Netflix Row | Kissing At Temples Forbidden In The Country Of Erotic Khajuraho Art?

kissing scenes, netflix a suitable boy

When the centre issued a notification earlier this month about the regulation of content on OTT platforms, alarms were raised – both by lovers of art and patrons of free speech – over the censorship of creative expression. You can read here about how skeptical I was myself as well. Now, less than a month later, I find myself double-crossing my own thoughts: do we even need central authorities to interfere when we already have self-elected gatekeepers of culture from within the audience? We reported how following a complaint from a youth member of BJP, a case has been filed in Madhya Pradesh against Netflix officials for streaming an interfaith kiss at a temple in the web series A Suitable Boy. Many others, who have taken offence with the kiss scene allegedly on Hindu religious premises, now want to #BanNetflix.

Whenever the audience seeks an embargo on intimate content, my mind can’t help but immediately travel to the stunningly erotic Hindu temples of Khajuraho, which in this case doubles the irony, given their location in Madhya Pradesh. One would think that a state, which prides itself on being the land of world-renowned erotic temple art that is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, would be more welcoming to intimacy than it currently is. But in India, offence-taking has become the norm, and religion, the biggest point of contention.

So is the temple kiss nothing but a non-issue being made to masquerade as an issue towards political gains?

What does it say about our society’s progress when a novel about interfaith love, written by Vikram Seth way back in 1993, is under religious scrutiny now in 2020? Moreover, what does an FIR for a kiss on a show pre-empt about the future of OTT censorship in India?

Also Read: Tanishq Controversy Prompts Women To Share Personal Stories Of Successful Interfaith Marriages

Should Political Leaders Have The Liberty To Decide What We Watch?

It isn’t hard to notice that these inflamed religious passions are stoking fires only now in November, when talk of “love jihad” is exploding on the political battleground. Since October 31, several BJP-ruled states have already announced a prospective punishable law against “love jihad” to curb crimes against Hindu women. Now what’s bizarre is that Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy has been streaming since way before October – first on BBC from July, and then on Netflix since October 23. Why weren’t the objections being offered now not raised when the series first streamed? Could it be that it has been raised only to validate and cement the need for forthcoming policies on “love jihad” and OTT censorship?

What’s perhaps more worrying than the FIR is that this call for content regulation has been given a thrust even by influential BJP leaders in power. MP Home Minister Narottam Sharma, alongside other right-wing speakers, has given the case a massive push by backing the narrative of Netflix showing “objectionable” content. He hasn’t shied away from letting his thoughts be known on social media through various video messages.

Also Read: If Only We Could Transport Ourselves Back To Our College Days

What scope is there then for the more tolerant audience to pushback on undue outrage against OTT content, when political leaders themselves are weighing in on the issue? How much power do we, the common citizens, have to decide on what we want to watch, when political leaders, motivated by something as subjective as religion, are taking the liberty to decide for us?

Where To Draw The Line In Offence-Taking?

The issue of offence-taking, especially along the lines of religion, is largely non-rectifiable. In India, as across the world, it has always happened and probably almost always will. Communal riots, religious divides, and wars are far too profitable in the maintenance of the hierarchical status quo to be quashed anytime soon. In the absence of a viable solution, the question that bothers is where does one draw the line? And on what parameters? Since religion should ideally be a private institution, can it be allowed to dictate creative content at all?

In the aftermath of the series of terrorist attacks in France last month, allegedly over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and “ridicule” of Islam, the violence had been condemned by all those who believe creativity should have a free pass on religion if free speech is to be upheld. Because if I make art that offends another, does that offence have a claim over my life? Or even in lesser degrees, as in the case of A Suitable Boy, does another person’s offence have the authority to “remove” or “ban” artwork that I enjoy?

Should the harm of censorship and value of creative expression only be realised when religious beliefs evoke extreme reactions – nothing less than murder and terrorism?

Freedom in speech and art cannot be a selective choice based on convenience. It must be defended consistently, notwithstanding whether the kiss takes place in a temple or a mosque.

Views expressed are the author’s own.