NCPCR objection to Bombay Begums is unwarranted; Netflix series crafts realistic portrayal of teen issues

The easy availability of alcohol and drugs in children’s birthday parties is certainly alarming, and the subject must be discussed so that remedies can be sought. The same can also be said about the pressures faced by girls to make themselves desirable for boys in their peer group.

Chintan Girish Modi March 16, 2021 09:31:29 IST
NCPCR objection to Bombay Begums is unwarranted; Netflix series crafts realistic portrayal of teen issues

Pooja Bhatt in Bombay Begums | Netflix

Alankrita Shrivastava’s web series Bombay Begums (2021), which released on 8 March, International Women’s Day, is receiving widespread acclaim in India for its powerful message urging women to come together, break the silence that shields perpetrators of violence, and “say no to sexual harassment.” However, it has also run into troubled waters with the Government of India’s National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). Why?

On 11 March, Anu Chaudhary – Registrar at the NCPCR – sent a notice to the Policy Head of Netflix India, the OTT platform distributing the series, detailing the reasons for its displeasure. Under Section 3 of the Commission for Protection of Child Rights (CPCR) Act, 2005, the NCPCR has determined that “this type of content will not only pollute the young minds of the children, and may also result into abuse and exploitation of children.” Incidentally, the “maturity rating” provided by Netflix states that it is suitable for ages 18 and above.

The NCPCR is concerned about the effective implementation of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. However, the notice is puzzling because Shrivastava’s series appears to be in alignment with the NCPCR’s goals. One of the most memorable conversations in Bombay Begums is between Royal Bank of Bombay CEO Rani (played by Pooja Bhatt) and her teenage daughter Shai (played by Aadhya Anand). Rani says, “Look, Shai, I want you to know that you don’t have to do anything to please a man, okay?”

How is this type of content likely to pollute young minds, or result in the abuse and exploitation of children? In fact, several parents watching the series might find a template for how they can navigate conversations they want to have with their children but are unable to. Rani’s advice to Shai seems consistent with Yamini Vijayan’s book Your Body is Yours (2020), illustrated by Aindri C and published by Pratham Books. The author writes, “If you’re being touched in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, you always have the right to say no.”

Shrivastava’s screenplay, written in collaboration with Iti Agarwal and Bornila Chatterjee, models the open dialogue required in families when it comes to topics such as bodily autonomy, consent, pleasure and violence. Rani wants to do everything she can to protect Shai. She says, “Once upon a time, I was young and stupid. Something horrible happened to me. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say a word. I don’t want you to be as stupid as I was.”

Prior to this, we see that Shai is attracted to a boy named Imran, and she makes her feelings known at his birthday party. He does not reciprocate, and this is upsetting for Shai. In her vulnerable state, Shai consumes drugs at the party and falls unconscious. When she regains consciousness at the hospital, she tells Rani, “I wish I hadn’t gone for his party. I wish I hadn’t seen him kiss Myra. I wish I hadn’t given him my notebook. I wish I was dead.”

NCPCR objection to Bombay Begums is unwarranted Netflix series crafts realistic portrayal of teen issues

Aadhya Anand plays Shai Irani in Bombay Begums.

Rani steps into the situation with compassion for her daughter. Instead of blaming Shai for going to the party, getting infatuated with a boy, consuming drugs, or contemplating suicide, Rani focuses on providing what is needed – unconditional love and comfort. She tells Shai, “We all love you very much, and we are there for you.” They have a difficult relationship because Rani is Shai’s step mother, and Shai thinks that Rani is trying to replace her biological mother. The scene in the hospital is where Shai begins to realise that Rani indeed loves her.

Why has such a beautiful story of connection between parent and child come on the radar of the NCPCR? The notice indicates that the NCPCR received complaints from two Twitter handles. One of the handles has objected because “a 13 yr old is snorting coke as the party she goes to is all about alcohol, drugs.” The other handle has found the series problematic because “Dream of school girls is to send selfies with a ‘developed’ body part to Imran.”

The easy availability of alcohol and drugs in children’s birthday parties is certainly alarming, and the subject must be discussed so that remedies can be sought. The same can also be said about the pressures faced by girls to make themselves desirable for boys in their peer group.

However, Bombay Begums does not encourage minors to consume alcohol and drugs or sexualise their own bodies. It holds up a mirror to what is happening in elite urban schools. Shai is not proud of herself. She regrets the choices she made, and vows not to repeat them.

Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava’s book Stoned, Shamed, Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India’s Teens (2020) published by HarperCollins India, includes excerpts from interviews with teenagers, parents, teachers and psychologists. She writes, “If parents were to pause a moment to look around when they pick up or drop their children at school, they might want to investigate the rickety paan shop or the ice cream vendor near the school gates. Many might be engaged in businesses other than what they seem to be.”

NCPCR objection to Bombay Begums is unwarranted Netflix series crafts realistic portrayal of teen issues

Bhargava points out that, in 2016, the Supreme Court of India cited the National Policy on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, “where a special mention has been made for the local police, urging it to pay particular attention to areas surrounding schools and colleges.” She suspects that authorities are aware of what is happening because transactions take place “barely metres away from the school” but they choose to look the other way. Given such a scenario, is it fair to put the onus of cleaning up our society on a web series?

The notice from the NCPCR had directed Netflix to immediately stop streaming Bombay Begums, and file a detailed action report within 24 hours. Subsequently, Netflix asked for more time so that it could look into the matter and address the NCPCR’s concerns. Their policy head has also requested a meeting with the NCPCR, which will include the content team. NCPCR chairperson Priyank Kanoongo has granted the request. The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 16, at 11.30am. What outcome can we expect?

If Netflix is left with no choice but to remove Bombay Begums from its set of offerings in India, that could be a big loss for parents, teachers and caregivers. It shows these adults how to create a safe space for children. Rani tells Shai, “I want you to tell me if any of the boys at the party touched you inappropriately, okay?” Shai says she does not think so, and she does not remember. Rani persists, “But if you do remember later, you must tell me, okay?”

Rani’s nurturing approach to Shai also appears to be consistent with the guidelines offered in The Orange Book: A Teachers’ Workbook on Sexuality Education (2010) written by Gunjan Sharma and Radhika Chandiramani, and published by TARSHI — an Indian NGO that creates educational materials on comprehensive sexuality education.

The authors write, “Individuals who experienced abuse as children deal and react to the abuse in different ways. Some may think little about the abuse as they get older and put the abuse behind them as much as they can, while others may have a tougher time recovering from the abuse and need more support and counselling to move forward. Either way, dismissing the feelings and emotions of a person, even years after the abuse, denies them the opportunity to speak about and heal from the experience.”

Let us hope that the NCPCR will not silence the story of Rani and Shai.

Updated Date:

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