The trailer for “Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food” promised a joyous yet melodramatic story of upliftment in a south Indian temple city. A priest’s daughter participates in a cooking tournament, but social obstacles complicate her inevitable rise to the top. Annapoorani’s father, a Brahmin at the top of the caste ladder in Hindu society, does not want her to cook meat, a taboo in her lineage. There’s even a hint of a Hindu-Muslim romantic subplot.
On Thursday, two weeks after the film’s release, Netflix abruptly removed it from its platform. One activist, Ramesh Solanki, a self-described “very proud Hindu Indian nationalist,” had filed a complaint with the police arguing that the film was “intentionally published to hurt Hindu sentiments.” He said he was mocking Hinduism by “depicting our gods consuming non-vegetarian food”.
The production studio quickly responded with an abject letter to a right-wing group linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, apologizing for having “hurt the religious sentiments of the Hindu and Brahmin community.” The film was soon removed from Netflix both in India and around the world, demonstrating the new power of Hindu nationalists to affect the way Indian society is represented on screen.
Nilesh Krishnaa, the film’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 part of a third rail that has become more powerfully electrified during Modi’s decade in power. But Mr. Krishnaa said an indian newspaper in November, “if there was anything disturbing communal harmony in the film, the censor board would not have allowed it.”
With “Annapoorani,” Netflix seems to have done the censorship even when the censorship board didn’t. In other cases, Netflix now appears to be working with the board unofficially, although streaming services in India are not subject to regulations governing traditional Indian cinema.
For years, Netflix released unedited versions of Indian films with sensitive parts removed for their theatrical releases, including political messages that contradicted the government line. However, since last year, streaming versions of Indian movies match the locally censored versions, no matter where in the world they are watched.
Netflix officials in Mumbai did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, has spoken publicly about similar policies in the past. In 2019, facing criticism for blocking a US show satirizing Saudi Arabia from Saudi viewers, Hastings told a DealBook conference: “We’re not trying to ‘truth to power.’ “We’re trying to make entertainment.”
The new complaints coming from within India affect foreign 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 political and culinary preferences.
The popular culture of Tamil Nadu, the southern state where “Annapoorani” was made, has systematically taken aim at the caste system for almost a hundred years. State policy has been dedicated to overcoming Brahmin privilege for generations. And while most Hindus in Modi’s home state of Gujarat are vegetarians, nearly 98 percent of all Tamils are non-vegetarians.
As pressure from an emboldened Hindu right mounts on India’s streaming platforms, Indians making non-fiction films are also feeling the pressure. Some of the most lauded documentaries to emerge from India in recent years have taken subtle stances against Modi’s pro-Hindu politics, including “Writing With Fire” and “All That Breathes.”
Thom Powers, an American film festival programmer, said, “The trend in recent years is for Indian documentaries to first find an audience abroad.” Indians are more likely to find pirated versions than to find them streaming on commercial platforms. “While We Watched,” for example, cannot be found on any paid sites, but is shown for free on YouTube.
The Indian government is in the process of building a more powerful legal framework to regulate what its citizens can view online. In the meantime, streaming platforms should regulate themselves.
Netflix and other companies in its position have become increasingly familiar with right-wing campaigns against films deemed hurtful to the sentiments of Hindu communities; Burning tires and throwing stones in cinemas are the new norm. Instead of waiting for the protests to find their local venues, or for the state to protect them, many have tried to avoid offending.
Nikhil Pahwa, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, believes that streaming companies are willing to capitulate: “They are unlikely to oppose any kind of intimidation or censorship, although there is no law in India” that forces them. .