A decade ago, Bombay Begums would not exist.
As of last week, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights sent a notice to Netflix, asking the streaming platform to remove their series Bombay Begums, based on “normalisation of minors indulging in casual sex” and “showing minors having cocaine.” Concerned that the series will “pollute the young minds of the children” and somehow result in “exploitation of children,” the NCPCR said “Netflix should take extra precaution while streaming any content in respect of the children, or for the children” — even if the show, rated 18+ on Netflix — is clearly not for children.
This is not a new problem. As I said, a decade ago none of us would be surprised at a show called Bombay Begums leading to smashed televisions and burnt effigies and helpless producers issuing apologies — as soon as the show’s title had been announced. Issue would immediately have been taken with the name, using Bombay instead of Mumbai, something that once routinely infuriated the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Karan Johar, for instance, had to issue an apology attached to each print of his 2009 production Wake Up Sid for this perceived offence.
Meanwhile, the makers of Tandav on Amazon Prime Video have had to cut out “objectionable” scenes and are currently facing legal action for the show’s so-called Hinduphobia, evidently because a student leader named Shiva (played by actor Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) uses profanity and drinks alcohol. The character — named Shiva Shekhar to unsubtly parallel real-life activist Kanhaiya Kumar — isn’t meant to be godly on any level, and it is bewildering that all characters with names deriving from Hindu gods are now evidently expected to behave themselves. A tremendous ask given the bench strength of the pantheon.
A decade ago Tandav would have still been in hot water, but for entirely unrelated reasons. The show features politicians making jokes about Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, something the then-ruling Congress party would certainly have taken umbrage to. I remember Salman Rushdie’s 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh facing double bans: from the Shiv Sena for a character who was a cartoonist-turned-fascist, as well as the Congress for a character naming his dog 'Jawaharlal'. That most contentious of Rushdie novels, the comedic masterpiece The Satanic Verses, was banned by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government in 1988 before anyone in India — or in government — had read the book.
Today, that Congress — like every political party that is not the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party — is forced to stand in favour of freedom of expression, whether they may traditionally believe it or not. When characters in Netflix series Sacred Games used profane adjectives for Rajiv Gandhi, his son Rahul Gandhi shrugged it off: “My father lived and died in the service of India. The views of a character on a fictional web series can never change that.”
Censorship can only be carried out by the powers that be. Denying anticipatory bail to Aparna Purohit (head of Indian originals at Amazon Prime) in the Tandav case, the Allahabad High Court judgement declared that shows like Tandav needed to be “curbed in time,” and would have an adverse effect “on the younger generations which is not much aware of the social and cultural heritage of this country.”
The threat is severe. Netflix or Amazon have no dog (or cow) in this fight, and don’t need to take a stand for India or free speech — especially if it affects their bottom-lines. A 2019 Buzzfeed report said Apple had asked creators making shows for Apple TV+ "not to anger China", keen to infiltrate that market without government interference. It isn’t hard to imagine Netflix/Amazon headquarters issuing similar directives to keep Indian audiences un-offended.
The more urgent question seems to be why these shows — the two big-ticket releases from two of the biggest streaming platforms — are being targeted at all. Perhaps the present dispensation, ushering in new regulations for streaming networks and digital media, intends to make an example of high-profile shows based on early audience complaints, and wants to instil a culture of self-censorship among creators and platforms.
There may be more insidious reasons. The Tandav complaints may be focussed around the Shiva character drinking, but reviews on far-right websites are wary of the show’s upper caste Hindu characters humiliating a lower-caste character, and the way it insinuates that "it is easy for police to kill Muslims". Similarly, while Bombay Begums appeared to have triggered a furore by showing misbehaving minors, the show also features a lecherous politician who quotes the Bhagavad Gita. Are the makers being punished for one thing, or the other? Or for both?
Once Bombay was a problem, now the Begums might be.
Filmmakers in India have always had to navigate censorship landmines. The Central Bureau of Film Certification is an absurd body that forces filmmakers to cut kisses and bloodshed by arbitrary percentages: I have had embittered directors tell me about official instructions to “make a scene 16% less sensual” or “31% less violent.” This is what comes of growing up on Hindi films that featured copulating carnations in place of consenting adults.
Yet it must be said that mainstream filmmakers, compelled to colour within the lines, at least knew where the lines were. They could conform or rebel as and when intended. Now — at a time when Myntra has to change their logo because one woman chose to find it vulgar — all the lines are loaded. The rulebooks have been rewritten. All the games are sacred.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.