India is the next big frontier for Netflix and Amazon. Now, the government is tightening rules on content.

FILE PHOTO: A smartphone with the Netflix logo lies in front of displayed “Streaming service” words in this illustration taken March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

NEW DELHI – The nine-part drama from Amazon promised to be India’s “House of Cards,” a gritty portrait of contemporary politics.

Instead, it nearly landed its creators in jail.

Within days of the release of the series in January, the streaming platform had become a target of Hindu nationalists angered by a brief scene depicting a Hindu god and remarks referencing India’s hierarchical caste system. At least 10 police complaints were filed against the makers, actors and Amazon executives in more than half a dozen states across the country. The makers of the drama, called “Tandav,” apologized and deleted the contentious scenes. But India’s top court refused to dismiss the police cases.

U.S. video streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are looking to the Indian market to power their global growth. But their shows are facing the wrath of Hindu nationalists, often linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, which wields increasing clout over what is acceptable entertainment. Now, the government has stepped in, raising fears about shrinking space for creative freedom.

In November, the government brought streaming platforms under the purview of the information and broadcasting ministry, which has licensing and content censorship powers in mediums like cinema and television.

This year, the government announced rules that subject online news outlets and video content providers to extensive regulation. Under the new rules, “publishers” are required to appoint a local representative to act on every complaint within 15 days. These companies are also required to join an industry association led by a retired judge to ensure compliance. The third level of regulation falls to a government committee that has the power to censure, demand an apologyor order the deletion of content.

Experts say the web platforms may find it hard to push back against government regulations given what’s at stake. India is the fastest-growing market for video streaming platforms, according to an estimate by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It forecast India’s growth in the category to be over 28 percent by 2024, double the projected global growth.

Netflix has invested $400 million in the past two years to produce or license content in India. In 2018, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the company’s next 100 million users would come from India.

For Amazon, too, India is a key market. During his visit to the country last year, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said the company would “double down” on its investment in India, citing its growing popularity. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The new rules also include stringent provisions for social media giants such as Facebook and WhatsApp, requiring them to take down content deemed inappropriate in a short period of time and comply with court or government orders to identify creators.

While experts called the rules “unconstitutional,” the government has said they are “progressive, liberal and contemporaneous.”

India is not the only country where streaming sites have to contend with local restrictions. Last year, Netflix canceled a show in Turkey after the government refused to give permission to film the series over the inclusion of a gay character. In Saudi Arabia, the company pulled an episode of “Patriot Act” by comedian Hasan Minhaj that criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a wave of Hindu nationalism has exacerbated religious tensions,jeopardizing India’s democratic status. This week, a report on global democracy downgraded the world’s largest democracy to an “electoral autocracy,” primarily due to a sharp decline in freedom of expression, the media, and civil society.

In January, a Muslim stand-up comic had to spend a month in jail following a complaint by the son of a BJP leader for a joke he did not make. Lower courts repeatedly denied him bail for “outraging religious feelings” under the “garb of standup comedy.” Later, the Supreme Court granted him bail.

Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and similar platforms are often credited with pushing the envelope on delicate subjects such as female sexuality or social justice. “Delhi Crime,” a fictionalized retelling of a brutal gang rape on Netflix, won an Emmy for Best Drama Series in 2020 – the first for an Indian show.

But the pushback is growing. Besides “Tandav,” the makers of “Mirzapur,” a crime thriller set in the eponymous small town in Uttar Pradesh, also on Amazon Prime Video, are also battling police complaints for “hurting religious sentiments.” Earlier, the member of Parliament from Mirzapur, an ally of the BJP, urged Modi to take action against the show for depicting the town as a den of violence.

Police from Uttar Pradesh, run by a hard-line Hindu monk from the BJP, traveled to Mumbai to investigate the case against Tandav and have questioned Amazon’s head of India Originals, Aparna Purohit. Rejecting her pre-arrest bail plea, a judge from a lower court said “sentiments of the majority community have been hurt” by the show.

This month, Amazon Prime Video stepped in with a fresh apology for the controversial scenes in “Tandav.” The statement said they respect the “diverse beliefs” of its viewers and “apologize unconditionally” to those who felt hurt.

On Thursday, the national agency in overseeing children’s rights asked Netflix to stop streaming its just-released show “Bombay Begums” over what it described as an “inappropriate” portrayal of children.

Representatives from the two companies declined to respond to questions about the impact of the new guidelines on their content and the ongoing police cases.

India’s internet boom is driven by the easy availability of cheap internet data plans and the proliferation of smartphones. There are more than 570 million internet users in India, with recent growth happening among rural populations.

“Every large platform is looking at India to give them the next phase of growth,” said Rajib Basu, the head of media and entertainment sector for PricewaterhouseCoopers in India. “It’s an English-speaking market and the biggest after China, which is not free. Nobody can ignore it.”

The new rules have created “panic,” said Karan Anshuman, one of the writers and directors of “Mirzapur,” the show targeted in police complaints.

Days after the rules were announced, Mint newspaper reported that Amazon Prime Video had shelved the second season of “Paatal Lok,” a sobering drama that had received praise for its unembellished depiction of discrimination and corruption.

Anshuman said that the signs were not encouraging for the creative industry.

“It’s too early to say how things are going to play out,” he said. But “we’re already doubting our own selves over whether something is too political.”



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