Watching Thar, the latest Hindi movie on Netflix, I could not help but wonder why so many Indian shows streaming on the international OTT platforms are so… gruesome.
Thar, which stars Anil Kapoor and his son Harshvardhan Kapoor, is unrelentingly bleak and contains long sequences of extreme torture and a brutal gang rape. And the torture, which includes slicing off body parts and hammering nails into feet, is committed by a man whom the makers could even be hoping that the audience will feel a bit of sympathy for.
The in-vogue terms used to describe such films and shows are “gritty”, “edgy” and “dark”. The trend began with Netflix’s first original Indian show Sacred Games (July 2018), with its in-your-face violence and sex scenes that seemed to revel in their sordidness.
New standards were then set by shows like Amazon Prime Video’s Mirzapur (October 2018) and Paatal Lok (May 2020), and others have followed. Blood, gore, gratuitous killings, torture, mass murders, rapes, child molestation, castration—film makers seem to have competed with one another to achieve the highest shock value. But most of these shows were made with quite some technical competence—from script to cinematography to editing. They earned wide viewerships.
Let me make it clear that I am against any form of censorship. Indian cinema history is full of instances of illogical cuts imposed on films. The situation appears to have improved somewhat in recent years, but traditionally, Indian censors have held enormous nanny-state powers, deciding arbitrarily what is acceptable for the people to watch, and what would corrupt their morals.
It is obvious that when the OTT platforms arrived in India, with its shows not under the purview of Indian censors, film makers gave vent to their long-held frustrations. Now they could show the audience what they had wanted to for many years. The new freedom opened the floodgates. This was but natural.
The audience, too, deprived of mature and adult content on television, lapped it up. Supply and demand fed each other. Ultra-violent American shows like Narcos had already been streaming and become popular. Now both Indian film-makers and viewers wanted to see how far the envelope could be pushed.
Naturally, this has led to gratuitous excesses. An example is last year’s Netflix limited series Ray, based on four short stories by Satyajit Ray. These stories were written for schoolboys, but the film-makers had changed all of them almost beyond recognition, by incorporating entirely adult sexual themes and the now-tedious profusion of foul language (apparently, Indian streaming shows can’t be made without characters using four-letter words every two and a half minutes). Ray would certainly have been shocked.
The wonderful qualities of whimsy, gentle humour and humanism that characterized Ray’s tales had been entirely discarded. And what on earth happened to that concept called family entertainment?
The same is true for many Western shows, too—especially European ones. I am not being a prude. There have always been films that demand graphic sex and violence and have used them with great effect, but many European shows on the streaming platforms seem to stop the action frequently to have long sex sequences. These scenes only slow down the story and contribute nothing in particular to shows which had been speeding along just fine and gripped the audience’s full attention. This is sex for the sake of salaciousness.
It is obviously the film-makers’ right to make a film the way they want it, and the market should decide whether they should be rewarded or rejected. But each individual too has the right to form their own opinion about what’s going on.
There could be two more factors at play here for the Indian shows. They are being made for a global audience and the makers perhaps believe that to be successful, they must go as far as the Europeans in being no-holds-barred. It is difficult to judge the long-term efficacy of this strategy. Too much depravity on your screen can turn mundane over time.
There may also be a belief that the Western audience is primarily interested in seeing the country’s dark side in an Indian show. Hence the conscious and constant emphasis on dirt, injustices, corruption, caste and communal strife and other assorted horrors. In a way, this is a form of providing cheap thrills to certain assumed tastes and preferences.
One does not know how long these “gritty” and “edgy” shows will be able to maintain viewership. The trouble, of course, is that when such a show is renewed by the platforms for another season, the makers have to find ways to get even darker. They can only attempt greater depths.Yet there may be a giant market waiting for well-made Indian shows that do not obey mainstream unrealistic feelgood rules, but leave viewers feeling content and allow them to go to bed in a happy state of mind rather than a disturbed one. At some point of time, some people may begin wondering why they are spending money and time only to receive the emotional equivalent of a punch in the gut. There could potentially be a huge audience out there for happy endings and simple human dignity.