Facing pressure in India, Netflix and Amazon back down on daring films

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By Usa Express Daily


(Illustration by Shubhadeep Mukherjee for The Washington Post; Netflix)

MUMBAI — Over a three-decade career, the filmmaker Anurag Kashyap often trained a critical eye on his native India as he wove tales about rogue cops, rotten ministers and the hypocrisies of the Indian middle class. He garnered standing ovations at Cannes and received fan mail from Martin Scorsese. He landed lucrative deals with Netflix after the American streaming platform entered India in 2016, looking to produce edgy, Hindi-language shows.

But in 2021, Kashyap said, Netflix shelved what would have been his magnum opus: an adaptation of the nonfiction book “Maximum City,” which explores Hindu bigotry and the extremes of hope and despair in Mumbai.

When the U.S. streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video, entered India seven years ago, they promised to shake up one of the world’s most important entertainment markets, a film-obsessed nation with more than 1 billion people and a homegrown moviemaking industry with fans worldwide.

In the last four years, however, a chill has swept through the streaming industry in India as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party tightened its grip on the country’s political discourse and the American technology platforms that host it. Just as the BJP and its ideological allies have spread propaganda on WhatsApp to advance their Hindu-first agenda and deployed the state’s coercive muscle to squash dissent on Twitter, they have used the threat of criminal cases and coordinated mass public pressure to shape what Indian content gets produced by Netflix and Prime Video.

Today, a culture of self-censorship pervades the streaming industry here, manifesting in ways both dramatic and subtle. Executives at the India offices of Netflix and Prime Video and their lawyers ask for extensive changes to rework political plots and remove passing references to religion that might offend the Hindu right wing or the BJP, industry insiders say. Projects that deal with India’s political, religious or caste divisions are politely declined when they are proposed, or dropped midway through development. Even completed series and films have been quietly abandoned and withheld by Netflix and Prime Video from their more than 400 million combined viewers worldwide.

“Why greenlight it, then change your mind?” asked Kashyap, recalling how Netflix walked away from his three-part adaptation of “Maximum City,” based on the award-winning book by Suketu Mehta. “It’s invisible censorship.”

The Washington Post spoke to more than two dozen filmmakers, writers, producers and executives in India and the United States who shared their experiences and details about projects, many of which have not been previously reported. Many interviewees spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationships with Netflix and Prime Video. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post. The Post’s interim CEO, Patty Stonesifer, sits on Amazon’s board.

The trouble began in 2019, when Hindu-nationalist activists first called for boycotts and filed police complaints against Netflix and Prime Video, seeking to curb content they saw as denigrating Hinduism and India. The pressure campaign peaked in January 2021, when these activists nationwide prompted police across India to investigate Prime Video, ostensibly for mocking a Hindu god in a political series called “Tandav.” A top Prime Video executive in India was forced to briefly go into hiding and surrender her passport to police, according to people familiar with the matter.

It was a watershed moment. Streaming executives “had to review the projects going forward,” recalled Parth Arora, a former director of production management for Netflix India. “You wanted to make sure that you are not making the same mistakes that happened on ‘Tandav.’”

Since then, Prime Video has shelved “Gormint,” a satirical series billed as India’s answer to “Veep,” because it mocked Indian politics, said the series director. And despite investing more than $1 million to produce “Indi (r) a’s Emergency,” a documentary about the 1975-1977 period when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties and censored the media, Netflix recently relinquished the rights and will not release the film, which contains veiled commentary about the Modi administration, people familiar with the project said.

Sunil Ambekar, a senior leader and spokesman for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu-nationalist umbrella organization affiliated with the BJP, said it was the duty of filmmakers to promote a positive image of India and its culture. “Movies that celebrate Bharat are more liked by the people,” he said, using the Sanskrit name for India. “These days we can see pride for nation, and pride for India, more actively expressed.”

In early 2021, the Indian government introduced a system of self-regulation in which streaming companies must resolve viewer complaints within 15 days, or else face regulatory scrutiny by an industry body or a government committee staffed by various ministries. A senior official in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the policy candidly, said the goal was not to squash criticism of the government or to ban discussion of India’s social and religious rifts but mostly to curb profanity and sexual content.

He acknowledged, however, that the bureaucracy was often under political pressure from the Hindu right wing and other quarters to censor shows. “We had to think of how to discipline these platforms,” he said. “We want content to be sanitized.”

Industry insiders say streaming platforms cannot risk their presence in such a crucial market by defying pressure from the BJP or its supporters. The companies’ business is thriving with streaming revenues in India projected to grow more than 20 percent a year from $2.6 billion in 2022 to $13 billion in 2030, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Boston Consulting Group.

In a response to questions about political pressure, Prime Video India praised the Indian government’s current streaming regulations for “allowing creativity in the content we create” and said the company’s programming decisions are “designed to serve our incredibly diverse audiences in India.”

A Netflix spokesperson said: “We have an incredibly broad range of Indian original films and TV shows, all of which speak to our long standing support for creative expression. This diversity not only reflects our members’ very different tastes, it also distinguishes our service from the competition.”

Neither company addressed specific projects they have dropped.

In many ways, Kashyap, 51, embodied India’s indie spirit and the initial flush of excitement about streaming — and how both have since been subdued. In 2018, he co-directed what Reed Hastings, then Netflix’s chief executive, touted as the “first big, spectacular Netflix series” to come out of India, the crime thriller “Sacred Games.”

But in 2019, still riding high from a string of Netflix projects, Kashyap couldn’t resist speaking out against the Modi administration as India became embroiled in nationwide protests over a citizenship bill seen as discriminatory against Muslims. He gave fiery speeches at protests in New Delhi and Mumbai. On Twitter, he called the government “fascist” and “rule by gangsters.”

Before long, he came to resemble one of his protagonists. In his films, misfits and troublemakers rise at first by challenging the system. Sooner or later, they stumble.

As a child growing up in Uttar Pradesh state, Kashyap recalled, he wrote short stories so dark, his schoolteacher alerted his parents. In college, he didn’t pursue science like his parents wanted, and instead hung out with the leftist street theater troupe, the Jana Natya Manch, and rode a rickety bicycle across New Delhi to watch films by Fritz Lang, Bimal Roy and Tomu Uchida.

The brooding, realist movies “made me realize there was nothing wrong with me. These were the kinds of stories in my head,” Kashyap said. “I never fit in. I never thought cinema should be about hero and heroine, song and dance.”

In 1992, Kashyap moved to Mumbai, then called Bombay, to begin his career at the bottom of the film industry. By the mid-2000s, his films were catapulting obscure actors to Bollywood fame but Kashyap eschewed mainstream success, instead becoming a darling of the international film festival circuit.

Kashyap was perfect for Netflix after it launched a multibillion-dollar international expansion in 2016. The company was then facing hurdles with censors in China, and to win India, another massive, tantalizing market, it wanted offbeat content that would create buzz.

In 2018, Hastings joked at a conference in New Delhi that he could acquire 100 million new subscribers in India alone — nearly what Netflix had worldwide at the time — and would invest heavily in local content like an upcoming crime thriller co-directed by Kashyap and his longtime collaborator Vikramaditya Motwane.

“You will see a different side of Mumbai,” Hastings promised the audience as a giant screen flashed the promotional poster for “Sacred Games.” “It is not a pretty, happy, dancey one. It is crime and gritty like ‘Narcos.’”

“Sacred Games” was indeed provocative. Its antihero was a gangster who mocks his pious Hindu father and instigates religious violence. It showed hard drug use and lots of sex. It was a massive hit.

Soon, the backlash began. In 2019, a Hindu-nationalist activist wrote to police demanding action against Netflix for its “deep-rooted Hinduphobia,” citing examples such as “Sacred Games” and “Leila,” a “Handmaid’s Tale”-style series about a future totalitarian Hindu society. The police did not take action. The following year, after a BJP party official complained about a Netflix series showing a Muslim boy kissing a Hindu girl in a Hindu temple, police registered a criminal case against two Netflix executives, but no arrests were made. The hashtag #BoycottNetflix began to trend on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the head of India content at Prime Video, Aparna Purohit, also came under scrutiny. OpIndia, a right-wing news site, dug into her Facebook history, found she had posted political cartoons criticizing the government and accused her of “giving space for ultra-left radicals and Islamist elements” on the streaming platform.

In January 2021, the campaign against streamers came to a head. After Prime Video released the series “Tandav,” viewers in nine Indian states filed complaints with police. The coordinated complaints alleged that the cast and crew of “Tandav,” as well as Prime Video’s Purohit, had insulted a Hindu god in one scene. But “Tandav” riled BJP supporters in other ways: It also depicted police brutality against student leaders and farmer protests, mirroring real-life controversies that had been dogging the Modi administration.

Police from Uttar Pradesh, a BJP-ruled state, descended on Mumbai to interrogate actors and producers. An Uttar Pradesh judge reviewing Purohit’s plea seeking protection from arrest ruled that she was trying to “earn money in the most brazen manner” by mocking Hinduism and undermining India as “a united force socially, communally and politically.”

Facing the threat of arrest, Purohit was whisked by Prime Video into safe houses and went incommunicado, two friends recalled. Today, several cases alleging Purohit hurt Hindu sentiments remain in the courts despite Prime Video’s attempts to have them dismissed, and Purohit cannot leave India without seeking permission from the police. Purohit did not respond to requests for comment.

The complaints filed against Prime Video and the social media campaigns were organized behind the scenes by activists like Ramesh Solanki, the Hindu nationalist who filed the first police complaint in 2019.

In an interview, Solanki described the existence of “hundreds” of WhatsApp and Facebook groups where Hindu nationalists like himself had gathered to discuss how to apply pressure on streaming platforms. The groups’ members were scattered worldwide, he recalled, and offered financial and legal aid to those who volunteered to file complaints against the foreign companies.

“They were always criticizing Bharat and the people of Bharat, always criticizing the army, always making shows that were negative,” Solanki said. “They were not good for the image of India abroad.”

After the successful “Tandav” campaign, Solanki said, he was flooded with congratulatory messages from BJP leaders and, last year, became a party member himself. Prime Video and Netflix have learned their lesson, Solanki said: “They are aware: If we do any mischief, if we cross the line, we will face the music.”

Inside Prime Video, the first show to be dropped after the “Tandav” crisis was “Gormint,” a satire about the absurdity of Indian politics, recalled series director Ayappa K.M. All nine episodes of the first season had already been shot in India, London and Thailand, and they were publicly scheduled to stream immediately after “Tandav.” They vanished without a trace.

The director said he didn’t begrudge Prime Video executives because they faced enormous personal risks, but he bemoaned the state of the industry. “It is creative evolution in reverse,” he said. “Only passive, thoroughly sanitized content stands a chance on most platforms now.”

While “Gormint” was never put out, Prime Video released what one industry executive called a “make-up” film, about an Indian archaeologist who discovers a mythical bridge described in the Ramayana Hindu epic, prompting him to reconsider his atheist beliefs.

Prime Video did not answer questions about the “Tandav” controversy and its repercussions, saying only that the company sought to tell authentic and unique local stories while “respecting and embracing the myriad languages and cultures that make up India’s vibrant tapestry.”

“At Prime Video we take our responsibilities seriously and make our programming decisions thoughtfully,” according to a company statement.

‘There’s no fighting back’

Prime Video’s travails also stunned its rival. As Purohit faced the threat of arrest in 2021, the Netflix India chief, Monika Shergill, told the company’s global leaders that its India office should not take risks or they might also face the possibility of jail, said a former Netflix India executive. Shergill did not respond to requests for comment.

Another former Netflix India employee said the company decided against releasing a film by the director Dibakar Banerjee about generations of an Indian Muslim family experiencing bigotry even though it was completed, but executives signaled to Banerjee that if the BJP left power, the political climate may be more amenable for the film’s release. Banerjee could not be reached for comment.

This May, a Netflix India team gave a presentation to executives from Europe and Latin America, in which they used India as a case study to illustrate how Netflix needed to be “more malleable to local regulation,” the former employee recalled. “The general line is: ‘There’s no fighting back.’”

One director who has worked with Netflix and Prime Video said streaming companies didn’t just fear antagonizing the Modi government. They were even more concerned about its right-wing supporters, who might launch mass campaigns calling for boycotts and arrests. “What the government has done very smartly is they effectively say, ‘You self-censor stuff,’” the director said. “There is a gun to your head because at any point of time, it’s so easy to mobilize a bunch of people.”

Concerns about self-censorship and revisionism are also surfacing elsewhere. A member of a team that made a podcast for Spotify about the history of India’s space program said executives asked to review the script because it hailed the contributions of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is often condemned by Hindu nationalists as being too conciliatory toward Muslims and Pakistan. Executives also seemed hesitant about giving credit to Tipu Sultan, an 18th-century Indian Muslim ruler who pioneered the use of rockets, but they ultimately did not push for changes.

“I was a bit shocked,” the team member recalled. “What is wrong with talking about them? These are facts recorded in history.”

From the beginning of his career, Kashyap has refused to be disciplined. To get his films released in theaters, Kashyap often fought against government censors who objected to his treatment of historical events and expletive-laden screenplays.

But in 2019, he took on the ruling party itself. He mocked Modi supporters on social media during the national election and became a popular target of troll attacks. After the government passed the bill that critics said disadvantaged Muslims, Kashyap made headlines by joining a massive protest in Mumbai. And after a masked mob attacked anti-government student protesters in January 2020, the director flew to New Delhi, picked up a microphone and exhorted the students to fight on.

Back home in Mumbai, he sat every morning at his dining room table and wrestled with “Maximum City.” Kashyap wrote feverishly, filling hundreds of pages of blank paper with his expansive Hindi handwriting. “It was my best work,” he said. “I’ve never done such honest, important work.”

But shortly before preproduction was scheduled to begin, the “Tandav” saga upended the industry. A few weeks after that, controversy engulfed Kashyap: Tax officials raided 28 locations associated with his former production company and announced they found unreported income equivalent to $90 million.

Under the Modi government, critics say, tax authorities have frequently been deployed to probe political opponents, and opposition parties criticized Kashyap’s investigation as politically motivated. The case is ongoing. Kashyap denies any wrongdoing.

After that, Kashyap recalled, Netflix walked away from “Maximum City” without providing a clear reason, but he believes either the content became too sensitive to touch — or he did. Kashyap drank heavily and fell into a lengthy depression. He suffered two heart attacks.

“Maximum City” “was where all my energy went,” he said. “I was heartbroken. I totally lost it.”

Shunned by investors, Kashyap used up his personal savings and borrowed money to finish his next film. He rewrote the drama about an interfaith couple as a more conventional romance. Still, it flopped.

After three decades of bruising fights with government censors, Kashyap said he is now even more frustrated by the streaming industry, which submitted to a kind of censorship that was opaque and impossible to appeal.

Streaming “was finally the space I was waiting for,” Kashyap said. “The disappointment is it was supposed to be a revolution, but it was not. Like social media, it was supposed to empower people, but it became a tool.”

Today, along elevated highways, in chic neighborhoods and on the sides of city buses in Mumbai, advertisements for new Prime Video and Netflix shows are ubiquitous, a reminder that the companies continue to bet big on India despite mounting political constraints. But even liberal filmmakers and Kashyap’s supporters increasingly acknowledge a simple truth: The animating force of Mumbai isn’t art, they say. It’s dhandha — business.

Netflix and Prime Video “are here to capture a market of 1.3 billion people,” said Hansal Mehta, a director who has several projects with the platforms. “The more we fool ourselves that people are here for something else, the more we will be disillusioned with the system.”

Chastened but not defeated

On a recent afternoon, Kashyap padded around in purple pajama pants in his apartment. He emerged from his study clutching the 800-page screenplay for “Maximum City Part III,” flipped through it wistfully, then set it aside.

Kashyap said he was recovering. He was getting back into writing every day on his dining room table, fueled by a steady diet of Kilchoman whisky, hand-rolled cigarettes and takeout biryani. He was even getting work again with Netflix, on a project that didn’t directly touch contemporary issues. “I know I need to stay away from current politics,” he said.

He recently completed “Kennedy,” a film about an anguished cop turned hit man that wasn’t funded by Netflix or Prime Video, but by Zee, an Indian conglomerate. Kashyap shoehorned into the script thinly veiled criticism of Indian politicians’ coziness with billionaire industrialists and the government’s handling of the pandemic. It’s not clear if they’ll remain intact once the film is reviewed by censors for theatrical release or prepared for streaming.

And Kashyap is still trying to raise funds to get “Maximum City” made. For inspiration, he said, he often looked to filmmakers who made daring works in Iran and China — one a strict theocracy, the other an authoritarian one-party state. India was neither, for now.

“They still find ways to do it,” he said. “So why can’t I?”

Niha Masih contributed to this report.

Design by Anna Lefkowitz. Visual editing by Chloe Meister, Joe Moore and Jennifer Samuel. Copy editing by Christopher Rickett. Story editing by Alan Sipress. Project editing by Jay Wang.



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