Star India Chief Talks Digital Dividends, Censorship


MUMBAI: Uday Shankar, chairman and CEO of Star India, expressed his concerns about censorship in the country and weighed in on the impact of digital adoption in his address at the FICCI Frames conference in Mumbai today.

“Are we going to see a digital divide or a digital dividend?” Shankar said in his opening remarks, addressing the theme of this year’s conference. “Just a year ago, at this very venue, there was a lively discussion on digital adoption. In less than a year, we are past that tipping point in this country. The distance that India has traveled in adopting internet-based behavior is nothing short of remarkable. From buying goods and services to ordering in, we seem to have done it forever. India is now one of the largest markets for mobile applications—be it by volumes of downloads, consumption of video or e-commerce, for which it has already emerged as the next frontier.”

Shankar went on to say that if the conversation last year was all about how upstarts would fare, this year is more about “how many lame horses will have to be put down.” Netflix and Amazon are betting big on India, Shankar continued, facing off against local giants like Star’s own Hotstar and Viacom18’s Voot. “If there is one thing we know for sure, it is that this year we will see a lot more lively activity on this front.”

Against the backdrop of these rapid gains, Shankar said a “disturbing trend” has emerged, one that “in the long run is likely to undo a lot of gains that we have made in the last few decades. I am concerned if the Indian creative mind is in a position to respond to the pace of technological change with an equally rapid evolution in its creativity. The key reason for this is, of course, the censorship that we all have to put up with. As the world gets bolder, our censor authorities seem to be getting more and more conservative.”

Shankar said that in 2015-16, the Indian censorship board refused to certify 77 movies, up from 47 the year before. “But can we lay all the blame on the board itself? In my view, the board generally reflects the dominant consensus of our society and there are increasingly more bodies, mostly self-appointed, who have taken upon themselves the task of censoring media content. The refrain seems to be, I don’t like the legend or the myth on which your story is based, so I will burn down your sets. I don’t like a character, so I will not let you release your film. If you say you are going to do a show of busting fake godmen and gangsters, there is pre-emptive action. And what is becoming alarming now is that sometimes even the forums that you would seek redressal at are more inclined to bless the streetside censorship than speak for the freedom of expression.”

Shankar said that in many cases, India’s “creative community has been bullied into changing its output to suit the needs of someone or the other in India. It seems that there are always people lurking in the shadows. Their sole job is to stretch and explore every piece of content that could be potentially offensive to someone.”

He went on to say, “We are rapidly descending into a mindset where the most critical objective of a work of art is to make sure that it offends nobody, no matter how many thematic or creative compromises it has to make. This is the most worrying part—that creative minds have begun to self-censor their thoughts and have started killing ideas before they germinate so as to avoid any conflict. And that is really frightening. The advocates of this vandalism claim that unique measures must be taken to protect our unique culture.”

Shankar talked about Hollywood’s Production Code of the past and noted that television and European cinema helped to undo those regulations in 1968.

“The question today is, will digital play the same role for our generation and our country? The role of a progressive challenger, the role of providing a bigger canvas to creativity and creating a space for dissenting points of view. This new medium has the ability to truly democratize broadcasting. It offers the creative community the rare opportunity to rethink from scratch their art and how it is communicated. Only when modern technology and contemporary creativity truly come together will we create a compelling and powerful media and entertainment offering.”