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Tandav and the future of storytelling

Hopefully, the controversy it has generated will not zip up other storytellers and platforms.

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MUMBAI: A tight slap. That’s what the streaming industry has got in the face from the Supreme Court when it refused to protect the Amazon Prime Video team – involved in creating the controversial political thriller Tandav – from being arrested.

The court, of course, took cognisance of the number of states in which police complaints and cases have been filed saying that the digital original was hurting Hindu and other caste sentiments, as well as depicting politicians wrongly. “Interested” politicians, citizens and journalists have registered their complaints in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Delhi, Karnataka, and Chandigarh.

What the next course of action will become clear only when  the police and the governments of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh make their moves. Will they go out and arrest Amazon Prime Video’s Aparna Purohit, Amit Agarwal, Zeeshan Ayyub, Himanshu Kishan Mishra, Ali Abbas Zaffar, Saif Ali Khan and incarcerate them for a while so that once and for all the message goes out to India’s creative industry that you can’t mess around with the powers that be – in religious institutions, politics or business – in fictional stories told for entertainment?

Or will their apologies be accepted and the matter die out as the questionable scenes in Tandav have already been edited out? And what will that do to other shows which have had risqué edgy scenes? Will complaints be registered against them too? Already aggrieved parties have come out against Mirzapur – another Amazon Prime Video show – saying that it showed the town of Mirzapur in poor light. Of course, the UP police is investigating these complaints too.

What does this mean for creative freedom to tell stories that people have either from their own experiences, or that of others or fears that they carry in their hearts? The Supreme Court judge MR Shah said that the “right to freedom of speech is not absolute.”

That is a loaded statement and while it  is true, the question to be asked is: how much is too much? If one were to apply the yardstick that is being applied in India, a lot of what Hollywood churns out would never make it to screen. Films, shows, have all taken potshots at the establishment, religious institutions and racial discrimination. And daily late night shows, with comics lampooning what’s going on in the US, literally skirt with what could be considered blasphemy in India and the offending artistes would be sent to the gallows.

How different Is India – a democracy, the world’s largest, with a diverse religious population and which has shown signs of turning right wing – from any  totalitarian state aligned to a religion which we often criticise?

The big difference between the two is: we can express our opinions in India, and someone else does not like ours, they can express theirs. India is a democracy. Opinions, one must remember, change, are forgotten over time. It’s only at the heat of the moment that any disagreement with ours raises our temperature and causes us to create a ruckus. And in this day and age of social media, armies of trolls online are standing on the sidelines, backed by interested party funding, to create a storm at the drop of a hat. The engine of social media is the conversations it generates, the sentiments it evokes, that helps it and advertising generate views and in the process revenues.

What we are saying may sound simplistic and everyone probably knows it. But it requires reminding. There are vested interests out there who are courting attention with some act of theirs, and protesting clearly gets them what they want. It's quite possible that some conservatives out there may have been shocked and hurt by the scenes in Tandav, but very few have spoken out, apart from the complainants.

Some may say that the west does not concern us. But closer to home, in the east, countries such as Japan and South Korea which have developed films, shows and music that have travelled the world, give a lot of leeway to creators to express themselves in relation to gods and public figures.

For years, content creators in India have pandered to the masses, showing a dystopian view of the world that we live in. Now that streaming platforms have come in, they have got the freedom to tell stories that they could not have earlier, because even a few million viewers are willing to pay to watch them. Yes, the scriptwriters could go easy on the profanities but has anyone heard the private conversations in the corridors of power, the conversations between two enemies, and even friends – the ‘fs’ and the ‘bs’ are hurled pretty voluminously.

The reason why countries like the US, the UK, South Korea and Japan have found watchers for their stories globally, is because they reflect what is happening in their lives, albeit fictionalised, and without anyone zipping them up. For these nations, the export of their stories has spelt commerce running into billions of dollars. India’s content exports are abysmal, because we are identified with song and dance romance and drama and a few well-made independent films. There is a limited audience out there for that kind of fare.

But in recent times that has widened drastically on streamers for stories such as Sacred Games, Four More Shots Please, Ashram, Mirzapur, Tandav, Scam 1992 and many others. All were well told in relation to the audience and genre they were addressing. These shows have a potential to be re-run in other countries too by platforms and TV stations in those markets in the local languages. That could bring in precious foreign exchange as well soft power to India.

The information and broadcasting ministry has been vested with powers to monitor and regulate the content on online platforms. Hopefully it will do so with soft hands and not go ballistic and bring in hard censorship. That would not only frustrate creators but would also take back the creative industry to a time when what it creates caters to the masses out there. The upper classes would of course go on to foreign fare, the younger and more resourceful ones would rely on pirated international content.

And in the process many stories would go on to be untold.

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