Only A Tolerant And Inclusive Society Can Become A ‘Vishwa Guru’: Murtaza Ali Khan

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

By Padmaja Jayaraman

Tandav, an Amazon Prime Original TV series, has spurred up controversies for allegedly ridiculing Hindu deities. A Bharatiya Janata Party lawmaker, Manoj Kotak sought a ban on the show, in a letter he wrote to the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar.

Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have only recently been brought come under the ambit of the Ministry of I&B. This has come at a time when the Indian OTT content has been getting recognition among its global competitors. Will this regulatory move be a creativity plunge? Padmaja Jayaraman speaks to Murtaza Ali Khan, an eminent film & TV critic, about the controversy surrounding Tandav, the relevance of disclaimers, and the impact of the recent regulation on OTT content. 


Q1. There were controversies surrounding Tandav that allegedly hurt religious sentiments of Hindus. There are threats of boycotting the show, if those contents are not removed. The makers of the series have apologised for it, stating they didn't intend to hurt any beliefs. According to you, should Indian OTT content refrain from taking any religious references? And if there are religious references, how should they be perceived by the viewers, without their beliefs being undermined?

A. The scene in contention takes place in a theatre. Basically it features a group of college students performing some play. Now, the scene’s setting is satirical. The conversations are rife with wry humor and are not meant to be taken seriously. One is reminded of the Mahabharata scene from Kundan Shah's 1983 film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. The sequence is one of the major highlights of the film and has been praised for its humor. The satirical nature of the content is much stronger than what the aforementioned sequence from Tandav offers. Now, how is it possible that a movie that came out in 1983 was critically acclaimed and praised for its humor, while something [Tandav] done in a similar vein in 2021 is subjected to threats of boycott? Are we really evolving as a society? Isn’t this supposed to be the land of Kamasutra, Khajuraho, Kalidasa, Vatsyayana, Tagore, Gandhi and Vivekananda? Since when did we become so intolerant and regressive? Artists take such liberties all the time and in a healthy political environment it shouldn’t put them in any trouble. Of course, we can’t expect that kind of liberty in a country like Saudi Arabia, North Korea or Iran. But a country like India which provided asylum to Taslima Nasrin at a time no one else would is known to lead by an example. Isn’t His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama living in exile in India since 1959? That’s what India means to the whole world. Ostentatious displays of aggression, violence, and intolerance will only undermine our global image. Today, Netflix, Amazon, Disney, etc. want to come to India and create work opportunities for our artists but if we continue to corner artists and curb artistic freedom they will quickly start looking in other directions.

Q2. If a media content has a disclaimer that reads, "The [series or film] is a work of fiction and any resemblance to acts and persons and events is purely coincidental," and still has very vivid resemblances; for example, in Tandav, VNU is similar to JNU. Is it ethical for the media content to have such a disclaimer, that 'the resemblance is purely coincidental'?

A. Well, I am not a legal expert but using a disclaimer is a standard process that’s followed globally. Artists want to preserve their freedom of creation and I don’t see anything wrong with it. Say, if the president in a movie is corrupt, it isn’t necessarily saying that the real one is too. A work of art should not be constrained by real world issues just because someone is hell-bent on snuffing out an artist’s creative freedom. Now, to assume that VNU is based on JNU is pure speculation. You see that would be totally assumptive. Tomorrow someone in AMU may get offended speculating on the same lines. Now, an official document is likely to get rejected in case an oversight such as any minor misspelling or factual error. So how can one assume VNU to be JNU or AMU? Let’s assume that I make a film about a female Indian Prime Minister who shares a difficult relationship with the widowed wife of her deceased son. There is a possibility that someone may claim it to be based on the life of Smt. Indira Gandhi. They may file a defamation case. But can it be proven in a court of law? Well, it may depend on various factors. But just because my character has those basic similarities to the real person alone may not be sufficient to prove defamation. Say, I name that character as Paramindra Ghandy. The name sounds similar to Indira Gandhi but it may still be a completely different entity depending on the various details of its characterization. So disclaimers do help but they don’t deny people from suing you.

Q3. Could you describe the time when there was no autonomous body governing the OTT-generated content?

A. OTT has been a real game changer as far as India’s entertainment scene is concerned. For many years we had witnessed audiences complaining about the staleness of content on television. Our films too had failed to evolve like they were expected to. So when Sacred Games came out in 2018, it was a huge success. It was followed by Mirzapur and others. A section of the audiences suddenly started complaining about the use of expletives and excess of nudity and violence on offer in some of these shows. It paved the way for self-regulations wherein different OTT providers took it upon themselves to keep a lid on the excesses. And I feel it has had a positive impact on the quality of the content. Self-regulation has been able to succeed to a great extent in keeping a constructive check on the excesses without snuffing out the creativity.   

Q4 Can OTT contents have a strong influence to make or break opinions or/and mindsets, giving rise to communal hatred?

A. Movies or series can seldom affect world in such a capacity. While their sole purpose is entertainment they can at best be seen as a documentation of the times we live in. Expecting anything more would really be wishful thinking. If art possessed such power don’t you think we would have managed to establish peace in all the conflict zones of the world?

Q5. There was a case of Nikita Tomar being shot dead by Tauseef in Haryana as she didn't accept his marriage proposal in October 2020. He said he was inspired by Munna, a character from Mirzapur. In the series, Munna shoots his lady love, because she rejected him. What is your view on such an incident inspired from a trending series? 

A. Frankly, there is no documented, researched backed proof to support any such anomaly. Now, it would really be absurd to think that a perfectly sane individual would metamorphose into a cold blooded murder after watching some movie or series. How many of us have ended up as psychotic murderers after watching a Hitchcock masterpiece like Psycho?  Those with a criminal bent of mind are constantly on the lookout for excuses. It is highly plausible that the individual referred by you above is merely citing Mirzapur as an excuse to justify his depraved mindset.   

Q6. What do you feel about OTT-generated content coming under the Ministry of I&B? 

A. I feel self-regulation has had a positive impact on the quality of the content. It has been able to succeed to a great extent in keeping a constructive check on the excesses without snuffing out the creativity. But sadly now the government has decided to bring OTT under the ambit of the Ministry of I&B. We all know how antiquated out censorship laws have been. The Cinematography Act is absolutely redundant and it has severed stifled creativity as far as cinema is concerned and it’s one of the major reasons why our movies have never been able to compete with Hollywood and other major film industries of the world in terms of quality. Today, Indian OTT content is watched world over. The popularity of a show like Mirzapur in the US is skyrocketing. That’s precisely why we cannot afford to stall this creative surge in the name of government regulation.

Also, let’s not forget that OTT is subscription based and individual centric and isn’t intended for family viewing like film or television. If adults are capable enough to vote in the elections and choose their life partners then they also have the right to watch what they want to watch in their personal space.   

Q7. What would be the impact of regulations on the OTT content? 

A. There is a high possibility that the Indian content might lose its competitive edge and we may end up with another medium whose creativity gets slowly snuffed out like we witnessed with television starting in the 2000s. At this rate we may experience a similar regression with the content on OTT as we witnessed with our cinema during the tenure of Mr. Pahlaj Nihalani as the CBFC Chairman.

This is going to seriously curb creative freedom. We talk about competing with the US where they can have a series like ‘The Comey Rule’ which openly criticizes a sitting president or a show like ‘Who is America?’ which exposes all kinds of prejudices prevalent in America. But unfortunately we might be heading Saudi Arabia’s or China’s way where the government enjoys absolute authority over all kinds of creative freedom.

Q8. A Netflix series, ‘Delhi Crime’ bagged the ‘Best Drama’ award at the 48th Inter- national Emmy Awards in November 2020. Will there be scope for similar political or crime drama with respect to the current times, post regulations? 

A. I have serious doubts that OTT will be able to produce the same quality of content in the future. The manner in which it’s brought under the ambit of the Ministry of I&B, I really find it a little concerning as it might end up curbing creative freedom. I fear this would be a backward step that may take us at least a decade back. We may only have monotonous soap operas or comedy shows and that too without any scope for political satire.

Q9. As an informed and sane person, how to take creativity at its face value, without it instigating one to imitate the characters in it? 

A. I think the average citizen doesn’t mind it as much as the fringe groups do for petty political benefits. Only a society that is tolerant and inclusive has the potential to become a true ‘Vishwa Guru’. That’s precisely what we need to understand. If we don’t like something we can simply choose not to watch it. By stirring up needless controversies, these fringe groups only ensure that more people end up watching the content.

(Padmaja Jayaraman is a Bengaluru-based journalist)

A version of this article was first published in Transcontinental Times.

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