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Bollywood, streaming giants on edge as Amazon gets flak for hurting religious beliefs in India

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Shilpa Jamkhandikar, Aditya Kalra and Euan Rocha
·3 min read
A poster of Tandav, a web series is seen on Amazon Prime Video streaming service website in this illustration picture
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By Shilpa Jamkhandikar, Aditya Kalra and Euan Rocha

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Controversy in India over Amazon's political drama "Tandav" has put Bollywood and global video streaming giants on edge, prompting a closer scrutiny of scripts for possible offence to religious sentiments in a key growth market.

Companies like Amazon's Prime Video and Netflix are inspecting planned shows and scripts, with some even deleting scenes that could be controversial, five Bollywood directors and producers, and two industry sources said.

This comes as Amazon Prime Video has become embroiled in legal cases and police complaints alleging "Tandav" depicts Hindu gods and goddesses in a derogatory manner and offends religious beliefs. "Tandav", a Hindi word meaning fury, stars top Bollywood actors.

Public outcry over obscenity and religious depictions are common in culturally sensitive India, but the "Tandav" issue snowballed as police questioned Amazon India's head of original content for Prime Video for hours following official complaints.

Fearing arrest, Aparna Purohit put in an anticipatory bail plea, which was declined by a state court but the Supreme Court on Friday gave her protection from arrest.

"Scripts are being read and re-read now," said a producer from Bollywood, India's Hindi film industry. "Streaming platforms are vetting content for anything that they see as a red flag," the producer added, declining to be named.

Amazon has decided to delay streaming a new season of a popular Hindi spy thriller, "The Family Man", which was to release last month, four of the sources told Reuters.

The show, Amazon says, is about an Indian intelligence officer's efforts in his "high-pressure, and low paying job".

While Amazon declined to comment, one of the sources said the delay was "a ripple effect of what happened with Tandav".

Amazon recently issued a public apology "to anyone who felt hurt" by "Tandav", saying some objectionable scenes had been removed.

India, the world's second-most populous nation with 1.3 billion people, is a valuable market for Amazon and its rivals Netflix and Walt Disney Co's Disney+ Hotstar.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said at an event last year that Prime Video was doing well globally "but nowhere it's doing better than India".

Netflix has announced 41 new shows and films for 2021 in India, versus around 30 new titles released in 2020.

'TOO MUCH RISK', ARREST FEARS

Unlike films, content on video streaming platforms currently face no censorship in India.

But some lawmakers and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party say certain shows on Amazon and Netflix promote obscenity or hurt religious beliefs.

A member of the ruling party's youth wing has made a police complaint against Netflix, objecting to scenes in the series "A Suitable Boy" showing a Hindu girl kissing a Muslim boy against the backdrop of a Hindu temple.

Netflix is closely tracking Amazon's "Tandav" cases, one entertainment industry source said.

Netflix declined to comment.

One scene from "Tandav" removed by Amazon after release was around a stage play where a person acting as the Hindu god Shiva seeks suggestions on how to increase his social media following after someone says Lord Ram was becoming very popular online.

Revered characters of faith have "been lampooned and portrayed in a very cheap" way, the state court judge observed while declining Purohit's anticipatory bail plea.

The Supreme Court, however, gave her protection from arrest subject to her co-operation in the case.

Her lawyer said Amazon was willing to cut more scenes from "Tandav" if desired.

Among the biggest fallout of the controversy is the rising fear of arrests. Some producers are asking for clauses in their contracts with streaming services to protect them from lawsuits.

"It's just too much of a risk and not worth the headache, especially if you are being threatened with jail," a producer said.

(Reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar, Aditya Kalra and Euan Rocha; Additional reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal and Saurabh Sharma; Editing by Himani Sarkar)