1.4 billion people living in India. Well-resourced cinema and television that can grapple with the issues of the day matter to the culture of a nation. Netflix represents a threat to the conservative, Hindu-nationalist worldview of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government has recently renewed a campaign of censorship and intimidation against Kashyap and others like him. The rise of Netflix in India is a story of why technology matters: not as an end in itself, but as a means of artistic—and human—flourishing.

The censorship of Indian films began in 1918, when the British set out to protect prudish Victorian social norms along with colonial interests. They objected both to the “unnecessary exhibition of feminine underclothing” and to “subjects dealing with India, in which British or Indian officers are seen in an odious light,” according to journalist Uday Bhatia. By 1920 India had several regional censor boards, whose members were told to be watchful for “sensitive issues” and “forbidden scenes,” writes Someswar Bhowmik. By the 1940s, kissing had all but disappeared from movies. Independence changed the nature of this repression but did not eliminate it. The press and cinema continued to be censored, most stringently from 1975 to 1977, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties for a 21-month period. After Gandhi was voted out in 1977, a period of relative openness followed.

The climate changed again in 1996, when Hindu nationalists objected to Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s film Fire, which portrays a lesbian relationship. The film was approved by the censors, but mobs defaced public property, thrashed people, and threw Molotov cocktails. Cinema owners canceled most screenings. Thereafter Bollywood stuck to a script: action, romance, and some tears, all wrapped in music and dance performances. The censor board focused on kissing, so filmmakers found other ways to attract audiences. “Why do you think we have so much vulgarity, songs, dances, pelvic thrusts, bathroom fantasies, and dream sequences?” one director asked in 2002. “Because you won’t allow a simple kiss.” The censor board was appeased, and so were conservative activist groups, and a winning formula was born. Although there were occasional exceptions, the world’s largest film industry settled into a rut.

Deepa Mehta
Director Deepa Mehta, on set of the 2006 film Water, the final film in her Elements trilogy.

Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014 when his party, the BJP, prevailed in a landslide. Much of the international press initially greeted Modi with cautious optimism. The New York Times editorial board said at the time that his victory had given him a chance “to revitalize the economy and shape the way India engages with the world.” Netflix and other streaming services posed a test to Modi. They were not subject to the same legacy censorship regime as broadcast television or cinema. They were well financed. For a time, an artistic renaissance catalyzed by technological change seemed possible.

By 2015, Netflix’s profits in the US had fallen by 50% from the previous year. It was losing subscribers to rivals like Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, and the American and Western European markets had neared saturation. So Reed Hastings, Netflix’s head, looked to Asia. China was vast and relatively well-off, but largely closed to foreign firms. Japan was wealthy and more open, but relatively small; the company opened an office there, but the upside was limited. India was big, like China, but its infrastructure was lacking. The cost of broadband was high, speeds were slow, and less than 15% of the population had smartphones. In a country where about 98% of all transactions were made in cash, access to Netflix required an international credit card. Almost nobody noticed Netflix’s arrival in India the following January.

Eight months later, in September 2016, a billionaire named Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India, launched a new telecom company called Jio. For the cost of a SIM card, which was priced for as little as Rs 150 ($2), Jio offered free high-speed 4G data for a limited time. A price war erupted. The cost of a gigabyte of data across providers plunged to the equivalent of 26 cents, the cheapest in the world. An enormous pool of new internet users emerged. Average mobile data consumption grew to nearly 10 gigabytes per user per month, about the same level as in the US. As of December 2020, the number of mobile internet users stood at more than 700 million.

With cheap, superfast data and growing familiarity with the internet, India was now ready for Netflix. Netflix, however, wasn’t yet ready for India. Although the platform had licensed some Hindi films, it didn’t have any original local content. It didn’t even have an office; decisions about India were made in faraway California.

Netflix fell behind in what came to be called the streaming wars between the nearly 30 major platforms that sprang up. Hotstar, which was later bought by Disney +, paid around $2.5 billion for the right to broadcast all domestic and international cricket, including the wildly popular Indian Premier League. It quickly amassed 63 million subscribers. Amazon Prime Video, which launched several months after Netflix, acquired 9.4 million users. India’s streaming market, which a Boston Consulting Group study estimated would be worth $5 billion by 2023, was truly enormous, and all the platforms jostled for new subscribers.

scene from Little Things
The hit show Little Things, starring Dhruv Sehgal (left) and Mithila Palkar is a romantic comedy set in Mumbai.

Attempting to make up for lost time, Netflix started to scoop up local content. It bought the streaming rights for Little Things, an enormously popular YouTube show about a millennial couple in Mumbai, and signed a three-year licensing deal with Shah Rukh Khan, a superstar actor known as the “King of Bollywood.” By 2018, there were just over half a million people subscribing to Netflix in India, according to the consultancy Media Partners Asia. It was a tiny number compared with the 65 million subscribers in the US. But India was the platform’s fastest-growing market in Asia. Netflix’s Hastings said he hoped for 100 million subscribers. To get there, the company would spend $400 million on Indian content in 2019 and 2020. Though it was exempt from control by the censorship board, Netflix agreed to a series of voluntary self-censorship measures, codified as “codes of conduct.”

It was never a sure thing that Netflix could find its footing in India. Although Bollywood hadn’t changed very much over the years, it had grown ever larger and more potent as a cultural force. It made more films and sold more tickets than Hollywood. Nevertheless, Bollywood was dysfunctional. The actor Denzil Smith, who most recently appeared in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, told me about a major star who, taking advantage of the fact that many Indian filmmakers still don’t work with sync sound but dub over dialogue later in-studio, showed up on set without memorizing his lines. “He’d just move his lips, mumbling ‘sister fucker, mother fucker, fuck you, fuck you,’” said Smith, rolling his eyes. “And I was supposed to act opposite him!”

Powerful people set the tone. A “chalta hai” (“it’s fine”) attitude on sets trickled all the way down. The industry cut corners. Actors were made to look older by simply adding a frosty white stripe to their hair. To make snow for a superhero movie, Vikramaditya Motwane, who would later become the showrunner of Sacred Games, had to experiment with tearing open diapers.

“Chalta hai” can also have deadly consequences. In 2016, three actors on the set of a film in the Kannada language jumped 60 feet from a helicopter into a lake below. The lead actor, who was famous, was wearing a life jacket and made it to shore. The other two drowned. One of the men who died had, in an interview shortly before the scene was filmed, said that he wasn’t a good swimmer and was “scared” to do the stunt.

But despite its lackadaisical quality, Bollywood mattered, says Constantinos Papavassilopoulos, an associate director at the London-based research firm Omdia. Bollywood-inspired content fit neatly into Netflix’s mantra of “local for global,” or locally made content that could attract a wide audience.

Bombay’s huge talent pool, which the entertainment industry had for years failed to fully harness because it wanted to make essentially the same film over and over, began working at a furious pace. The work began reaching an audience even bigger than Bollywood’s—traveling not just beyond India, but beyond even the Indian diaspora. Netflix and other streaming services poured money into the TV and film industries, creating tens of thousands of jobs for actors and all the supporting staff necessary to meet both business and technical needs. Technicians were flown in from London and Paris, changing the look and feel of Indian cinema and teaching Indian crew members new skills.

Dehli Crime
A still from the Netflix India series Delhi Crime.

The absence of censorship allowed these services to tell a new kind of story—the story of India as it is, rather than one that was acceptable to the censor board. Streaming video had the potential to become an influential social force in a way that Bollywood never had been. The shows on streaming services consistently engaged with themes that occupied the public imagination: politics, religion, sex, violence against women. There were shows about millennial couples, single women, gay men, phishing gangs, assassins. One show, Gandii Baat (Dirty Talk), on the streaming platform ALT Balaji, was an erotic series set in the countryside.

Sacred Games received an Emmy nomination as well as a spot on a New York Times list of the 30 best international TV shows of the decade. Another Netflix show, Delhi Crime, won an international Emmy for best drama series.

But this age of artistic openness may prove short lived. The troubles started in 2019, with Leila, a dystopian novel by Prayaag Akbar that was adapted into a Netflix series by Deepa Mehta. As a book, Leila hadn’t courted controversy—the Indian market for English-language novels is small. But when it arrived on Netflix, Hindu nationalists took offense at what they declared were criticisms of Hinduism. A member of a right-wing group filed a police complaint accusing Netflix of “deep-rooted Hinduphobia.” Later that year, Hindu nationalists took issue with the second season of Sacred Games. In one episode, a young Muslim man wins a neighbourhood cricket match against his Hindu opponents. The aggrieved opponents, unable to swallow the insult, kidnap him to teach him a lesson. They torture him and then drag him to the same spot where he won the match. As a crowd of jeering onlookers record every moment on their mobile phones, they beat him to death.

The showrunner of Sacred Games, Vikramaditya Motwane, told me that after the furore around that episode, he was told to avoid “anything to do with religion.” Local media outlets reported that the government began seriously considering censoring streaming because of the lynching scene. The news that this might happen ricocheted around the industry.

I traveled to India in late 2019 to see how the country’s nascent streaming industry was faring in its struggles with Hindu nationalism.

Srishti Behl Arya comes from a family of Bollywood filmmakers. Her father, a director and producer, worked with Amitabh Bachchan, a legendary actor. When she was little, she accompanied her parents on location, where she and the other children of the cast and crew pretended to be film stars. “We ran around like psychos,” she told me when I visited her at Netflix’s offices in Bandra-Kurla, a wealthy suburban business district in Mumbai.

In 2018, Netflix hired Arya to commission feature-length content. That year, the company made more than 20 original films and five original series in Hindi. But this did little to alter its public persona. In a country with more than 24 major languages, Netflix was still viewed as an English-language platform for westernized Indians. And this is where Arya, who knew everyone who mattered in Hindi film, fit into the picture. She had worked in advertising, and then as an actor and a writer, before moving on to TV production.

Soon she enlisted many of her childhood friends, who had grown up to become some of the most powerful people in the Hindi film industry, to work for Netflix. She signed on Zoya Akhtar, whose last feature film was India’s official entry to the Academy Awards, to direct a short film. Like Arya, Akhtar comes from a film family, but because Bollywood is a male-dominated industry, it’s still almost impossible for a female filmmaker or female-oriented films to raise capital. By contrast, several women helmed projects at Netflix. The platform’s biggest star is Radhika Apte, a Bollywood actress who has appeared in so many Netflix productions that online wags joke she’s in all of them.

Srishti Behl Arya
Srishti Behl Arya, who runs Netflix's division of Indian original films.

But working with Bollywood meant dealing with its shortcomings. Netflix held several workshops in Mumbai to train Indian content creators. It taught them how to develop a major series, but also helped them brush up on basics such as how to write, schedule, and budget. “That’s how we can add value to the industry,” Arya told me. “By helping it get more organized.”

On my last day in Mumbai, I went to visit Red Chillies Entertainment, a towering production house owned by Shah Rukh Khan, which produces shows for Netflix. Back in 2017, Hastings and Khan had appeared together in a stilted promotional skit announcing a new spy thriller called Bard of Blood.

The foyer was deserted on the day I arrived, except for a beautiful sculpture of Ganesha, a Hindu god who is viewed as the patron of the arts. It was wrapped in plastic to protect it from construction dust. Around it some barefoot workmen were operating power tools without any protective gear. On the fourth floor, an exhausted-looking man with slippers on his feet and salt in his dark hair emerged from an editing studio. Several years ago, newly graduated from the London School of Film, Patrick Graham had been struggling to land projects when a friend suggested he try Bollywood. He floundered at first, stifled by censorship. But then, in 2018, Netflix India gave Graham the budget to produce a fictional series in which Muslims are rounded up in internment camps. They also brought him in to co-write the screenplay for Leila. When we met, he was wrapping up production on Betaal, a four-episode zombie series that would be released the next year. Months earlier, in a conversation on the phone, Graham had seemed pumped at the opportunity. “It’s massive,” he’d said. But in person, in Mumbai, he was downcast. “I have to go through the series and remove anything that might offend,” he told me, gloomily. “The oversensitive people are winning.”

In November 2020, Hindu nationalists went after Netflix again. Mira Nair’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy showed a Muslim boy kissing a Hindu girl. A leader of the BJP’s youth wing filed a police complaint about the series for “shooting kissing scenes under temple premises.” The leader accused the show of promoting “love jihad”—a conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are seducing Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam.

still from A Suitable Boy
A scene from the film A Suitable Boy. From left: Danesh Razvi, Tanya Maniktala.

In January, another group of Hindu nationalists claimed offense, this time over a political drama on Amazon Prime Video called Tandav. They didn’t care for the depiction of an actor dressed as the Hindu god Shiva. The director quickly issued a public apology and deleted some offending scenes. But he was still named in police complaints in six states, along with members of his cast and crew. Prosecutors also charged Aparna Purohit, who heads Indian original programming for Amazon, with forgery, cyber-terrorism, and promoting hatred between classes.

The very next month, the government announced what it called a “soft-touch self-regulatory architecture” for streaming services. This new ethics code, notionally voluntary, comes with ratings and a grievance system that make streaming, in effect, just as tightly regulated as film and TV.

After the new code was announced, Amazon canceled the upcoming season of The Family Man, a planned spy thriller, and the follow-up to Paatal Lok, a crime series. It also announced plans to co-produce its first Indian film—a mythological tale starring Akshay Kumar, an actor who is known for his close ties with Hindu nationalists.

Netflix had entered India just when hundreds of millions of Indians discovered the internet. It helped create a new language for Indian streaming. In 2020, its subscriber base was estimated to have risen to 4.2 million. But whether the company—and streaming services more generally—can ultimately succeed depends in large measure on matters outside of their control.

Kashyap, the director, believes he has a handle on the censorship problem. “We will say what we want to say,” he told me. “We will simply find different ways of saying it.” On March 3, his house and those of several other Bollywood stars were raided by tax authorities in what Nawab Malik, a spokesperson for the opposition Congress Party, described as an intimidation attempt. That same day, Netflix India announced a slate of 40 new films and series.

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