Amazon Prime drama agrees to changes after Hindu nationalist pressure

Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

An Indian political drama on Amazon Prime has been forced to edit out scenes that were accused of being an “insult to Hindu gods”, the first time that streaming platforms have been subjected to Indian government censorship.

Tandav, a gritty political drama made by Amazon Prime, one of the world’s largest streaming platforms, had faced growing controversy since it launched last week over allegations it had “hurt Hindu religious sentiments” and insulted the office of the prime minister.

A rightwing Hindu nationalist group, politicians with the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), and a BJP group representing members of India’s lower castes were among those who had filed police reports against Tandav and Amazon Prime.

Tandav is latest in a wave of bolder, more progressive and political Indian series which have debuted on Netflix and Amazon Prime over the past year and been met with a fierce backlash from rightwing Hindu groups and BJP politicians.

The censorship of the show has been seen as indicative of the shrinking space for creative freedom under the Hindu nationalist BJP government. In November, streaming platforms were brought under the control of the Ministry of Information for the first time, leading to fears that content will be subjected to the same tight controls as traditional film and television platforms in India.

Tandav’s director, Bollywood stalwart Ali Abbas Zafar, had come under fire for scenes in the show which appeared to mirror real life caste and religious divides in India as well as referencing criminality in the state of Uttar Pradesh and showing the fictional prime minister acting in an “indecent manner”.

An adviser to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, accused Tandav’s creators of “spreading hate in the guise of cheap web series” and told them to “be prepared for arrest”.

Related: In the ‘land of storytelling’, Netflix and Amazon Prime reshape India’s creative landscape

Zafar had attempted to ease tensions by issuing an apology, emphasising that the show was “a work of fiction and any resemblance to acts and persons and events is purely coincidental” and that no offence was meant.

However, he was summoned by the government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Tuesday and agreed to “edit” out the offending scenes, the first time that content on a streaming platform has been altered under apparent government pressure.

“The cast and crew of Tandav have made the decision to implement changes to the web series to address the concerns raised,” said Zafar in a statement posted on social media. “We thank the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for the guidance and support in the matter. We once again apologise if the series has unintentionally hurt anybody’s sentiments.” Amazon Prime has declined to comment.

The streaming platforms have invested billions into the lucrative Indian market and built up a reputation among Indian viewers for programming that is not scared of tackling controversial or divisive issues, from sexual violence against women to communal divides between Hindus and Muslims.

Netflix and Amazon Prime have been credited for building a new international audience for Indian content and have garnered multiple Emmy award nominations and wins, a first for Indian-made dramas.

However, several shows on the platforms, including Leila, Paatal Lok, Sacred Games and Rasbhari, had all been subjected to police complaints by politicians and Hindu nationalist groups for offending religious or political sentiments.

Most recently the BBC adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which was made available on Netflix, was subjected to a police complaint for scene which showed a Hindu girl and Muslim boy kissing near a temple.

Shivraj Chouhan, the BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, was among those who condemned Tandav and called for greater censorship. “Nobody has the right to disrespect our gods and goddesses,” he said. “In my opinion we need to keep a strict eye on OTT [streaming] platforms as they are showing vulgar content.”