India 2015 in Review: Censorship Controversies, Hollywood Milestones and Netflix Buzz

Priyanka Chopra in "Quantico"

Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra cracked Hollywood with 'Quantico,' while 'Furious 7' and 'Jurassic World' made history, and Salman Khan's legal issues didn't hurt his box-office appeal.

India's entertainment industry will remember 2015 as a year of many firsts.

From a mainstream Bollywood star starring on an American television show to Hollywood films (Jurassic World, Furious 7) setting milestones at the Indian box office, the year was eventful in more ways than one.

There also was intense debate over censorship issues, starting with India banning the controversial BBC documentary India's Daughter. Digital content delivery also became a hot topic due to the upcoming launches of both Amazon and Netflix, which are set to transform the landscape for local distributors and content creators alike.

Here is THR's closer look at the big media and entertainment stories of 2015 in India.

Bollywood's Big Crossover

A long-running question often asked by industry observers, both in India and abroad, was finally answered in 2015: When will a Bollywood star break into mainstream Hollywood with a lead role? The answer came in the form of Priyanka Chopra's starring turn in the ABC drama Quantico, in which she plays rookie FBI agent Alex Parrish.

As she said at the Television Critics Association press tour, Chopra wanted to be cast "for the respect of being an actor, not for the color of my skin." She added: "Going to school in America, I never saw anyone with my color skin [on TV]."

Similarly, one of India's best-known talents, actor Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire), starred in summer tentpole Jurassic World as Simon Masrani, the owner of the revived dino park. The role added to his already strong international filmography, which includes Life of Pi and The Amazing Spider-Man.

While juggling his career in India, Khan also filmed for Ron Howard's upcoming Inferno, based on Dan Brown's best-seller that sees Tom Hanks reprising his role as Robert Langdon.

Bans and Censorship Controversies

One of the year's biggest controversies was India's decision to ban BBC documentary India's Daughter. Leslee Udwin's film focuses on the fatal 2012 gang rape of a young Delhi woman on a bus, which sparked a nationwide furor demanding more safety for women. The film was banned due to a controversial interview with one of the jailed rapists facing death row who said that women are more responsible for rapes than men.

At the film's U.S. premiere, Meryl Streep said India's Daughter deserved an Oscar. “When I first saw [the film], I couldn’t speak afterwards,” she explained.

India was not the only country banning films in the region. A court in neighboring Pakistan banned Bollywood drama Phantom, which is set in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead. According to The Associated Press, the court ruling was delivered after Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistani with a $10 million bounty on his head for his alleged involvement in the attacks, filed a motion asking that the film be banned. Phantom's storyline revolves around an Indian covert mission to assassinate Saeed.

Censorship also became a topic of debate when Bollywood's first celebrity roast was hit with an obscenity probe. Mumbai-based comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB) pushed the envelope with a profanity-laced show. It was uploaded to YouTube and garnered eight million views in about a week before it was pulled following complaints. The roast was attended by top Bollywood stars, such as actress Deepika Padukone and director Anurag Kashyap, and was hosted by well-known filmmaker and television personality Karan Johar.

The outcry may have stemmed, in part, from the family friendly image of those involved. Given India's highly conservative TV and film censorship system, most viewers had likely never heard Johar — who is known for a string of family themed hits — swear.

Hollywood also faced censorship troubles in India when James Bond film Spectre had to shorten kissing scenes and remove some swear words, sparking a Twitter backlash. Some tweets ridiculed the censors by offering a new take on a kinder, gentler and virtuous 007 more attuned to conservative Indian cultural values. This resulted in the top trending hashtag #SanskariJamesBond ("Righteous James Bond"). “#SanskariJamesBond does not kill his enemy, he teaches them about karma,” said one tweet.

Hollywood Box-Office Breakthroughs

The summer saw a breakthrough in India for Hollywood when Furious 7 and Jurassic World reached a rare milestone, becoming only the second and third U.S. releases ever to cross the 1 billion rupees (about $16 million) mark in the country after Avatar did so in 2010. 

Both films also featured Indian actors: Irrfan Khan in Jurassic World and Ali Fazal in Furious 7.

Paramount also had a good year in India when Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation collected about $6.6 million (420 million rupees) during its opening weekend, making it the biggest opener of all time in the country for the studio.

Khan Legal Issues Don't Hurt His Box-Office Appeal

Top Bollywood actor Salman Khan hit the headlines in May when a court convicted him of a 2002 fatal drunk driving incident.

The conviction didn't hurt his reputation as one of India's most bankable stars, though, with Khan delivering back-to-back blockbusters, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. The latter even cracked the U.S. top 10 during its opening weekend, reflecting Khan's fan following among diasporic audiences. 

In December, the almost-50-year-old actor was acquitted by a higher court after a plea hearing.

India and China Collaborate 

In a first of sorts, a Chinese version of Big Brother was filmed in India. The original show's format producer Endemol Shine tapped into the expertise of its Indian affiliate — which has produced the Indian Big Brother for over six seasons — for the production of the Chinese version. 

Big Brother China was filmed on a set in a former industrial factory outside Mumbai, the long-standing home to the show's Hindi and regional language versions. The full cast was flown in from China, with the show not betraying a single hint of its Indian setting.

In what could be seen as a major coming together of Indian and Chinese talent, Jackie Chan also said he was going to shoot parts of his next film, Kung Fu Yoga, in India. The film is directed by Stanley Tong (Rumble in the Bronx) and co-stars Bollywood actor Sonu Sood. The production has since wrapped its initial shoot in Dubai.

Relativity Bankruptcy Won't Affect Indian Venture

Relativity Media's bankruptcy shook Hollywood, but the company said that it would not affect its recently launched Indian joint venture with local partner B4U Networks.

Relativity-B4U was launched at the Cannes film festival in 2014, and while financial details were not given, according to a statement at the time, the joint venture had earmarked an investment of approximately $100 million for projects. 

The venture's Indian slate includes a remake of Relativity ghost thriller Oculus and a Bollywood version of the studio's romantic drama The Best of Me.

Netflix and Other Digital Buzz

Digital distribution became a big topic in India in 2015 with reports of the planned 2016 launches of Amazon and Netflix, which are set to bring strong competition to such existing players as India's Eros Now. But Eros Now parent Eros International also saw its stock tumble both in New York and Mumbai after some analysts raised worries over the company's financials and outlook

The Indian digital landscape also saw new entrants in Hooq, a service launched by Sony, Warner and Singapore telecom giant SingTel. Not to be left behind, Indian TV group Zee launched its satellite-delivered service DishFlix offering both Hollywood and Bollywood content.

In another first, Netflix streamed Anurag Kashyap's two-part Indian epic Gangs of Wasseypur as a series on its U.S. and worldwide services. Kashyap said that while “expanding a film's audience after its theatrical release,” digital distribution also offered opportunities for India's evolving independent scene. “We do not need to deal with obnoxious censorship and we have creative freedom,” he said, perhaps pointing to how 2016 could be the year of digital content disruption in more ways than one.

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