The Indian makers of an Amazon Prime mini-series and a senior company executive are under threat of criminal prosecution after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party deemed the drama offensive to the country’s Hindu majority.
Ali Abbas Zafar, director of the nine-part mini-series Tandav, publicly apologised and agreed to re-edit several episodes of the programme after a dressing down this week by India’s ministry of information and broadcasting.
The political drama — about a ruthless politician and an idealistic university student — contains a scene in which students in a play portray Hindu deities making contemptuous allusions to India’s politics. BJP supporters say the scene, which Amazon has agreed to axe, is a deep affront to Hindus.
But the apology and re-edits have failed to appease authorities in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state that is run by the controversial Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath, a close ally of Mr Modi.
Keshav Prasad Maurya, Uttar Pradesh’s deputy chief minister, vowed on Twitter that authorities would take “strict legal action” against the filmmakers for hurting Hindu sentiments and disrupting social harmony.
State police have flown to Mumbai, the hub of India’s film industry, to interrogate Mr Zafar, scriptwriter Gaurav Solanki and Aparna Purohit, head of India originals for Amazon Prime Video India. The company launched streaming services in the country four years ago.
Fearing arrest, the filmmakers and Ms Purohit obtained anticipatory bail from the Mumbai High Court on Wednesday.
Amazon India declined to comment.
Tandav stars Bollywood celebrity Saif Ali Khan as the ruthless politician and is replete with thinly disguised references to events that have roiled India in the last few years.
Manoj Kotak, a BJP parliamentarian, accused the filmmakers of “deliberately mocking Hindu gods and disrespect[ing] Hindu sentiments”, and demanded the show be banned.
The furore over the mini-series reflects the intensifying pressure on India’s creative industries, as the BJP’s Hindu nationalist supporters step up efforts to police the entertainment industry and purge elements they find distasteful.
“It is just one more event in the whole battening down of the hatches as far as public expression is concerned,” said Shubhra Gupta, author of 50 Films that Changed Bollywood. “What can you say? Can you speak your mind? Can you be seen to be differing?”
Amazon, and its streaming rivals Netflix and Disney/Hotstar are all betting big on India, which they see as market fuelled by a growing and digitally savvy middle class hungry for entertainment.
The companies are also investing heavily in producing original local-language content, enlisting many big Bollywood stars and filmmakers to their cause.
But navigating the sensibilities of emboldened rightwing Hindus has proved to be a challenge. Police in the state of Madhya Pradesh filed a criminal complaint in November against Netflix executives over a scene in the mini-series A Suitable Boy which depicted an interfaith couple kissing outside a ruined temple.
Filmmakers are not the only creatives under scrutiny.
Munawar Faruqui, a prominent Muslim stand-up comedian, was arrested on January 1 before a performance in Indore after rightwing Hindu activists complained that he was likely to insult Hindu gods in his show. Mr Faruqui has been denied bail twice in the BJP-ruled state.
Uttar Pradesh authorities are also seeking his custody, so they can prosecute him for jokes allegedly made at a performance in the state last year.
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