Our Freedom of Expression is Under Challenge. Sacred Games is Just the Start

Social Commentary

Our Freedom of Expression is Under Challenge. Sacred Games is Just the Start

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Much like anybody with a Netflix account, I’ve spent the last week obsessing over the brilliant Sacred Games, overjoyed by the arrival of an Indian web series that feels, above all else, real. There is a visceral rawness to Sacred Games that made me, a lifelong resident of Bombay, feel like my laptop monitor was no longer a screen, but a clear window through which I could observe my city in all her ugly beauty. The characters and story might be figments of an author’s imagination, but the world they live in, is our world, warts and all.

Unfortunately, the truth tastes worse than baingan, and is even less popular. Sacred Games’ unflinching portrayal of communal tension, oppressive government policies, and general lawlessness that is part of daily life in India has left feathers ruffled across the country. The most upset birdie was the Congress worker who filed FIRs against the makers for the show’s unfavourable view of Rajiv Gandhi. Sacred Games holds him responsible for the overturning of the landmark Shah Bano judgment, which kickstarted the juggernaut of communal polarisation in the country – and is the reason the Congress is described, even 33 years later, as a “Muslim party”.

While the Congress was upset by the way Rajiv Gandhi was represented, the government has found reasons of their own to object to the show. The first one comes from the Union health ministry, which took objection to the scenes where characters are shown smoking without a hazard warning being shown on screen.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the makers of the show. Anurag Kashyap, who has co-directed the series, is no stranger to controversy. One of his earlier projects, Black Friday, had its theatrical release banned by the CBFC. Kashyap took his provocative sensibilities to a new, less draconian platform, and now it would seem the censors are nipping at the heels of the makers.

Ah, the internet, our last resort of unfiltered content! It was good while it lasted.

Would Gaitonde’s colourful, curse-laden argot be riddled with ear-splitting bleeps, or would it be replaced by a neutered, politically correct script?

It was only a matter of time. Political censorship, it appears, is imminent in the “anything goes” world of internet streaming. In April this year, the I&B Ministry under Smriti Irani set up a 10-member committee to formulate rules and guidelines for digital and online platforms. Not much developed on this front until Sacred Games came out, and was soon followed by a report on The Republic stating that the I&B Ministry is considering formulating guidelines for web series and online content, which would make creators answerable to censors. The only reason I’m not composing an angry tweet about this right away is that The Republic is just a step above my family WhatsApp group in terms of credibility.

Sacred Games is a high point for Indian fiction, but imagine if the second season were to be regulated by censors. Would Gaitonde’s colourful, curse-laden argot be riddled with ear-splitting bleeps, or would it be replaced by a neutered, politically correct script? Are we to expect the same jarring cuts we get to see in Hollywood films anytime even a hint of nudity appears on screen?

In a sentence I never expected to type in this lifetime, the most reasonable response to the whole snafu came from Rahul Gandhi. He said freedom of expression is a “fundamental democratic right”, and his temperate reaction caused one of the two FIRs against the show’s makers to be withdrawn. The makers of a fictional series cannot change reality, according to Rahul, and for once, I thought more politicians should be like Rahul.

I wish the government would stop policing what we watch, and let us watch them more closely instead. As the monsoon session of parliament begins tomorrow, RTI activists are preparing to protest a bill to amend the 2005 Right to Information Act. They claim that the proposed change, which will allow information officers’ salaries to be determined by government officials, instead of the house of parliament, will weaken the RTI Act and hinder queries that could expose official wrongdoings. Dozens of RTI activists have been killed since 2005, and some of the provisions of the weakened bill further endangers them.

And yet, the same folks who want to police what you watch, also want to watch you. Earlier this year, the same I&B Ministry that wants to introduce guidelines for web series, invited tenders from developers to create a tool that allows them to track a single user across multiple online platforms, like some kind of omnipresent stalker. The worst part is that this stalker will also be able to access your email, and will be even more intent on whitewashing the government’s image than Akshay Kumar.

To quote Ganesh Gaitonde himself, the I&B Ministry would like to remind you, “Kabhi kabhi lagta hai, apun hi bhagwan hai.”

Freedom of expression, right to privacy, right to information, these are big guns to break out while recommending a Netflix show, but I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen Sacred Games yet to go and do so right now. We’ve no idea how long it’s going to be around.