What we see enacted, or even hear, is more shocking for us than what we read. Anyone familiar with books and literature will tell you that every conceivable form of human speech, foible and perversion has been recorded on paper. If you are well read, in the proper sense of the term, chances are you will not be shocked by anything, especially fornication and foul language.
However, television, radio and film are another matter. Watching a mass medium break its moral shackles painfully slowly, belatedly, one wonders what the fuss is about. Get on with it! It’s the 21st century, dammit. Literature did it decades ago. The revolution has already come and gone. Netflix and Bollywood are playing catch up.
Take the f word. One’s read it (and gotten over the shock) in the poems of great poets like Hulls’s Philip Larkin and Dadar’s Arun Kolatkar, and the novels of Philip Roth, Erica Jong and Henry Miller. In the 1970s, Larkin published his famous ‘This Be the Verse’, (a lyric poem in three verses, of four iambic tetrameter, on an alternating rhyme scheme): ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ They might not mean to, but they do.’
Hollywood too played its role normalising the f word. On pirated VHS tapes (not at Sterling or Eros), we heard American actors letting it fly verbally. This was followed by gangsta rap and Eminem and yo!, the f word was controversial again. Mary ‘Tipper Gore’, Al Gore’s wife, invented the Parental Advisory sticker to protect white kids from profane ghetto slang. Eminem taunted Tipper: ‘White America, I could be one of your kids!’, while the ‘Tipper sticker’ passed into the English language as a legit euphemistic phrase.
Cuss words in cinema-in-English we got used to. But not on TV. I remember the liberating thrill of watching an episode of Chelsea Handler’s talk show on Netflix last year. Every second word was ‘f—k’. We’d never heard a talk show host talk like this.
In India, Bollywood took its own sweet time. The audience ‘matured’. One of the first gaalis I heard on screen was Naseeruddin Shah utter ‘maadar jaat’, just before the interval in Tridev (1989). It caused quite a stir in Palace Cinema, Civil Lines, Allahabad. The next time I heard gaalis full frontal was in Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen (1996). Seema Biswas was playing the dacoit Phoolan Devi and there was a context to the lingo. A dacoit had to speak like a dacoit.
Then came Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj. Nothing would be the same again. Indian cinematic realism was not going to strike compromises. Alankrita Srivastava’s Lipstick Under the Burkha minced no words. Sisters were spewing it for themselves.
Let’s return to the f word though. YRF’s seminal web series Ladies Room (2016) was when the f word came of age in postmodern bi-lingual India. This is how big city millennials speak. Again, I remember the thrill, and thinking: Wow, all this is allowed here? It was about watching Indian actors do it naturally and get away with it. This vicarious pleasure though is strange for a professional writer. I’ve used the f word in my fiction and non-fiction and so have several Indian authors. But to see it on a phone screen was different. Seeing not the same as reading?
Ladies Room gave Balaji Motion Pictures courage. It produced Veere Di Wedding where Sonam Kapoor curses the ‘bhain chod mangalsutra’. Kareena Kapoor says in a dialogue: ‘I’m definitely the first to do it (marriage) without my fucking friends’ and ‘Haldi, mehndi, chiwda, dal, what the fuck is happening ya’. A-list Bollywood actresses had finally broken the sound barrier in 2018.
I find it strange that the f word hasn’t lost any of its power to shock. It’s an ancient fucking word. But the language monitors of the world are still at. The other day I was listening to PJ Harvey’s ‘Community of Hope’. She sings about down and drugged out districts in Washington DC. There’s a line: ‘And the school just looks like shit hole’. I was listening to it on BBC Six Music, the world’s premier indie music station, and they blanked out ‘shit.’
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