Netflix film’s removal shows the power of the Hindu right in India

Netflix film’s removal shows the power of the Hindu right in India

The trailer for “Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food” promised a sunny but melodramatic story of upliftment in a South Indian temple town. A priest’s daughter competes in a cooking tournament, but social obstacles complicate her inevitable rise to the top. Annapoorani’s father, a Brahmin at the top of the caste ladder in Hindu society, does not want her to cook meat, a taboo in their lineage. There’s even a hint of a Hindu-Muslim romantic subplot.

On Thursday, two weeks after the film’s premiere, Netflix abruptly removed it from its platform. An activist, Ramesh Solanki, a self-described “very proud Indian Hindu nationalist”, had filed a complaint with the police, arguing that the film had been “intentionally released to hurt Hindu sentiments”. He said it mocked Hinduism by “depicting our gods consuming non-vegetarian food”.

The production studio quickly responded with an abject letter to a right-wing group linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, apologizing for “hurting the religious sentiments of the Hindu and Brahmin community.” The film was quickly removed from Netflix in India and around the world, demonstrating the new power of Hindu nationalists to influence the way Indian society is depicted on screen.

Nilesh Krishnaa, the film’s writer and director, tried to anticipate the possibility of offending some of his fellow Indians. Food, Brahminical customs and especially Hindu-Muslim relations are all part of a third rail that has become increasingly electrified during Mr. Modi’s decline in power. But, Mr. Krishnaa said an Indian newspaper in November, “if there was anything that disrupted communal harmony in the film, the censor board would not have allowed it.”

With “Annapoorani,” Netflix appears to have effectively carried out censorship itself, even if the censor board did not do so. In other cases, Netflix now appears to be working unofficially with the board, although streaming services in India do not fall under the regulations that govern traditional Indian cinema.

For years, Netflix released unexpurgated versions of Indian films that had sensitive parts removed during their theatrical releases – including political messages that contradicted the government line. However, since last year, streaming versions of Indian films have matched the locally censored versions, regardless of where they are viewed in the world.

Netflix officials in Mumbai said the the film had been withdrawn at the request of the licensor, that is to say the company which holds the distribution rights to the film.

Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, has previously spoken publicly about similar policies. In 2019, facing criticism for blocking an American satirical show about Saudi Arabia from Saudi viewers, Mr. Hastings told a DealBook conference: “We’re not trying to ‘speak truth to power.’ . “We’re trying to be entertaining.”

New complaints from India are affecting foreign markets, far from the sparks that inspired them. A complaint like Mr. Solanki’s also affects viewers in parts of the country that have very different political and culinary preferences.

Popular culture in Tamil Nadu, the southern state where “Annapoorani” was made, has regularly attacked the caste system for almost a hundred years. For generations, state policy has aimed to overcome the privileges of Brahmins. And while most Hindus in the state of Gujarat, where Mr. Modi lives, are vegetarian, nearly 98 percent of all Tamils ​​are non-vegetarian.

As pressure from an emboldened Hindu right grows on Indian streaming platforms, Indians making non-fiction films are also feeling the pressure. Some of India’s most beloved documentaries in recent years have taken subtle stances against Mr. Modi’s pro-Hindu policies, including “Writing With Fire” and “All That Breathes.”

Thom Powers, an American film festival programmer, said that “the trend in recent years is for Indian documentaries to find an audience abroad first.” Indians are more likely to find counterfeit versions than to find them streaming on commercial platforms. “While We Watched,” for example, cannot be found on any paid sites, but is streamed for free on YouTube.

The Indian government is putting in place a stronger legal framework to regulate what its citizens can see online. In the meantime, streaming platforms are supposed to self-regulate.

Netflix and other companies like them are increasingly familiar with right-wing campaigns against films deemed hurtful to the sentiments of Hindu communities; burning tires and throwing stones in theaters are the new normal. Rather than waiting for protests to find local headquarters or for the state to protect them, many have tried to avoid causing offense.

Nikhil Pahwa, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, thinks streaming companies are ready to capitulate: “They are unlikely to oppose any form of intimidation or censorship, even if it does not ‘There is no law in India’ to force them to do so. .

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David B.Otero

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