This month, two events occurred which have made us wonder how much nudity is too much nudity.
Milind Soman, model-turned-runner, has gone bare at different times—a quarter century ago, he appeared in a recreation of Original Sin with then-girlfriend Madhu Sapre, wearing only shoes. Then, he began to wear clothes, leaving his feet bare as he ran marathons and Ultrathons. To celebrate his fifty-fifth birthday, he ran without clothes or shoes—or even mask—in Goa, finally giving us the whole picture. Well, not quite the whole picture, since his photographer managed to get a shot that obscured his genitalia.
However, for the second time in his experiments with nudity, Soman has been charged with obscenity, although no more of him was seen than we see of the gentlemen in the underwear ads that haunt our television screens at prime time. It may be argued that a little less of him was seen than of them, since it was a sideways and distant view, unlike the underwear models who show us their contours from various angles, with briefs that cling to those contours.
The second event, somewhat more relevant to us than the square metreage of Milind Soman’s skin on display, has to do with the bringing of OTT platforms including Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The OTT platforms, which have so far streamed content without requiring a certificate of censorship, were crucial for two reasons—experimental films, work by young filmmakers without the means and pull to apply for a Universal rating from the increasingly conservative Censor Board, and web-series produced exclusively for these platforms could be screened; and second, people began to subscribe so that they could legally watch movies and series such as Game of Thrones in their entirety instead of turning to piracy as they did earlier.
OTT platforms have also eaten into the market share of satellite television or dish television, whose providers are known for hidden charges, poor service and lack of reception at the mildest drizzle. One of the main reasons for this shift, other than the quality of the streaming, the ubiquity of smartphones, and the variety of content, was the availability of ad free content, not regulated by the government. The OTT platforms have been able to sustain themselves, and even become profitable, from their user database.
If they were to be brought under the ambit of a government ministry, they will no longer be classified as digital or social media, and will have to conform to the standards set by the ministry. This does not bode well, particularly since the ministry did not accept the idea of a self-regulatory body proposed by the Internet and Mobile Association of India or the Online Curated Content Providers.
Films streamed on these OTT platforms include those which could not be released in the theatres because they were not able to get a censor board certificate. We live in a country where the kiss at the end of American Beauty is censored on television, because the idea of men in a lip lock does not conform to the Victorian laws that we continue to follow. Can we imagine films made by a director like Q, who is often the toast of European film festivals, ever being okayed for release by the Censor Board?
Film festivals in India have not been obliged to censor their line-up, but the sense of prudery only continues to grow. Actresses are regularly accused of obscenity. Retail outlets are picketed by people who are offended by their advertisements.
And it’s not just the right-wing fundamentalists, Muslim and Hindu, who are in favour of censorship, but the majority of self-proclaimed liberals too, who recently bullied Bloomsbury into reneging on a book contract.
An article by another self-proclaimed liberal explaining her stance on why she would not “stand with Arnab Goswami” went viral.
Our response to most people and opinions that don’t concur with our worldview is becoming steadily more reactionary. We would prefer that they did not exist, and if they must, that they were kept away from the public. And this makes dialogue impossible, because all we can agree on is a monologue that does not offend anyone.
Instagram, on which Soman posted his photograph, is technically a self-regulatory platform, and it was its grossness index that shot Rupi Kaur to fame. However, it did not see fit to remove Soman’s picture. Without the photograph, no one would have known that Soman had in fact run naked on the beach. And yet the Goa police has registered a complaint against him.
If Netflix were to comply to the rules by which television programmes are bound, Sacred Games would not be allowed to be streamed, at least not without cuts. And if the actors are bound by these obscenity rules and can have cases filed against them for the clothes they choose to wear—or not—our film industry will bend to the sort of self-censorship our literature already has. To say nothing of the fact that we will be alienating ourselves from films and serials produced in freer countries.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com