The removal of a Netflix film shows the increasing power

The removal of a Netflix film shows the increasing power of India's Hindu right wing

The trailer for “Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food” promised a sunny, if melodramatic, story of recovery in a south Indian temple town. A priest's daughter enters a cooking tournament, but social obstacles complicate her inevitable rise to the top. Annapoorani's father, a Brahmin at the top of the Hindu caste ladder, doesn't want her to cook meat, a taboo in her lineage. There's even a hint of a Hindu-Muslim romantic subplot.

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

The production studio quickly responded with a pathetic 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 soon removed from Netflix both in India and around the world, demonstrating the newfound power of Hindu nationalists to influence the portrayal of Indian society on screen.

Nilesh Krishnaa, the film's writer and director, tried to foresee that it might offend some of his countrymen. Food, Brahminical customs and especially Hindu-Muslim relations are all part of a third rail that has become more electrified during Mr Modi's decade in power. But Mr Krishnaa told an Indian newspaper in November: “If the film had contained anything that would have disturbed social harmony, the censor board would not have allowed it.”

In the case of “Annapoorani,” it appears that Netflix actually did the censorship itself, even though the censor board did not. In other cases, Netflix now appears to be working unofficially with the board, even though streaming services in India are not covered by the regulations that apply to traditional Indian cinema.

For years, Netflix ran unedited versions of Indian films that removed sensitive parts for theatrical release – including political messages that contradicted the government's line. However, since last year, streaming versions of films from India correspond to versions that have been censored locally, regardless of where in the world they are viewed.

Netflix officials in Mumbai did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, has spoken publicly about similar policies in the past. In 2019, at a DealBook conference, when criticized for blocking Saudi viewers from an American program that mocked Saudi Arabia, Hastings said: “We're not trying to speak truth to power.” To make entertainment.”

New complaints from India are impacting foreign markets far from the triggers 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 from Tamil Nadu, the southern state where “Annapoorani” was made, has regularly targeted casteism for nearly a century. The state's policies have been dedicated to overcoming Brahmin privileges for generations. And while most Hindus from Mr. Modi's home state of Gujarat are vegetarians, nearly 98 percent of all Tamils ​​are non-vegetarians.

As pressure mounts on India's streaming platforms from an emboldened Hindu right, Indians producing non-fiction films are also feeling the pressure. Some of the most lauded documentaries to emerge in India 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: “The pattern in recent years is that documentaries from India first find an audience abroad.” Indians are more likely to find pirated films than stream them on commercial platforms. “While We Watched,” for example, is not available on any paid websites, but is shown for free on YouTube.

The Indian government is in the process of creating a more effective legal framework to regulate what its citizens can see online. The streaming platforms are now supposed to regulate themselves.

Netflix and other companies in its position have become increasingly familiar with right-wing campaigns against films deemed hurtful to the sentiments of Hindu communities; Tire burning and stone throwing in theaters are the new norm. Rather than wait for the protests to find their local headquarters or for the state to protect them, many have tried to stay out of trouble.

Nikhil Pahwa, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, believes that streaming companies are ready to capitulate: “It is unlikely that they will stand up to any kind of bullying or censorship, even if there is no law in India.” to force them.