Because he is now a central figure in India's television business as CEO of Star India, it's easy to forget how alien Uday Shankar was to it on the day he took the job almost exactly a decade ago. The only jobs he had held till then was that of a journalist and editor.
Starting as a beat reporter with The Times of India in Patna, Shankar worked many jobs in journalism before rising to the top at the Rupert Murdoch-owned entertainment behemoth.
And the top spot is spectacular. To be precise, it's an office with sweeping views of the city and the Arabian Sea on the 37th floor of a domineering skyscraper in South Mumbai. The lobby is more luxury hotel than corporate chic, and I'm accorded the knowing nod when I say my appointment is on the 37th floor.
You get a impressive 360-degree view of city from Shankar's vantage.
At 6 in the evening, as the sun begins its descent, the city below comes alive, and the office is covered with a golden hue. Works of photojournalists adorn the walls—a refreshing touch of realism in a building devoted to fiction.
We speak about censorship, the chilling effect of mobs, and the streaming content business. Edited excerpts:
At the FICCI Frames event recently, it was quite refreshing to hear you take on the issue of censorship head-on, something not many industry leaders seem to have the courage to do.
These issues are fundamental to our business. It's not about politics or anything, but about the very real threat we face as content-generators. Censorship is choking the business and that is precisely why the industry must take it up. But nobody takes up the issue! When someone talks about it, it becomes the exception than the norm.
What do you blame this on? The industry rarely comes together on this. People seem to fight only when their film is at stake. An Udta Punjab, again, is an exception than the norm...
I think so too. There is a need for a shared consensus on critical issues. People are so focussed on their daily businesses that they lose sight of the long-term goal. It's a very blinkered approach.
But you see, there's also a very real financial cost to it. If a week before the release, somebody wakes up and files a PIL, what can the makers do? You've invested a lot in writing, developing, shooting, and promoting your film. Screens have been booked in advance and you stand to lose a lot of money if you don't release the film on time. The only alternative available then is to settle. And it is a difficult trade-off. If your film is releasing tomorrow, then it becomes very difficult to show commitment to your ideological cause. Because then that cause becomes expensive.
What do you think is the way out?
So like I said, a shared consensus within the industry is the first step in the right direction. I genuinely do believe that a lot of this can be taken care of with dialogue and engagement with the official bodies. Honestly, I'm not even worried about the legitimate institutes that have been established. I am worried about the illegitimate ones.
You mean the street-side protesters who take offence to art and go all out to prevent it from getting made/screened? Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the Padmavati attack comes to mind...
Today, anybody can stand up and say "I don't like this and I will not allow you to show it to anybody else." This is dangerous because it's creating a culture of anarchy. The mob is taking control. And within the mob, it's the loudest member that is taking charge. Now, when this member sends out a threat, he has created pressure on the filmmaker to gratify him. And when you have no alternative, you end up gratifying him. You see what you did there? You actually incentivised his protest.
Exactly. In a way you've emboldened him by legitimising the idea that if you shout out loud enough, we will crumble and meet your demands. But, my argument is, if our filmmakers had enough faith in the legal framework, in the efficiency of the police machinery, the gratifying-the-mob attitude wouldn't exist in the first place.
Correct. When you see these institutions almost tacitly supporting/endorsing the mob, then you know you've reached a very dangerous place. Once the police and the courts take a very clear position, these thugs will not feel empowered. They'll be discouraged instead. But we've come to a time when any random 5 people can get your film stalled. The CBFC has little sanctity. Films face problems despite the Censor clearance. We face a financial as well as a physical risk when a threat comes and somewhere deep down we know that the institutions that were created to protect our rights, won't stand up for us. They'll provide protection to a threat of vandalism and send a couple of cops, who wouldn't be able to handle the crisis. The minute we lodge an FIR, we'll come to know there's a serious political leader behind those goons? Then what?
Why can the industry not run a sustained campaign with the aim to get stricter laws to protect freedom of expression and greater penalty on those who threaten it?
You know there used to be a lot of passionate conversation around this subject a few years ago. But now, it has all died. If not died, it has definitely dimmed. The underlying theme is this—we have almost accepted this situation as a fact of life, as a new normal of sorts. It's genuinely terrifying. Filmmakers are anticipating what could cause trouble and are pre-empting that.
It sounds almost Orwellian—this censorship of thought, one that could potentially choke a creative industry. How will we end up as? The country that makes the most number of state-sanctioned propaganda films?
Not just the creative industry. It is terrifying for any civil society that likes to believe it lives in a democracy. We're making some show and there'll always be an assistant director who'll point out a certain line of dialogue or the way a character is depicted, asking us to 'tone it down.' This forces us to not push the envelope too much. Isn't that in itself scary?
A film is a piece of art that's making a comment on the realities of life. A personal interpretation... Obviously, it'll provoke debate and cause disagreement. Instead of having that, you're saying let's cut it out! The last time I checked, the very function of art was to drive conversation, not to suppress it. I can understand if you want to restrict certain controversial topics, but to have blanket ban? Sorry boss.
Essentially, we are saying that we'll only allow art that is insipid and caters to the lowest common denominator, one that challenges nothing, doesn't introduce any new ideas, and offends no one.
Every time there's a debate about censorship, there are committees formed and a lot of filmmakers talk about bringing in certification. But it doesn't lead to any real changes.
It's a sad situation. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why we cannot show everything with adequate warnings. We have cigarettes that are sold with graphic warning before the person consumes it. Great. We warned you and even after that if you still choose to go ahead and have it, fine, it's your choice. Why can we not do the same with content?
Where do you think is the source of this seemingly systematic clampdown? My guess is: there is an active saffronization of our institutes as the current regime appears to be paranoid about art.
I don't buy that argument, simply because things weren't much different before. Every party has had an agenda and they've used it to ban films. We had a film, Wake Up Sid, where there was a major ruckus over the use of the word, 'Bombay.' BJP wasn't in power then. It was Congress. And in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena created a huge hue-and-cry.
I'm not denying the saffronization of our institutes. My larger point is about politics and how those in power always pack institutes with their own people. Which is not to justify or endorse the attitude of the current regime. It is undeniably problematic. There is a very binary narrative that we are all building. And part of the problem is not just with one party. While the current isn't any good, the alternative is no better. They haven't been particularly liberal either. It is an extremely frightening scenario.
Yes, but I'm sure you'll admit it has gotten progressively worse. Forget films, our actors cannot even give talks without losing endorsement deals, or facing the threat of getting their next film banned. As someone running a large creative enterprise, doesn't this make you cynical?
I cannot afford to be cynical. It scares me, yes, but I think we need to keep trying. In the hope that it will get better. That there will be room for dissent and engagement.
In a recent speech at FICCI you said and I quote: "Even a word like saali has to be silenced in a film, city names must be absolutely correct and contemporary, and of course don't go anywhere near discussions of women's issues let alone female sexuality." I find this in stark contrast to some of the shows that Star Plus airs, which aren't exactly progressive. I don't remember a show of yours that depicted a sexually-liberated female character. What I do remember are stereotypical depiction of vamps, villanization of the saas, and young women living with the sole purpose to win over their husband's love.
Not correct. Understand: we are not in the business of making posters. We're in the business of making drama. Drama is a creative form where you typically take a story through a journey. In order for the person to be shown and established as, let's say a liberal person, you need to start with a conservative set up because you can't set up a story in a liberal set-up and show it to be liberal. Then the story doesn't connect. In every quintessential story, there is a villain and the villain has to be built for the hero to look good or for the hero to be meaningful. We do not do any regressive stories. We don't do a story where a woman's journey finally ends in regression. And that is why we call it Nayi Soch. You would not find a story on Star Plus in the last 7-8 years where the overall tone is regressive. Some do shows on superstitions that do exceedingly well for them but nobody can come and tell me that Star made a show on superstition. Not under my watch.
I would be in a better position to engage with you about this but honestly, I haven't seen a lot of these dramas. I did read up on them, though, and some of them had pretty disappointing themes. But again, maybe I am judging an isolated episode without understanding it's overall arc.
You've to understand one thing—Star Plus does not make drama for you. You are the crème de la crème of this country. You are 1 percent or less. We won't earn our daily bread if we start making shows for you. Star Plus makes drama for, I don't know where you are from, but it makes drama for this whole country. It's watched in Vindhyachal, Mirzapur, Banaras, Bakhtiyarpur, Patna, Sitapur and all those places.
What we show on screen needs to echo the lives of those people. And then one character breaks out from that setting and then moves on. I'll give you an example of a story—since you don't watch—from a show called Pratigya, which has been one of our most iconic shows.
We want to do the stories of uncommon evolution of common people because that is where the connect is and that's what makes it inspirational.
The setting of the show cannot be more regressive. It's a feudal household with this rich half-politician guy. Set in Allahabad, where women have no rights. Even the mother-in-law supports the most brutal form of female oppression. And then a girl comes in that family and she transforms their worldview. We, at Star Plus do not seek to call revolution because normal ordinary people do not cause revolution. It's about evolution. It's about progress. We're not a destination for radical feminists. We're a destination for ordinary women across the length and breadth of the country.
We want to do the stories of uncommon evolution of common people because that is where the connect is and that's what makes it inspirational.
My one complaint against a lot of people who review creative work, is that they've to assess the work in its own framework. Whether it delivers on that framework (or not). You can't bring your framework and assess my work. That's the problem. What's my starting premise and where do I end, if that journey and the eventual destination is disappointing, you have every right to criticize that.
I was saying if out of 10 shows, if you just have one which is slightly more radical in a relative sense.
We did Satyamev Jayate, you must have read that we're bringing TED Talks to India on Star Plus in Hindi. It's the first time this will happen. Then we just did Prisoners Of War—Bandi Yuddh Ke. Both Homeland (and P.O.W. – Bandi Yuddh Ke are) based on the Israeli show. We took the rights. The original writer came here and supervised the whole script. I don't know whether you've seen this show Naamkarann which Mahesh Bhatt is doing. You should go and check that out. It's still going on. It's the story of inter-religious love affair and an illegitimate child born out of wedlock.
I don't think there's anything fundamentally progressive about Hollywood content. It's edgy for sure, but it's not necessarily progressive. I think, television in India is way more progressive, especially Star.
And if I could make one more provocative statement, I don't think there's anything fundamentally progressive about Hollywood content. It's edgy for sure, but it's not necessarily progressive. I think, television in India is way more progressive, especially Star. I can say it with a lot of confidence. I actually used to be like you. I never watched a show until I got this job.
I hope, at some point, you get a show that normalises LGBT characters in the mainstream.
Um, we've had shows with LGBT characters.
Star Plus had a show with a character from the LGBT community?
Yes. It was a show where the father is a big police officer. He's quite damaged. One son is gay. It was a love-story inside a dysfunctional family. The main thing of the story was the father actually makes a pass at the woman who is going to be his daughter-in-law and how she fights back. It is actually a very big reality.
Where does Hotstar stand on censorship because thankfully, the online medium is not regulated as yet?
We don't censor. Why aren't you asking others who have started censoring content online?
We actually did. And they reacted saying that they want to be 'culturally-sensitive'.
What has this got to do with culture?
It's bizarre and ambiguous. I think it is just like you said earlier, a pre-emptive measure... It does set a terrible precedent though.
Indian culture is not a piece of glass that (with) one gentle nudge and it will break.
In terms of original programming, I remember Amazon Prime came out all guns blazing and they had like a bunch of announcements with a lot of industry top talent. Hotstar hasn't really tapped that.
You know, that's the funny piece. Here is my criticism of the community of journalists to which I also belong. When Amazon buys 2 or 3 or 6 films, you guys make a big deal out of it and say it's great. Look at the amount of original content that Hotstar has. It has IPL and it has all the top cricket rights in the world. It has Grand Slam tennis. It has all the other top sports. It has the entire library of Disney, the entire library of Fox, and even HBO original programming.
Yes, I've seen that. It's genuinely an enviable library -- for eg: you guys have all HBO shows. But I am saying just in terms of commissioning original projects, like On Air With AIB.
That's one of the few things. Amazon is not in the business of content. So whatever they do, they have to commission specifically for Amazon Prime. We're in the business of content. So we are putting content as and when the need arises. Our view is that right now, the spectrum of content is already so rich that we can get a lot of consumption through that. There is no destination in the world which has Sports, Drama, international content and movies. We're the only ones. Netflix doesn't have local content that much. Netflix has no sports. So, we don't see Hotstar as not doing original content.
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