Channel Change Karo! Why Indian Parents Reach for the Remote When There’s a Kissing Scene

Modern Family

Channel Change Karo! Why Indian Parents Reach for the Remote When There’s a Kissing Scene

Illustration: Akshita Monga


It’s the early 2000s. On yet another typical weekend night for the Dhyani family, the whole bunch is gathered around the television, watching yet another rented DVD.

It’s a Hollywood action flick, a largely safe bet for family viewing. But as the climax draws closer, the leading man and his damsel in distress look like they are getting a little too close for this desi family’s comfort. There is uncomfortable shifting on the sofa; the tension in the room weighs heavy and the kids hardly know where to look.

It’s a familiar routine, as papa Dhyani frantically searches for the remote. The stakes of what is about to appear on screen are seemingly much higher than whatever universe-threatening evil force the hero is fighting against. As the lovebirds passionately move toward each other, papa hits the fast-forward button. Just in time. The movie skips forward to the fighting once more. The day is saved. Another day that the Dhyani kids did not have to watch two grown-ups kiss on screen.

Welcome to my early teens.

The Indian parental censoring game is pretty strong, but for my parents, it was a methodical, highly skilled ritual. We spent a good part of my teenage years living in Finland where there was absolutely nosanskari” content to be found. So, we found solace in whatever content we could find that was in a language we could understand – English.

This meant opening our desi family up to western TV shows, Hollywood movies, and yes, even the dreaded MTV. In a country that’s mostly dark winters, this was a compromise my parents had made for the sake of the family’s entertainment and general sanity, but one that came at a cost: They had to be on alert at all time to protect their bhole-bhale bacche from the onslaught of foreign indecencies.

The Indian parental censoring game is pretty strong, but for my parents, it was a methodical, highly skilled ritual.

As I found out later, this wasn’t a trait unique to my family. Desi parents are some of the most vigilant gatekeepers of “objectionable content” in the world. Having survived their entire adolescence without receiving the birds- and-bees talk themselves, most parents see no reason to discontinue that tradition with unnecessary awkwardness. I mean, why have the talk when you can simply pretend sex does not exist until your kids grow old enough to figure it out themselves? And how dare western TV disrupt this tried-and-tested method of bringing up Indian children?

To ensure that their children turn out to be as sanskari as Tulsi Virani, the desi parents turn to the remote control. It becomes their best friend, ally, weapon of defence. Skip, fast forward, change the channel. Handled. Done.

My parents’ war against “indecent” TV faded not long after we moved back to our desh. I think it was their sudden refusal to skip the charming kiss at the climax of a family viewing of Jab We Met that definitively marked the end of that era. Initially, I was shocked; instead of watching what was unfolding on screen, my eyes were glued to my parents. Since then, not only have I watched their grip over the remote control loosen, but they’ve also shocked me in ways that nothing they protected me from ever could. And then one a random night, my mother forwarded me a sex joke. Followed by three wink emoticons.

This was mistake; maybe she wanted to forward it to a friend? I imagined how deeply embarrassed she must have been at what was clearly a mix up. I obviously did not respond until she came to be the next day and asked me specifically if I’d received her forward. When I said yes, she laughed, possibly at my sheepish, confounded half-smile and walked away with swag.

So, what had happened to my remote-control-obsessed folks?

Well, for one, the internet and more specifically, streaming changed the way we consume entertainment. A life in the age of on-the-go content means that desi parents have realised that even their adept censorship skills, honed over the years, might have finally met their match. Before the internet, entertainment time meant television time, which necessarily meant family time. But that’s not the case anymore. There are five people in my family, and at any given time, we can all be found in different parts of the house, watching what we want.

And how dare western TV disrupt this tried-and-tested method of bringing up Indian children?

There is little any parent can do to exercise control over the children’s viewing habits. Black Mirror’s “Arkangel”, where a mother shields her daughter from everything disturbing, including a dying grandfather in need of medical assistance, might be a bit of a hyperbole but is quite an eye-opener. The truth it is that is impossible to shelter your children for what is out there in the age of the internet. “Children should be protected, Arkangel seems to suggest, but not made to live in an alternate reality that leaves them unprepared to have a healthy, adult life in the actual one,” an essay on Bustle points out. I’m glad my parents figured this out sooner than later.

As for the question of protecting children from “indecent” foreign influences, well that has changed along with Indian content. Our parameters of “indecent”, “immoral” and the general sense of “hawwness” have evolved significantly in the past decade. Bollywood has stopped shying away from on-screen kisses, and sex scenes have made their way into commercial, mainstream cinema, becoming more than just a cheap prop to promote B-grade movies. Indian cinema has started questioning its own censorship parameters and slowly but significantly pushing them.

This change was reflected on our TV screens and thankfully, my parents did not resist it. Somewhere along the way, their criteria for the changing of channels kept shrinking until one day, I think they thought it juvenile to do it at all. Aided by all the changes in the world around us, a lot of growing up happened in my family in the past decade. I grew up, old enough to cast – for the first-time ever – a “really?” glance at my father when he reached for the remote while we were watching Pulp Fiction. And somewhere, they grew up too.

Having satisfactorily carried out their censorship responsibilities, my parents have taken on cooler, more relaxed roles. My father has become a kick-back, lounge-around-the-house, Stephen Colbert-binging figure, while my mother has discovered a new-found passion for the desi part of YouTube. They are now both over 50 and display not the slightest inclination to tell my 17-year-old brother to stop watching Ted Mosby and his gang discuss their sex lives. They’ve clearly crossed over.

I still haven’t. I can’t sit through a sex scene with them in the room without itching for the remote control.  Some of us take time to become “cool”.