Netflix bows to censorship, stops streaming uncut Indian films globally

Netflix was until recently the lone holdout in streaming uncensored versions of Indian films; now, the censor board reigns supreme in streaming

December 15, 2023 01:48 pm | Updated 06:19 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Films like ‘Leo,’ starring Tamil actor Vijay, have been censored globally on Netflix, even though the film was released uncut in overseas markets

Films like ‘Leo,’ starring Tamil actor Vijay, have been censored globally on Netflix, even though the film was released uncut in overseas markets

Netflix has fully stopped streaming uncensored cuts of Indian films around the world, according to a review of films released this year. The change in policy is significant for what was possibly the last streaming service in India that continued to show versions of Indian films before they went through the Central Board of Film Certification, which has increasingly been scrubbing films of political references, particularly those that are disparaging to the dispensation in power. 

The film Bheed, set in the pandemic, had voice-overs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, as well as a host of other political references, a copy of the cut list from the censor board shows. These references were heavily edited at the CBFC’s behest. Netflix chose to stream this version globally, instead of the version that the filmmakers had prepared. Now, that template is being applied to all Indian films, even in ways that go against Netflix’s internal policy on some forms of censorship.

Films like Leo, starring the Tamil actor Vijay, have been censored globally on Netflix, even though the film was released uncut in overseas markets. OMG 2, a film about sex education that was censored to remove depictions of the actor Akshay Kumar as the Hindu deity Shiva even after being given an ‘A’ rating for adults, also released censored, leading the film’s director to complain about Netflix’s decision in interviews with entertainment publications. 

Other streaming services have, with few exceptions for the odd title, been doing this for a while. Netflix’s move to this practice effectively hands the censor board indirect powers on what Indians see in films anywhere, even online, though its mandate is limited to cinemas and TV. On top of shielding the public from political references, it has also been applying censorship on references to prominent business personalities: the film Japan, for instance, has a scene mentioning “Ambani [and] Adani,” which the CBFC removed. Netflix is streaming the version without the men named.

Netflix and other streaming services have reportedly been applying intense socio-political scrutiny on original series that they commission. These practices are likely a result of the fear of online mobs and police action for any politically outspoken content: the Screenwriters Association said in a statement that streaming services and the film industry have forced writers, in signed agreements, to “indemnify producers if there is a socio-political backlash” to their work. Amazon Prime Video’s head of originals, Aparna Purohit, had to face police summons after the 2021 political series Tandav, and had to issue an apology and received a stay on action against her in the Supreme Court.

Also Read | ‘Tandav’ crew and cast issue apology

But licensed content has escaped such similar scrutiny, as most films go through the censor board, which is run by the Union Government. The Cinematograph Act and the IT Rules, 2021, which govern cinemas and streaming services, do not explicitly require streaming services to run the CBFC cut of a film online, but many OTT platforms do not take the risk of doing so. Netflix has been an exception.

When the service launched in India, its catalogue included uncut versions of films like the Bengali filmmaker Q’s Gandu and The Pink Mirror, a 2006 documentary on drag performers. Both films were rejected by the censor board, effectively banning them on TV and at cinemas. The former remains on Netflix’s catalogue. In 2017, the company released the theatrically censored cut of Angry Indian Goddesses, a comedy film by the director Pan Nalin, after releasing an uncensored cut abroad. After receiving complaints on the censorship, the company reversed track. 

Netflix chose to not respond to pointed queries on its changing censorship practices. “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,” the company said in a statement to The Hindu. “This diversity not only reflects our members’ very different tastes, it also distinguishes our service from the competition.” The company had provided an identical statement to the Washington Post when the paper did a story on Netflix and Amazon’s cautious content policies in India.

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