A lot ado about nothing: why we have to cease fiction from affecting our tender sentiments


If you want to distil the demand for the banning of Bombay Begums for further silliness, allow me to help

A 2017 study, published in The National Medical Journal of India, found that “drug use exists in children in all regions, cities and smaller towns across all states” of India. A 2019 paper in the International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health found that at least 30% of adolescents in India had abused substances, either tobacco, alcohol or drugs. Both studies covered adolescents aged between 10 and 19.

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Since the 2017 study was initiated by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), one imagined that drug use by a fictional 13-year-old wouldn’t make the NCPCR keel over in surprise. The august body has, however, served notice on Netflix demanding a ban on the series Bombay Begums because it depicts a minor girl using drugs and fighting body image issues. The notice claims that “this type of content will pollute the young minds of children”, an argument that is being repeated ad nauseam across social media by a certain section of self-righteous souls.

Ironically, the show’s certificate clearly states that it is suitable only for viewers above 18, understandable given that it abounds with sex, alcohol and four-letter words. If children have indeed managed to watch the show, the blame lies squarely with parents. Filmmakers cannot be penalised for bad parenting and, sadly, we cannot ban bad parents.

If you want to distil the demand for the banning of Bombay Begums for further silliness, allow me to help. Besides the show’s 18+ certificate, smart TV sets have parental controls to prevent children from accessing inappropriate content. Platforms like Netflix enable Viewing Restrictions to be set as per maturity ratings. Responsible parents are expected to use these. They’re also expected not to dish out smartphones to underage children or allow unsupervised browsing. The entire idea of your becoming an adult and being allowed to have children presupposes that you have the intelligence to screen content for your offspring.

Now, if the show had glorified 13-year-olds taking drugs, it would have been valid ground for criticism, but it hardly does that. In fact, it does the opposite — makes the girl realise her mistake and rediscover her self-worth. Which is more than one can say about the dozens of films that glorify stalking and the objectification of women but get away as ‘directorial vision’ — to wit, the absolute poison that was Arjun Reddy aka Kabir Singh. Sadly, one can’t ban puerile filmmakers either.

Meanwhile, videos of people being beaten up and humiliated by self-appointed community leaders are possibly among the most shared items on smartphones today. Nobody in authority seems concerned about how these will scar society or encourage the further brutalisation of young or ignorant minds in the name of religion, caste or morals. There is no push to punish the making or sharing of these.

Instead, you have the power of the state being brought to bear upon the fictional pronouncements of gods and prime ministers or upon the portrayal of a kiss. In Madhya Pradesh, an entire theatre festival has been cancelled because Bajrang Dal objected to the word ‘sadhu’ in a Vijay Tendulkar play titled Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki, without even knowing that the word here refers not to a ‘holy man’ but a ‘good man’.

Clearly, the “sentiments of the people of our country” can stay strong in the face of real people committing real casteist or communal crimes, but they buckle at the knees when anything happens in the fictional space. So tender indeed are our sentiments that even a title we misunderstand can shatter us.

But why does a craven administration allow “sentiments” to dictate terms? Why is one sanctimonious posse allowed to shut down a festival or ban a series? Ultimately, this is the real issue. Not that over-zealous persons raise frivolous objections against this or that — this is impossible to avoid — but that the police and the courts don’t throw such cases out. Instead, by watering them with their attention, they ensure that the meanest minds from the lunatic fringe get to dictate a nation’s cultural choices.

As for statutory bodies such as NCPCR, it would be more befitting if they agitated about a child being assaulted in real life for drinking water from a temple tap than about a child crossing the line.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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