An outcry by Hindu nationalists and criminal complaints for allegedly hurting Hindus’ religious sentiment has prompted the director of a new Amazon television political drama to delete scenes that allegedly mocked Hindi deities and a dialogue with derisive references to lower castes.
The show, Tandav, released last month here, was widely expected to win many viewers as it boasted of some of the biggest names in Bollywood. But political analysts say the backlash against the TV series has again put the spotlight on a rising tide of Hindu nationalism in India.
“This signals a new political culture supportive of intolerance, of a hardline Hindu ideology which is endorsed by the ruling party,” said Niranjan Sahoo at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, pointing out that members of the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu groups were among those who filed police complaints, voiced strident objections and called for the show to be banned.
The TV show is centered on a power-hungry politician bent on becoming India’s prime minister. The scenes that offended Hindu nationalists include one in which a university student plays the role of the Hindu god Shiva and scenes in which characters insult lower castes.
One of the police complaints filed in the northern Uttar Pradesh state, ruled by the BJP, also said that the political drama portrays the prime minister’s post in “an indecent manner.”
In a statement after the controversy erupted, the show's director, Ali Abbas Zafar, called the TV series a “pure work of fiction” and said that the cast and crew “unconditionally apologize if it has unintentionally hurt anybody's sentiments."
However, the apology and the deletion of the offending scenes have not assuaged those who have objected to the TV series.
A BJP member of Parliament, Manoj Kotak, told VOA the makers of the TV series and actors must face legal action.
“What they did is not pardonable,” he said. “It is not enough to say ‘sorry’ after doing something wrong. You have to be answerable for what has been done.”
Soon after the show went on the air last month, he had said that the show “deliberately mocked Hindu gods and disrespected Hindu religious sentiments."
Tandav is not the only TV series that has angered Hindu nationalists.
Objections to a scene in which a Hindu woman and a Muslim man kiss against the backdrop of a Hindu temple in a Netflix TV series, A Suitable Boy, had prompted a police complaint in November in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh by a BJP youth wing member, Gaurav Tiwari, who said the scene “hurt religious sentiments.”
A stand-up comedian, Munawar Faruqui, who was scheduled to give a comedy show in Madhya Pradesh, has been in jail since last month after the leader of a local Hindu group, Eklavya Singh Gaud, complained to police that he had outraged religious feelings. Faruqui had not begun his show when he was arrested. Gaud told reporters later that “he has made indecent remarks on Hindu gods and goddesses in the past."
Three BJP-ruled states have also passed controversial legislation prescribing prison terms for anyone using marriage to force religious conversion. Dubbed the “love jihad” law, it aims to address concerns among Hindu nationalists that women are being lured into marriage by Muslim men in order to convert them to Islam -- critics have dismissed such fears as a “conspiracy” theory. In Uttar Pradesh, several Muslim men have been arrested under the law.
Political analysts such as Sahoo say the trend is disturbing.
“Filing police complaints, dragging people to courts, this all will have a chilling impact on our democracy, on free speech and creative expression,” he said.
There have been growing calls for regulation of content on platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney's Hotstar as it raises the ire of some amid the growing wave of Hindu nationalism.
BJP lawmaker Kotak said the problem is not just with Tandav.
“The way shows on streaming services are portraying sex, violence, abuse, women, Hindu gods and goddesses is not correct,” he told VOA.
Kotak is among those who have called on the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to regulate streaming platforms.
Unlike films, streaming TV services are not subject to the country’s censorship boards.
India has emerged as a big market for Amazon and other streaming platforms, which, besides airing international shows, are producing a lot of local content as they gain popularity.
In the days after the controversy over Tandav erupted last month, an editorial in The Times of India newspaper, “Democracy’s Killjoys,” said, “This bullying of artists and creative expression doesn’t serve India well, culturally or commercially.”
“Cinema is a source of immense soft power for India,” the editorial said.
Using an abbreviation for “over-the-top media,” which refers to media distributed by internet, the paper said, “The Bollywood-centred OTT industry is booming, generating jobs and new experiential spaces for creators and consumers.
“However,” it continued, “censorship, harassment and governmental overreach endanger this India story too, after other India stories have come off the rails.”