Will Amazon Prime & Netflix be Upholders of Free Speech

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Amazon Prime NetflixAmazon Prime Video and Netflix have been racking up a number of deals of late. The online streaming rights for Padmavati starring Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh have been sold to Amazon Prime Video for a rumored Rs 20-25 crore. Padmavati is rumored to have been made at a cost of Rs 180 crores by the director of the film Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Is this going to be the new norm for film makers? It could well be. Salman Khan has offered Amazon Prime the rights to stream his movies even before their television premiere. Yash Raj films, T-Series and many others have been reported to have signed similar deals.

Multiplex or Single Screen

With more than 2000 screens across India, multiplexes are an attractive option. USA with more than 40,000 screens has over 125 screens per million of population. India has a measly six screens per million people. Multiplexes may not de-risk the creative expression.

Getting the movie to the right number of screens is not a task for the faint hearted director. Even if the movie is slated to be shown for a week at a multiplex, the fate of the movie is usually decided over the weekend. If there is a blockbuster movie released in the same week, the audience will go to watch the bigger draw. Hence a movie made with a smaller budget does not have the staying power to survive another week at the multiplex.

“I am offended”

During the shooting of Padmavati, the director was assaulted by the workers of Rajput Karni Sena who also vandalised the sets of the film. The vandals were peeved by what they claimed was the “distortion of historical facts”. They were offended by the manner in which Alauddin Khilji was shown to be obsessed with Padmavati’s beauty. It is easy to expect that multiplex owners will hesitate to screen Padmavati lest the vandals destroy the movie theatre after watching the movie. You never know who will be offended.

Amazon Prime NetflixThis may mean that a film maker who decides to make a movie that may not be the usual song and dance kitsch that is the standard fare of Bollywood is at risk. Of course Padmavati is not the first movie that has courted controversy. Songs have had to be dropped or have their lyrics modified to appease a group that has been offended. Anyone can take a film or an artiste to court or beat them into silence. Comedians have been told that their brand of humor is offensive and have been hauled up before courts. Artists have been threatened because their depiction was not acceptable.

In conclusion

For the film makers, writers, lyricists and comedians, the streaming giants may offer a safe haven where opinions that are not palatable to the majority can be expressed. The stand-up comedians can do their routine without fear of a backlash other than the market forces. If viewers do not watch the shows or rate it poorly, the artistes will be taken off the air or at the very least not invited back. Free speech that challenges our worldview may thrive in the fringes while the mainstream cinema continues to dole out what is safe but bland. That may be another form of the digital divide.

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