The Growing Public Anger Against ‘Obscenity’ In OTT Content

Swati Goel Sharma

Apr 07, 2023, 06:17 PM | Updated Apr 16, 2023, 07:05 PM IST

A still from the TV-series Sacred Games.
A still from the TV-series Sacred Games.
  • Part of the problem is that there is no regulatory authority for OTT content.
  • Although two years ago, the Centre did notify draft rules for it.
  • Earlier this week, hundreds of residents hit the streets in Haryana carrying banners of ‘censor web series’, ‘censor OTT platforms’, ‘Filmon mein gandagi band karo’ (stop obscenity in films), ‘Bollywood reform movement’ and ‘stop poisoning young minds’, among others.

    The organiser, Yuva Pariwar Sewa Samiti, told Swarajya over the phone that the demonstration, held on 4 April, was against “vulgarity, violence and immorality in films, songs and web series, particularly on the OTT platforms”.

    The participants took out a bike rally and walked through the streets of Yamunanagar, chanting slogans such as ‘ashleelta, hinsa aur nashe se Yuva bachao’ (save the youth from vulgarity, violence and drugs), and demanding the creation of a Censor Board for OTT content.

    A picture of the protest.
    A picture of the protest.
    A picture of the protest.
    A picture of the protest.

    General Secretary of the organisation, Kulwinder Singh said that he is getting increasingly disturbed by the content being served in “so-called new age” entertainment shows that are easily available on people’s mobile phones.

    He cites Netflix’s web-series Sacred Games launched in 2018 as a show that triggered him into speaking up against ‘obscenity’. 

    Besides expletives and gore, the show had full-frontal nudity featuring women and sexually explicit scenes. The show had Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan in the lead, and was directed by Anurag Kashyap. It was Netflix’s first original drama made in India.

    “Since that show, the boundaries of sexual content and skin-show have been continuously pushed further,” said Singh. 

    The organisation, he said, has a history of protesting against problematic content in independent Punjabi language music.

    In 2012, the members staged agitations against controversial music composer-singer Honey Singh, particularly for a song that glorified rape. 

    A still from Sacred Games.
    A still from Sacred Games.

    A decade ago, a furore erupted in the state when a song titled after the private part of women was released, believed to be composed and sung by Honey Singh. Cases were filed against him in various police stations of Punjab.

    However, in an affidavit filed before the Punjab and Haryana high court in 2013, Singh denied that it was his song. He told the court it was a case of “mistaken identity”, a claim few are ready to buy.

    “We were already fighting the problematic content in Punjabi songs when the OTT platforms diverted our attention. We think it’s the biggest cultural menace right now,” says Singh, who is a resident of Australia but visits his home-state Punjab often.

    Singh says his organisation has thousands of members in the state and beyond, all joined by the desire to uphold ‘social morals’.

    In India, OTT gained some significance around 2013 when Zee-owned DittoTV, an aggregator platform that featured shows from several media channels such as Sony, Viacom and Zee, launched in the market along with SonyLiv.

    It was five years after India saw the launch of its first OTT platform in BigFlix by Reliance Entertainment, which saw a re-launch in 2017. 

    Among the most popular platforms right now, Disney+ Hotstar launched in India in 2015, and Amazon Prime and Netflix in 2016. Currently, there are at least 40 OTT platforms.

    One of the platforms particularly under fire for ‘vulgar’ content is ALTBalaji, owned by Ekta Kapoor, who incidentally received the fourth highest civilian award Padma Shri in 2021.

    In the same year, a web series titled Bombay Begums featuring Bollywood actor Pooja Bhatt came under the scanner of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR, commonly called the National Child Commission), which asked Netflix to stop its streaming.

    The commission took cognizance of a post by Twitter account @GemsofBollywood which called out a clip from the series showing a minor school-going girl taking drugs and indulging in sexual activities. 

    After a few hearings, the Commission directed the Mumbai police to file a first information report (FIR) against the makers of the web series. However, the police have not done so, Priyank Kanoongo, chairman of the Commission, told Swarajya.

    A still from Bombay Begums.
    A still from Bombay Begums.

    There is growing public clamour for a regulatory body for OTT content. 

    Public exhibition of films in India is regulated by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) as per guidelines of The Cinematograph Act, 1952, though the CBFC has been accused of allowing screening of problematic films in violation of guidelines or limiting creative freedom. For television channels, there is The Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, 1995.

    Currently, there is no regulatory authority for OTT content. Two years ago, The Centre notified draft rules for it, named as Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

    The draft is open for feedback from the public and stakeholders. In November, Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur said that the Centre would bring a law to regulate digital media and OTT.

    Yesterday, the Minister reiterated his stand on regulation of OTT content, saying that the platforms have the freedom for creativity but not obscenity.

    “Abuse in the name of creativity will not be tolerated. The government is serious about the complaints of the increasing abusive and obscene content on OTT platforms,” he said. Thakur was speaking at an event to announce a partnership between the Ministry and Amazon India.

    Amid this, journalist and author Uday Mahurkar, currently the Information Commissioner in the Central Information Commission (Central RTI Court), is on a personal mission to bring about an “ethics code” for all audio-visual content whether it be on OTT, social media or films.

    The Code, as he visualised before Swarajya, would define permissible limits for themes, scenes, dressing and language in A-V content, where violation would bring forth punishment on the charge of abetment to rape. 

    His proposal, said Mahurkar, is part of a resolution in the form of suggestions on preventing "perverted content" to curb rapes, passed at a conference on the subject held at Ahmedabad recently.

    Mahurkar has presented the resolution to Union ministers Rajnath Singh and Anurag Thakur. He told Swarajya that his mission has found support from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh head Mohan Bhagwat, Yoga Guru Swami Ramdev, Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, prominent saint of Juna Akhara Swami Avdheshanand and Nirbhaya’s mother Ashadevi. 

    Mahurkar said he is more than convinced that perverted content is the main instigator for rapists.

    “There are international studies to prove this," he said, "that weak minds get triggered into sexual crimes after watching perverted content such as porn."

    Putting a stop on propagation of pornographic content is an important step towards controlling rape, he told Swarajya. Mahurkar said he has compiled a study to prove his point with some anti-rape activists. 

    He cited the case of Ted Bundy, an American serial rapist-killer who kidnapped, raped and killed more than 30 women during the 1970s. In his confession after his arrest, Bundy attributed his violent tendencies to early exposure to porn. He said the hard-core pornography fuelled his perverted fantasies.

    Besides sexual or perverted content, rampant use of expletives and slurs in OTT shows is another concern expressed by the public, lawmakers and even courts.

    Last month, the Delhi high court observed that the language in a web series titled College Romance streaming on OTT platform The Viral Fever (TVF) is filthy, profane and vulgar

    The single-judge bench of Justice Swarana Kanta Sharma said, “This court notes that this is not the language that nation’s youth or otherwise citizens of this country use, and this language cannot be called the frequently spoken language in our country.”

    The high court was hearing a plea filed by TVF, the show’s director Simarpreet Singh and actor Apoorva Arora against an order by a lower court directing an FIR to be registered against them under Sections 292 and 294 of the Indian Penal Code (both sections deal with obscenity) and Section 67 and 67A of the IT Act (both sections deal with sexually explicit content disseminated in electronic form).

    The high court upheld the lower court’s order.

    The wide criticism of OTT content has come at a time when India’s biggest entertainment industry, Bollywood, is facing public anger for propagating an anti-Hindu and pro-Islamist agenda besides glorification of rape, objectification of women and alcohol. 

    Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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