Thursday, March 1, 2012

Don't mind your language

A piece I'd written for GQ on cussing in Hindi films.

It’s fitting that two of the big year-end releases were The Dirty Picture, loosely based on the life of soft porn star Silk Smitha, and Desi Boyz, an Indian Full Monty. 2011 has been a bold year by Bollywood standards. Provocation equalled publicity; you could see it in the titles (Ragini MMS), the songs (“DK Bose”) and the material (the-road-to-heaven-is-paved-with-handjobs philosophy of That Girl in Yellow Boots). And while significant skin shows are still a no-go, profanity in Bollywood films has sprouted belated, rapidly fluttering wings.
For years, audiences in this country have had to make do with actors gritting their teeth and saying “Saale”, when they ought to be letting loose truly satisfying torrents of abuse. This embargo has now been lifted, with the Censor Board concentrating its scissorhands on (allegedly) inflammatory communal, political and sexual content instead. Still, today’s foul-mouthed films do owe a debt to Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen, which huffed and cussed the door down in 1994, only to be buried under a snowstorm of controversy. Twelve years later, mainstream cinema had its first brush with A-level gaalis with Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara. After that, it was just a matter of time before everyone joined in. Dev.D had a trilingual phone sex scene. Ishqiya introduced, to the horror of male-dominated Bollywood, the cussing female lead. Soon, directors across town were painting their scripts purple.
On the Fugees’ 1996 album The Score, Lauren Hill bragged that her rhymes were so complex, she had to couch them in the kind of language which people in the hood would understand. “And even after all my logic and my theory/ I add a muthafucker so you ignint niggas hear me,” she rapped. Thankfully, our filmmakers don’t seem to be hiding behind any such cop-outs. Foul language is one more element that’s been added to their arsenal, and they’re using it to suit their ends. Some treat it as a useful additive; like Peepli Live, where the abuses are sporadic and in keeping with the surroundings. Others use it as a cheap parlour trick, like the scene in Tanu Weds Manu where Rajendra Gupta, a distinguished presence in films like Seher and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, is made to shout “Ho gaya na phir...CHUTIYAAPA”.
One of the happy by-products of the freeing up of our cinematic lexicon is the way cursing has leaped across the gender bender. Ever since Vidya Balan called Arshad Warsi ‘chutiyam sulphate’ in last year’s Ishqiya, we’ve seen a series of female characters prepared to match their male co-stars cuss for cuss. This year, there was Kangana Ranaut mouthing off in Tanu Weds Manu, as well as two leading ladies – Rani Mukherjee’s inexplicably combative reporter in No One Killed Jessica, and Balan in The Dirty Picture – asking the question “Phat gayi?” Keen followers of Hindi cinema will also point to the young bride in Urf Professor – a decade-old unreleased film by the late Pankaj Advani – who stuns her initially condescending husband with a frank litany of her sexual conquests.
My nominee for Hindi cinema’s holy grail of onscreen cursing might seem an unlikely example. With Love, Sex aur Dhoka, Dibakar Banerjee showed that he wasn’t afraid to use profanity in ways that were disturbing and not at all cool. His Khosla Ka Ghosla, however, was as family-friendly as they come – unless, that is, you listen carefully when Sahni Saab is advising Khosla on the bus. A published version of the script might record the kindly sardar as saying “Yeh poora desh hi compromise pe chal raha hai [this whole country is working on compromises]”. Let the record show there’s a ‘behenchod’ in there as well. Now, I don’t want to build a stray curse into something bigger than it is. I’ll simply suggest that the ‘behenchod’ survived in the final cut because it fit in with the rhythm of Sahni’s speech and sounded so natural that no one really noticed it was there. Which plain-spoken Punjabi trying to make a point would think twice before saying that word? This is when cussing on film is at its most effective: when it seems so integral to the character’s speech patterns that you cannot picture the person talking any other way.
If profanity really is the new sex/violence, I’m inclined to believe it’ll cause more good than harm. Hearing someone abuse can be very revealing. You probably couldn’t tell much about a person by the way they fight or screw, but you can certainly peg someone by the way they cuss. Like the three young slackers of Delhi Belly, upper class youth in lower-middle class surroundings – it makes sense that they’d abuse with equal fluency in English and Hindi (or combine the two, as with “Your gaand is a solar eclipse”). To call this gutter-speak is to wish away reality; it’s the language of the streets, of the people. The closer our films come to approximating this, the sooner we’ll arrive at a truly representative cinema.
Here's the piece on their site. Also, an earlier post I'd done on the subject.

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