Censorship is everyone’s favourite pastime when we don’t want to fix systemic issues in society. Along with TV shows and movies, now online streaming content has also been brought under the purview of state censorship, opening up a whole new territory for “inappropriate content”, “in the interest of society” and “hurting religious sentiment”.
While two web-shows, Tandav and Mirzapur 2, have already been slapped with FIRs, next in line is the Netflix series Bombay Begums. Three days after its release on International Women’s Day (March 8), the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) sent a notice to the Policy Head of Netflix India, mentioning that the series is polluting young minds and can cause abuse and exploitation of children. The committee was raising an eyebrow at 13-year-olds snorting drugs at a party, smoking cigarettes and indulging in casual sex.
If anything, the committee should be issuing a notice to the series for taking on the committee’s work – i.e. raising awareness on teenage issues such as substance abuse, body shaming and sexual exploitation.
Bombay Begums is about the lives of five women in Mumbai, as they stand against the patriarchal world to make space for themselves. Rani is the CEO of Royal Bank of Bombay and stepmother of teenager Shai, always being asked to prove both her roles to the world, whilst her 13-year-old daughter finds her worth being attached to her developing body.
There’s Fatima, rapidly reaching the top of the corporate ladder of success and heading a bank division in the Royal Bank, while her husband works at a junior position in the same division. To the same bank are attached the ambitious plans of Ayesha, a newbie with big career dreams in her eyes, who is tackling at the same time her ex-boyfriends, evolving sexuality and rented accommodation in the cramped city of Mumbai. Finally, there’s Lakshmi, or Lily, a bar dancer-turned sex worker who wants to open a factory for her and her son.
Besides dealing with various issues that women at workplaces face – sexual harassment, being a working mother, constantly having to prove themselves and menopause – the series portrays a sensitive understanding of bodily autonomy, consent, sexual violence and romantic relationships.
In one of the turning points of the eight-part series, Shai is found unconscious at a friend’s party due to drug overdose. However, instead of scolding her, Rani talks to Shai if she was touched without consent. Even though Shai denies it, Rani assures her that she came come to Rani even if she remembers it later. She encourages Shai to never give up on her art for anyone else and asks her to remain strong for heartbreaks that will follow her in her adult life.
It is here that the two develop their relationship. The support that Shai receives from her mother also helps her reconcile her relationship with herself. This way, the series also enacts how a parent must talk to their child with care and compassion about autonomy and consent.
Asking to remove this scene, the child rights body is denying parents and their kids a representation of empathetic conversations on taboo topics. Without looking at the context of these scenes, the NCPCR took cognisance of two tweets on the series and demanded action basis ambiguous description: “serious issue”, “this type of content”, “representing, portraying and glorifying children in India in such a manner” and that Netflix should “refrain themselves from getting into such things”.
Censorship and regulation of content on OTT platforms has been a step in the opposite direction; instead of taking a more progressive stand on the existing issues in society, government bodies want to censor conversations on such issues. The right step regarding this censorship might entail more such notorious censorship notices rather than self-censored safe content by creators.