The Bombay Begums Controversy, Explained

The brouhaha involving the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), freedom of expression, and the newfound power of the Twitter moral police
The Bombay Begums Controversy, Explained

Last year Zee5's Godman succumbed to the Twitter censor pressure, and got cancelled. This year began with Amazon Prime's Tandav, where a scene deemed objectionable by the Twitter mob was deleted from the show, while pre-emptive bail was rejected by the Allahabad High Court because Hindu gods were shown in a "cheap and objectionable way". The platform issued an unconditional apology. This month, Netflix's Bombay Begums elicited similar Twitter tirades. But this time, their voice was elevated by a government body, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) which, on March 12, asked Netflix to stop streaming the show within 24 hours for its "inappropriate portrayal of children in the series''.

Bombay Begums is show about 5 women at different stages of their life: Pooja Bhatt as Rani, the CEO of a bank, Shahana Goswami as Fatima, a senior staff at the same bank, Amruta Subhash as Lily, a bar dancer turned sex-worker, Plabita Borthakur as Ayesha, a junior staff at the bank, and Aadhya Anand as Shai, the 13-year old step-daughter of Rani. It is directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, who earlier gave us Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, where women play front-and-center grey characters, embracing the mess that is modern existence. It is a 6-part series, with hour-long episodes that delve into the minutiae of this mess.

What is the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR)?

The NCPCR was established by the Commission for Protection of Child Rights (CPCR) Act, 2005, and began its operation in 2007. It works under the Ministry of Women and Child Development. One of their mandated functions is to, "Undertake formal investigation where concern has been expressed either by children themselves or by concerned person on their behalf."

In this case the concern was brought to them through adults on Twitter. 

The NCPCR in their notice noted that if Netflix failed to stop the streaming of the series within 24 hours, they would "initiate appropriate action pursuant to the provisions of Section 14 of the CPCR (Commission for Protection of Child Rights) Act, 2005."

Section 14 of the Act notes that the Commission has all the powers of a civil court trying a suit, if it deals with "non-compliance of policy decisions, guidelines or instructions aimed at mitigating hardships to and ensuring welfare of the children and to provide relief to such children."

This isn't the first time the NCPCR has courted headlines. In 2018, they considered the revision of guidelines for child participants in reality television shows after a controversy involving singer Papon kissing a minor girl. Papon stepped down from the show. They also wanted to make sure children are not working for more than 12 hours a day. 

What is this complaint about?

The two tweets that the Commission cited are the following. In fact, the issue was brought to the notice of the NCPCR chairperson through these tweets:

The NCPCR notice further noted that "Netflix should take extra precaution while streaming any content in respect of the children or for the children and shall also refrain from getting into such things."

The Scene In Question

In the fifth episode of Bombay Begums, 14-year-old Shai is at the birthday party of Imran Siddiqui, the teen lothario, her school crush. In an earlier scene she overhears how some of her classmates are planning to dress up, "Something shimmery, something slutty."

Shai gifts Imran a book of sketches she drew, of her literally plucking her heart out of her body to give it to him. His reaction is, "Cool. You did this yourself?" before he leaves her hanging to welcome more of his friends. Later, she sees him dancing with another girl, and downs red cups of Cardi vodka – straight without chasers – and finds herself in the cocaine corner of the party.

One of the older kids there demurs, "She's a kid dude, like twelve or something." Shai replies, "I am thirteen, going on fourteen actually." She asks the guys to show her how to snort lines. A few lines and a few shots of vodka later she finds herself in the bathroom with her gift of sketches in the trash can. She tears them up and spirals till she falls unconscious in a pool of her own vomit by the toilet seat, almost dead.

Does the scene glorify teenage drug abuse?

The party scene is filmed uncomfortably, and not with the aesthetic of glorification. There's nothing aspirational about the downward spiral Shai finds herself in. The very next episode begins with her step-mother Rani (Pooja Bhatt), admonishing the parents of Imran, "What the hell were drugs doing in a 14-year old's party in the first place?" Rani, in this scene, takes the moral center, re-orienting us as the viewer and the characters that this was, in no way, aspirational.

What next?

Based on an Indian Express report, a senior Netflix official met NCPCR chairperson Priyank Kanoongo and submitted an explanation regarding the show. Netflix had asked for more time to look into the matter after they were served the initial notice by NCPCR. Netflix is meeting the Commission next Tuesday.

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