Utopian Television? One Look at Netflix India!
Entertainment, emotion, and exaggeration, all rolled into one, the mainstream Hindi- cinema, has been more than just a movie-making industry. Movie-watching in theatres, especially in India, is a socially unifying experience like no other. Much like cinema, linear television also serves as a major source of entertainment in the country. In recent times, however, these entertainment platforms, although irreplaceable, have lost their position in the ‘center’, and have been hinging on the margins of cultural periphery.
Of course, these shall remain the most accessible modes of entertainment and cannot be eliminated anytime soon, but the pandemic and the privileged “quarantine and chill” phenomenon have massively contributed to a major cultural shift. Much like rest of the world, the entertainment industry in India has evolved, fuelling the already-existing disruptive forces of online streaming platforms. The main push of this article lies in specifically exploring Netflix, the fastest growing streaming giant in India.
Although “content is king” is the woke hip catchphrase that Bollywood cinema swears by, even in its most earnest attempts to adhere to it, mainstream cinema meets with the Indian censor board (Central Board of Film Certification – CBFC) which is known to ‘police’ content and sanction the content that deems ‘culturally viable’. Online streaming services evade censorship, thereby becoming a space where imagination and expression is achievable to the fullest, most unadulterated sense.
The term used for Netflix and the other digital streaming platforms is OTT: over-the-top, a reference to the router devices, placed “over the top” of a cable box that provide internet to access this content. “Over-the-top” can be relegated to the Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “excess” as the nature of content created by these over-the-top platforms, specifically Netflix, is “carnivalesque”: content that transcends restrictive constraints of thought and oppressive strictures of society, further looking at this representation as a “licensed transgression.” Netflix thus becomes what Bakhtin called the “another way of life” creating a vicarious space, which harbours a freedom and energy, unknown to any other mainstream media platforms.
The landmark for Netflix India was without a doubt, its first original series, Sacred Games. Making relevant political and social commentary on power, class, gender, and religion, releasing in 2018, it came as a breakthrough. It set an impressive bar for India’s Netflix originals, and went on to become “a show unlike anything else available on the streaming platform.” The dark storytelling, imbricated with graphic undertones painted an unsettling picture of the underbelly of Mumbai, a theme several Bollywood movies have grappled with, but Sacred Games’ raw, unfiltered narrative became a first.
Netflix India marks a revolutionary change in the way content is disseminated and consumed in the country. The primary reason behind this is the unique liberating space that it has created, enabling itself to present the ‘unspeakable’ and the forbidden in a compelling manner. As mainstream cinema and television are a playground for censorship, the inception of OTT content can be argued to stem from a deep-seated desire to be free, in this case, attain freedom from censorship. Most OTT platforms these days practice self-censorship, and since Netflix, like other OTT players, is still an emergent medium, practicing self-censorship, although subjective and questionable, becomes sufficient. It is only when a phenomenon becomes dominant, hegemonic powers attempt to ‘tame’ it.
Netflix is a global space where boundaries are blurred, national borders eroded, and the dissemination is fluid. Netflix India has inherently become a bearer of national identity, making Netflix India Originals the proxy for the nation itself. Having said that, it is also imperative to acknowledge that Netflix is a privileged medium; it is made available to, or rather chosen primarily by urban, English-speaking population. It also considerably lags in local language content, which other OTT players cash on. The goal should not be to romanticize Netflix as its biggest flaw is that it panders to privilege.
Although thriving on capitalism, it is often argued that Netflix has paved way for an ‘alternate television’, if one must, a utopian television that promises a present that delivers unfiltered quality storytelling. What makes this entire experience fascinating is that it is not the future, but that it is our present. Netflix is still in motion; we are still living it while trying to make sense of it. We have transitioned from “primetime to anytime”. We are the streaming generation living the Netflix Age. We binge-watch, are beyond being full, and yet remain hungry to consume more, while being served new content almost every other day. Is this utopian television healthy for us? Only time will tell.
-“Carnivalesque”. Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095550811
-Khosla, Proma. “Sacred Games will make you crave an Indian golden age of television.” Mashable India. July 13, 2018. https://mashable.com/article/sacred-games-netflix/
Picture Credits: Ishika Mohan Motwane/Netflix