For a Bollywood movie, Gaurav Dhingra's Angry Indian Goddesses was decidedly un-Bollywood. There were no song-and-dance sequences, no lavish weddings, and no bankable superstars whisking away leading ladies. Instead, there was swearing, lots of sexual innuendo, and a lesbian engagement.
Or at least there was — until India’s Central Board of Film Certification had its way with the film. The government agency stripped Dhingra’s feminist drama of its sexual innuendos and replaced all the “fucks” with loud bleeps.
Dhingra was furious. He and Pan Nalin, the film’s director, protested the film’s censorship on primetime talk shows and social media. And shortly after the movie hit theaters in December 2016, they posted uncensored clips of everything that had been cut from the official release on the film’s Facebook page.
It was right around then that Netflix came calling. Netflix wanted to buy global streaming rights to the uncensored “international version” of Angry Indian Goddesses. It would stream in more than a hundred countries — expletives and all. Dhingra and Nalin were ecstatic. They signed the deal.
Then, days before the film went live on Netflix in India in April, the streaming service called again. It had changed its mind. “We were told that India streaming has been delayed because they needed to stream the same version which was theatrically released in India,” Nalin told BuzzFeed News. He did not divulge any more details, but sources familiar with the deal say that the next few days were fraught with tension. “[The filmmakers] were counting on Netflix as a place where people could finally watch their film as they intended it to be watched,” said the source. “But Netflix refused to budge.” In the end, the filmmakers gave in. Angry Indian Goddesses made its "fuck"-free debut on Indian Netflix in April even as the rest of the world saw it uncut.
But “after many, many hours on the phone with the producers,” according to sources familiar with the situation, Netflix changed its mind yet again. At the end of June, it replaced the censored version of the movie with the international version in India. “Fans reached out to us [about the movie] and we are listening,” a Netflix spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “What happened with Angry Indian Goddesses was a miss.”
Netflix may have relented, but it’s an exception among Silicon Valley companies, which often censor their products in India. In the world’s largest democracy, Amazon Prime Video cuts most nudity and profanity from its content, Google bans retailers from buying ads for erotica, Amazon and Flipkart refuse to sell adult products, and Tinder positions itself as a brand that parents approve of. Selling adult products, watching nudity online, and casual dating aren’t illegal in India. But Silicon Valley is playing it extra safe, and its attempts to not offend some Indians are alienating others.
“Western companies trying to expand in India are being overcautious because of the huge investments they are making in the country,” Prithwiraj Mukherjee, professor of marketing at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, told BuzzFeed News. “They don’t want to risk offending anyone’s sentiments in a diverse country like India.”
The country is a crucial market for Silicon Valley: There are now more internet users in India than there are people in the United States — and millions more will come online in the next few years. But as American tech companies pour billions into the country, they’re fumbling as they attempt to appeal to India’s already-online, Snapchat-savvy, English-speaking, Beyoncé-listening, urban millennials, while also trying to win over the country’s comparatively conservative millions.
Amazon Prime Video launched in India in December 2016, and was immediately blasted by angry Indian customers on Twitter for proactively censoring many TV shows and movies, including its own productions like Transparent. Worse, the censorship was arbitrary. Some nudity, like a sex scene a couple of minutes into the pilot of Transparent, was blurred out. In another instance, Amazon chopped one episode of its car show, The Grand Tour, in half to remove a plotline involving a car made of animal carcasses with a windshield of cow innards, presumably to avoid offending religious Hindus, who consider cows sacred. But most of Californication, a series well-known for its gratuitous nudity, survived Amazon’s airbrushing.
“It’s just ridiculous,” José Covaco, a popular Indian comedian who has been a vocal critic of Amazon Prime Video censorship, told BuzzFeed News. “I am an adult that pays Amazon to watch this stuff.”
Amazon has also managed to piss off India’s indie filmmakers, like director Qaushiq Mukherjee. Mukherjee’s controversial cult film Gandu (“Asshole”), which features explicit frontal nudity and was banned from Indian theaters in 2011, does stream on Indian Netflix. (Despite its flip-flop over Angry Indian Goddesses, Netflix stands apart from Amazon Prime because it promised not to censor its content in India.) But Mukherjee doesn’t really have other options for his film. “I would never consider Amazon Prime [because of censorship],” Mukherjee told BuzzFeed News. “I haven’t even watched stuff on Amazon for that reason.”
Amazon’s proactive censorship has no legal basis in India. Last year, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting explicitly clarified that the country’s government has no power to censor content on the internet, nor is it planning to frame any regulations to do so.
Despite this, Amazon doesn’t seem to have any plans to pull back its censorship in India. At an Amazon event held in New Delhi in April, Nitesh Kripalani, Amazon’s head of Prime Video in India, told BuzzFeed News that the reason Amazon censors content in India is because it has a “responsibility to balance customer preferences and Indian cultural sensibilities.” Amazon did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions on the topic despite multiple requests.
“I don’t think these companies want to risk drawing negative attention to themselves,” said Mukherjee.
There’s precedent for this. Large companies have, at times, abruptly found themselves the target of the wrath of angry Indians for unwitting missteps. In January, Indians were outraged when they found out that Amazon Canada was selling doormats with an Indian flag design (touching things with one’s feet is considered disrespectful in India). Amazon did, eventually, remove the doormats, but not before India’s external affairs minister angrily tweeted about rescinding visas issued to Amazon officials in India.
And in April, thousands of furious Indians left Snapchat one-star ratings in the App Store because of disrespectful comments about India that the company’s CEO had allegedly made.
That’s why companies expanding in India err on the side of caution — nobody wants bad PR or government ire in an important market over a little nudity or a dead cow.
“Silicon Valley companies entering India really, really do not want to spend time and money battling frivolous controversies that could needlessly hurt their brands,” said a person who works at Amazon Prime Video in India who did not wish to be named. “We just don’t want to take any risks.”
For a site that sells pasties and penis pumps, Lovetreats.in looks remarkably tasteful — a cross between Etsy and a gift guide in a glossy magazine. The Bangalore-based startup is one of half a dozen that launched in the country in the last few years to cash in on urban India’s newfound taste for sex toys. Business has been great. Lovetreats has grown nearly 30% every month for the last year and a half, its cofounder Balaji T.V. told BuzzFeed News. But here’s what’s holding him back: He’s not allowed to register as a seller on two of India’s largest e-commerce platforms — Amazon and Flipkart — to sell his products.
Indian regulations do not allow massive e-commerce websites with multiple sellers, like Amazon and Flipkart, to own their own inventory, which means that all online retail business in the country is driven entirely through third-party sellers. According to a press release, Amazon doubled the number of sellers on its platform in India since July 2016, to 200,000. But popular Indian adult product startups like Lovetreats and MasalaToys aren’t allowed on Amazon — which is ironic for a company whose vision statement once said that it wanted to be a place where people could come to “find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
Amazon’s policies for sellers in India explicitly state that “‘adult-only’ items that are primarily sold through adult-only novelty stores and erotic boutiques are not permitted,” without specifying the reason for the ban. In contrast, Amazon’s policies for selling adult products in the United States are clear and granular, separating items into toys and games, bondage gear, fetish wear, sensual products, and “sexual furniture” like sex swings, ramps, and cushions. A casual search for “vibrators” on Amazon US throws up more than a hundred pages of results. Flipkart, which operates only in India, doesn’t list any policies for adult products on its site, but searching for adult products doesn’t show any results.
“I could see my business growing eight to ten times if I could sell on Amazon India and Flipkart,” said the cofounder of a popular Indian adult products website, who requested anonymity.
Flipkart did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment. An Amazon spokesperson responded to BuzzFeed News’ questions around its policy with a single sentence: “Sellers are prohibited from selling these products on Amazon.in.” The spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up question: “Why?”
The sellers that BuzzFeed News spoke to all said that large e-commerce companies, especially Western companies like Amazon that are pumping in money to expand in India, don’t want to risk violating the country’s obscenity laws, which prohibit graphic imagery on packaging and marketing materials.
Companies have been sued over sex toys; in 2015, for instance, a lawyer in New Delhi took Indian e-commerce startup Snapdeal to court for selling vibrators on its platform. But the case was thrown out. There is no law in India that explicitly forbids anyone from buying or selling sex toys, as long as the packaging isn’t graphic.
“For companies like Amazon, the sex toys market in India is a small, high-risk one,” said a seller who did not wish to be named. “When we sell these things on our own websites, we are extremely careful [about] not violating India’s obscenity laws. You’ll never find anything objectionable in our packaging and presentation. But I think a brand like Amazon wouldn’t want to get in trouble with a rogue seller on its platform.”
Still, big e-commerce sites seem to recognize the appetite for adult products in India. Multiple sellers told BuzzFeed News that both Amazon and Flipkart had reached out to them to explore the possibility of selling some of the “softer stuff,” as one seller put it. “They said that we could try selling handcuffs, but no vibrators, blow-up dolls, or anything hardcore,” this seller told BuzzFeed News. “But eventually, the discussions fizzled out. I guess they chickened out.” Amazon and Flipkart did not respond to requests for comment about this.
Being banned from India’s largest e-commerce platforms isn’t the only thing that hamstrings adult product sellers. They are also banned from buying keywords and display ads from Google, the world’s largest advertising company.
India is one of 19 countries where Google doesn’t sell adult ads, according to Google’s advertising policies page. Google told BuzzFeed News that it is simply complying with India’s obscenity laws. “Based on an assessment of prevailing legal and regulatory requirements, at present, we do not allow adult products or toys to be advertised in India,” a Google spokesperson said.
But sellers of adult products argue that this policy shouldn’t prevent them from advertising things like lingerie and scented candles on Google. In one instance, a seller who did not wish to be named told BuzzFeed News that he fought a losing battle with Google’s sales reps for nearly eight months before giving up. “They told me that even though my ad was for lingerie, the website that it linked back to sold hardcore stuff, so they couldn’t let me buy ads,” he said. Google did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment on this.
Admittedly, some Western tech companies don’t censor or restrict their products proactively in India. But they still struggle when confronting conservative Indian mindsets.
Daljeet Singh Virdi is a middle-aged Airbnb host in the Indian city of Pune. He has offered a bright, airy bedroom in his spacious apartment on the platform for over a year. It’s good for business travelers, says Virdi, and solo adventurers, and married couples. The “married” bit is crucial.
“If you look like a young couple, I ask that you prove to me that you’re married,” Virdi told BuzzFeed News. “You can either show me a marriage certificate, or maybe a common address [as] proof to show that you live with each other in the same house.”
Dozens of listings that BuzzFeed News viewed on Airbnb India in the last month had a “married couples only” policy. “Most requests I used to get were from couples who weren’t married to each other,” said Kaniska Bhattacharya, an Airbnb host from Kolkata who has listed his property on the platform for nearly a year. “You can call me conservative, but look, me and my family are really not into letting unmarried couples live with each other.”
While this might be unexpected in the US, it isn’t unusual in India. Conservative landlords in Indian cities (and even some Indian hotels) regularly turn down potential opposite-sex tenants and customers for not being married to each other — and nothing in India’s laws forbids this or defines it as discrimination.
Airbnb, on the other hand, has a nondiscrimination policy, which all hosts and guests are required to agree to when they sign up for the service. It says that the company’s commitment to nondiscrimination rests on two principles: inclusion and respect. “Airbnb hosts may not impose any different terms or conditions or decline a reservation based on a guest’s age or familial status, where prohibited by law,” it says. Bhattacharya said that he’s aware of this policy but that “ultimately, it’s my house and my decision who to rent it out to.”
Airbnb stands apart from other tech companies operating in India in that it doesn’t encourage this kind of behavior. In fact, the company prohibits it. An Airbnb spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company investigates hosts in India who ban unmarried couples. “These types of restrictions violate our nondiscrimination policy and when they are flagged for our team, we reach out to the hosts to help correct the problem,” the spokesperson said. “In some very rare cases, hosts may have reasonable concerns, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, the host removes this restriction or we remove the host from our community.”
Still, it’s easy to stumble across this discriminatory policy while checking out listings on Airbnb in India. When asked how Airbnb flags these listings on its platform and how so many seem to fly under the company’s radar, the spokesperson said: “We respond to inquiries whenever these matters are brought to our attention or when they are identified by our team. We use a variety of manual and technical tools to ensure compliance with our policies.”
At other times, companies trying to crack the Indian market subvert the very brands they’ve built. Tinder, the app whose “swipe right” feature changed dating culture in the US, now operates in more than 190 countries, including India. But the company, which is owned by the $4.6 billion dating giant Match Group, misread its audience when it started operations in India in 2015.
Nearly a year after its launch, Tinder released its first ad campaign in India. The premise: A daughter lies to her Indian mom about her plan to go out on a date (outside India’s rarefied liberal circles, casual dating isn’t the norm). But after the mom sees her daughter’s phone lighting up with Tinder notifications, there’s a plot twist as she swipes right and approves of her daughter’s dates.
“Our intention [with the ad] was to start a conversation about the future of dating in India — and we certainly did,” Tinder’s India head Taru Kapoor told BuzzFeed News. “We believe that we need to start having more conversations and debates to address existing stereotypes and talk more openly about dating and relationships.”
But Tinder’s campaign misfired. Young, progressive, urban Indians — precisely the kind that make up Tinder’s core audience — saw the ad as regressive and lashed out on social media.
In hindsight, Kapoor admitted in a HuffPost interview last year, the ad could have been “more explicit.”
“The ad was wrongly inspired,” said a former Tinder employee who wished to remain anonymous.
Tinder, like Amazon, played it safe. “Tinder tried hard not to define its purpose [in India],” said another former Tinder India employee. “It was like, hey, Indians, you now finally have a chance to date, or get into a serious relationship, or just hook up, or just make friends — we don’t care. But I think by not trying to appeal to India’s young, liberal, rebellious middle class, we watered down our global image as [a] platform for hooking up. It was disappointing to not see us embracing the platform as is and instead trying hard to define it culturally in India.”
Tinder’s fumble with the ad doesn’t seem to have affected growth, however. The app was downloaded 3.2 million times in India on Android and iPhone last year, according to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower. That’s an 88% increase compared to the year before. And last month was Tinder’s best ever for new installs in the country.
Amazon and Google’s businesses in India are rapidly growing too. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos attributed Amazon’s higher-than-expected first-quarter revenue earlier this year to strong growth in India. And Google’s business reportedly doubled in in the country in the last two years.
Tech companies’ continued expansion in India is a sign that angering the comparatively small liberal parts of India’s huge population doesn’t really hinder success. Sure, it’s bad PR, but only for a while. After a point, people move on. India has 355 million internet users — second only to China — and fewer of China’s business restrictions, linguistic challenges, and political tensions. That’s a lot of potential new users with an appetite for American tech products.
An elite liberal sliver with a global outlook among that massive user base wants to use these products as they are intended — uncensored and unrestricted. A much larger majority, however, is ready to lash out at any company that slips outside the lines of “Indian” values and sensibilities — and India’s unpredictable government has shown that it can react with the same sense of outrage.
For Silicon Valley companies trying to woo their next billion users, censoring their products and placating India’s conservative majority appears to make good business sense — at least for now. ●