Netflix Film’s Removal Shows Power of India’s Hindu Right Wing

The trailer for “Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food” promised a sunny if melodramatic story of uplift in a south Indian temple town. A priest’s daughter enters a cooking tournament, but social obstacles complicate her inevitable rise to the top. Annapoorani’s father, a Brahmin sitting at the top of Hindu society’s caste ladder, doesn’t want her to cook meat, a taboo in their lineage. There is even the hint of a Hindu-Muslim romantic subplot.

On Thursday, two weeks after the movie premiered, Netflix abruptly pulled it from its platform. An activist, Ramesh Solanki, a self-described “very proud Hindu Indian nationalist,” had filed a police complaint arguing that the film was “intentionally released to hurt Hindu sentiments.” He said it mocked Hinduism by “depicting our gods consuming nonvegetarian food.”

The production studio quickly responded with an abject letter to a right-wing group linked to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, apologizing for having “hurt the religious sentiments of the Hindus and Brahmins community.” The movie was soon removed from Netflix both in India and around the world, demonstrating the newfound power of Hindu nationalists to affect how Indian society is depicted on the screen.

Nilesh Krishnaa, the movie’s writer and director, tried to anticipate the possibility of offending some of his fellow Indians. Food, Brahminical customs and especially Hindu-Muslim relations are all part of a third rail that has grown more powerfully electrified during Mr. Modi’s decade in power. But, Mr. Krishnaa told an Indian newspaper in November, “if there was something disturbing communal harmony in the film, the censor board would not have allowed it.”

With “Annapoorani,” Netflix appears to have in effect done the censoring itself even when the censor board did not. In other cases, Netflix now seems to be working with the board unofficially, though streaming services in India do not fall under the regulations that govern traditional Indian cinema.

For years, Netflix ran unredacted versions of Indian films that had sensitive parts removed for their theatrical releases — including political messages that contradicted the government’s line. Since last year, though, the streaming versions of movies from India match the versions that were censored locally, no matter where in the world they are viewed.

Officials at Netflix in Mumbai said that the film had been removed at the request of the licenser, meaning the company that holds the rights to distribute the film.

Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, has spoken publicly about similar policies in the past. In 2019, facing criticism for having blocked from Saudi viewers an American show satirizing Saudi Arabia, Mr. Hastings told a DealBook conference, “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to do entertainment.”

New complaints from within India affect overseas markets far from the sparks that inspired them. A complaint like Mr. Solanki’s also affects viewers in parts of the country that have very different politics and culinary preferences.

Popular culture from Tamil Nadu, the southern state where “Annapoorani” was made, has routinely taken aim at casteism for nearly a hundred years. The state’s politics have been devoted to overcoming Brahmin privilege for generations. And while most Hindus from Mr. Modi’s home state of Gujarat are vegetarian, nearly 98 percent of all Tamils are nonvegetarian.

As pressure from an emboldened Hindu right wing mounts on India’s streaming platforms, Indians who make nonfiction films feel the squeeze, too. Some of the most praised documentaries to emerge from India in recent years have taken subtle stances against Mr. Modi’s pro-Hindu politics, including “Writing With Fire” and “All That Breathes.”

Thom Powers, an American film-festival programmer, said that “the pattern in recent years is that documentaries from India first find an audience abroad.” Indians are more likely to find bootlegged versions than to find them streaming on commercial platforms. “While We Watched,” for example, cannot be found on any paid site, but shows freely on YouTube.

India’s government is in the process of building a more powerful legal framework to regulate what its citizens can see online. In the meantime, the streaming platforms are supposed to regulate themselves.

Netflix and other companies in its position have become increasingly familiar with the right-wing campaigns against movies deemed hurtful to the feelings of Hindu communities; tire-burning and stone-throwing at theaters are the new norm. Rather than wait for protests to find their local headquarters, or for the state to protect them, many have tried to avoid causing offense.

Nikhil Pahwa, a co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, thinks the streaming companies are ready to capitulate: “They’re unlikely to push back against any kind of bullying or censorship, even though there is no law in India” to force them.

You may also like...