Originally Published 2019-12-19 17:09:50 Published on Dec 19, 2019
It is not just the art on offer that can be categorised as “political” — but also the platforms.
The question of whether art is for pleasure or politics

Is art an expression of beauty or a political weapon? Henri Matisse called art soothing and calming, whereas Picasso through Guernica exhibited his dismay at the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, and showed the world how aesthetics and protests are not mutually exclusive. Extending that debate to cinema, do people watch films to relax and distance themselves from the world’s vagaries, or is cinema an extension of the political discourse?

Video-on-demand (VoD) services have given Indian cinema a new platform. This has opened up space for the portrayal of various sociopolitical issues, anti-establishment discourse, and idioms of resistance that were excluded from mainstream cinema because of over-commercialisation and self-censorship. Streaming services have focused on capturing audience attention by offering not only an array of internationally watched productions, but also content made exclusively for Indian viewers. These platforms have also started buying the rights of previously released Hindi and vernacular films, providing non-mainstream moviemakers an opportunity to make their ends meet. This gives filmmakers the confidence to capture disturbing aspects of our social reality on the silver screen. The real winner is the audience, which gets to choose from diverse online fare, including content that promotes critical thinking.

Technically, the market for such content is classified as entertainment. According to PwC’s latest Global Entertainment And Media Outlook report, the video streaming market in India is estimated to be growing at 21.8% annually and could reach nearly ₹12,000 crore by 2023. Apart from Netflix and Amazon, Disney-owned Star India’s Hotstar is a major platform. All of them are available as smartphone apps.

These apps, often termed over-the-top (OTT) platforms, have released various original shows, ning genres, for the Indian audience. Bold narratives and plots have revolutionised our television and soap-opera culture, which had been dominated by family dramas for decades. Of late, the trend has been towards content that centres around political and social circumstances that prevail in the country. Thus, it is not just the art on offer that can be categorised as “political”, but also the platforms. While these are not governed by censorship laws, their managements seem aware of the trouble their shows could run into. Thus, such platforms seek to distance themselves from the content through disclaimers.

Here is an example: “Amazon India does not endorse or bear responsibility for any content shown or the views expressed in this programme. Viewers discretion is advised.” This disclaimer applies to all content produced for India, though international productions, such as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Elementary and Grey’s Anatomy, have no disclaimer either from Amazon International or its domestic unit.

It was Netflix India, however, that first found itself in the eye of a storm over its first original series for India, Sacred Games. Based on a novel by Vikram Chandra by the same name, it showcased the underbelly of organised crime in Mumbai and its politics. Though the show received a grand opening globally, it landed in a spot of controversy for “speculative” lines spoken by a lead character on Rajiv Gandhi and for a mention of the Bofors scam. Netflix faced a backlash and law suits, but took a stance that it would disallow censorship of any of its content. This was unusual, at least in the Indian context.

Another Netflix product, Leila, based on a novel by Prayaag Akbar, was about a dystopian future that featured a radical Hindu society called Aryavarta. This show was criticised for promoting Hinduphobia, Netflix was trolled for allegedly perpetrating hatred against Hindus, and a section of users called for a boycott of the platform. Despite the controversy, Netflix has not put out any disclaimer to distance itself from any content on its platform.

This is in contrast with the policy adopted by Amazon Prime India. Hence, while we debate whether art is for politics or pleasure, the platform facilitating the art cannot escape the ambit of such discussions.

Could a difference in business models explain the difference? Netflix is an entertainment business, plain and simple. In the case of Amazon Prime, however, video is just one component of the company’s offer basket for its Prime membership. Along with it, a subscriber gets access to better deals and offers, faster delivery, and music as well. Here, the role that VoD platforms play in acclimatising first-timers to the internet cannot be overlooked. For Amazon, VoD also serves an allied purpose, as a draw for its main website. The effectiveness of entertainment as an attraction is why Walmart-owned Flipkart appears keen to venture into the VoD market. It is aware that entertainment could play a major role in getting consumers acquainted with its sales platform. Could Amazon’s disclaimer, thus, be seen in the light of a need to avert political controversies and ensure acceptance by all?

As of now, there is a massive drive by VoD platforms to generate fresh content for viewers, with vast resources being pumped in to produce local shows in various languages. The demand is undeniable. The risk that VoD players bear is of controversial content evoking responses and consequences that might hamper the growth of this market. Will art fall victim to politics, or will it survive and play its role in society?

This commentary originally appeared in Live Mint.

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Priyal Pandey

Priyal Pandey

Priyal Pandey was a Junior Fellow at ORF's Technology and Media Programme at the time of writing this brief.

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