September 21, 2023
SINGAPORE – It was Aarush Varma’s big screen debut. The 16-year-old made grand plans to watch the film’s premiere at a theatre, soaking in the public adulation. His family even envisaged inviting his classmates and friends for a special screening of the movie.
But all these plans came to naught.
The film, OMG 2, a Hindi drama that flags the importance of sex education in schools, was given an adult certification by India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), making its viewing permissible only to those above 18.
This left Aarush – the lead child actor of the film – in a quandary because he could not legally watch the film he had acted in.
Several other children who also acted in the movie were in a similar situation.
On Aug 11, the day OMG 2 was released, Aarush had to wait it out at the theatre as his parents and sister Maanya, 19, watched the movie.
The child actor, who is based in Mumbai, has still not watched it.
“The only time I’m going to watch my film is when I’m allowed to watch it,” he told The Straits Times emphatically on a WhatsApp video chat last Wednesday. “I don’t want to watch it illegally or unethically.”
After the film’s release, a disheartened Aarush launched a petition on Change.org, urging the authorities to reconsider their decision and grant the film a U/A certification, which would allow even children under 12 to watch the movie, but with parental guidance. The petition has garnered more than 5,000 signatures as at Tuesday.
OMG 2’s storyline is anchored to the fate of 14-year-old Vivek (played by Aarush), who is expelled from his school after being filmed masturbating in a school toilet by his friends.
His anguished father realises Vivek has not committed any wrong, but has instead become a victim of sexual health misinformation as well as bullying.
This convinces him to challenge the school management and others in court, while urging that the authorities mandate sex education in schools.
Aarush maintains that his petition is not just an attempt to watch his film legally, but also a way to ensure the film reaches one of its key intended target audiences – children.
“The job this film had was to teach kids that if you have doubts or curiosity about something, do not rely on people who give you wrong information. Ask your teachers and parents instead,” he said.
The CBFC has not relaxed its certification yet, despite the petition and leading actors of the film – including Bollywood stars Akshay Kumar and Pankaj Tripathi – throwing their weight behind it.
At a recent public screening of the film, Mr Kumar even jokingly referred to OMG 2 as the “first adult film which is made for teenagers”, while urging it to be shown in schools.
The coyness of India’s censors has, however, not stopped the film from prompting a wider discussion on the lack of sex education in Indian schools and its growing importance.
Sindhu Education Society, an organisation that runs schools in Maharashtra’s Ulhasnagar, has even decided to include sex education in its curriculum, reportedly influenced by the film’s message.
While better private schools in cities usually have some elements of sex education in their curriculum, other schools – especially in rural areas – can skip the issue entirely. Sex education is not mandatory in Indian schools and certain states have banned it altogether.
According to a June 2021 survey by The Zero Period, a non-profit organisation that focuses on sex education in India, 71 per cent of its 2,000-plus respondents did not receive any form of sex education during their schooling years.
India is the most populous country in the world, with more than 30 per cent of its population comprising adolescent and young people between the age of 10 to 24. Teen pregnancies and child sexual abuse continues to be a major problem in India. According to a government survey conducted between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of girls aged 15 to 19 who are either already mothers or pregnant stood at 6.8 per cent, only marginally lower from 7.9 per cent in 2015 to 2016.
Yet, entrenched conservative mores in the society continue to discourage open and informed discussions on sex-related issues, leaving queries from its young people on this sensitive issue “in the hands of equally unaware peers” and the Internet, noted The Zero Period’s survey.
For many, the CBFC’s decision to grant OMG 2 an adult certification is yet another instance of how the authorities can be out of step with changing sexual mores among young Indians.
Dr Tanaya Narendra, a doctor and educator, told ST that India is currently witnessing a “very overground” sexual revolution, citing how popular Bollywood films have graduated from shying away from close-ups of kissing scenes in the 1990s to stretched montages of lovemaking today.
“I think people are just refusing to recognise it,” said Dr Narendra, better known as Dr Cuterus on Instagram, where she has more than a million followers and is popular for her videos on issues related to sex and body education.
While access to such entertainment content has made people a “little bit more accepting” about sex, she noted there has also been a “reactionary sort of resurgence of prudishness” that is happening as well.
“People are afraid… There’s a moral panic almost about Indian values and Indian culture that is happening.”
Aarush’s mother, Ms Shruti Anindita Varma, had also panicked when her son, at the age of nine, came up to her asking for her laptop so that he could look up what “porn” meant. A film-maker and a social activist, the 52-year-old quickly realised it offered her an opportunity to talk about the delicate issue of sex, or the “s-word” as Aarush referred to it for a long time.
She herself keyed in “porn” on Google on her laptop and showed Aarush the nude photos that cropped up, images he thought were “dirty” and recoiled from. “But I said this is not dirty, this is normal… It is a human body,” Ms Varma said.
“I took it as an opportunity to tell him whatever I wanted to tell him, maybe much in advance, because I realised that if there’s someone in his circle who’s talking about porn, then there is much more they would be talking about.”
Since then, the focus in the Varma household, when it comes to sex education, has been on “imparting the right information, in the right manner and at the right time”. It also helped that Aarush’s school in Mumbai broached sex education sensitively and in an engaging manner, beginning with how plants – and then animals – reproduce.
A curious Aarush soon had lots of questions for his parents. Did his father and mother also “mate” so that his elder sister could be born? Did they “mate” again so that he could be born?
His queries on mating did not stop there. Aarush then asked his mother if she and his father still mated, to which Ms Varma replied in the affirmative, indicating they did. “That is how we broke our ice,” she told ST.
This open channel of communication on a sensitive topic sent out a clear message to Aarush – that in case he had a doubt or curiosity about any sex or body-related question, he had to come to his parents first for the right answer, not Google or his friends.
“I don’t get misguided that easily on such topics,” added Aarush, “and that’s because I first discuss them with my parents, then with my teachers and only then do I discuss them with others.”
But such an enabling environment remains rare for Indian children, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation online that is more easily accessible, given the Internet’s rapidly growing spread as well as proliferation of misleading content from unqualified creators online.
Based on her numerous interactions with adults as well as children in India, Dr Narendra said the level of information on sex and body-related education among them today is “extremely basic”.
“For example, a lot of women don’t know, and a lot of kids obviously also don’t know consequently, that there are different orifices in the female body for urinating and for menstruating,” she told ST.
“It’s something as fundamental as that,” Dr Narendra added, calling for an age-appropriate “gradua