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A Matter of Name and Shame

A Matter of Name and Shame

A new trend is for motley groups to target the language/lyrics that are said to be "insulting" to particular groups. The so-called custodians of culture, morality and whatever else, continuously try to misdirect popular sentiment towards trivial non-issues mainly for self-promotion and quick and cheap publicity, while truly retrograde, offensive and insulting portrayals, if backed by the right amount of star power and produced with the right amount of sheen, can rake in the moolah at the box office.

COMMENTARY

but then this commentary is not intended as A Matter of Name and Shame an analysis of the MNS or of Raj Thackeray, but is more a comment on some recent instances of controversy over vocabulary Ashwini Deshpande used in the most popular medium in the

A new trend is for motley groups to target the language/lyrics that are said to be “insulting” to particular groups. The so-called custodians of culture, morality and whatever else, continuously try to misdirect popular sentiment towards trivial non-issues mainly for self-promotion and quick and cheap publicity, while truly retrograde, offensive and insulting portrayals, if backed by the right amount of star power and produced with the right amount of sheen, can rake in the moolah at the box office.

Ashwini Deshpande (ashwini@econdse.org) teaches at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University.

W
hen Raj Thackeray’s ire was directed against the migrants from northern Ind ia in Bomb ay/ Mumbai, and the Railway Board recruitment advertisements for not being in Marathi, there was at least a semblance of an economic rationale to the sons-of-the-soil argument, which has neither been invented by nor is a monopoly of the Shiv Sena or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Appealing to the economic marginalisation, real or imagined, of some original inhabitants of the land (in this case, the “Marathi Manoos”) is an age-old and time-honoured practice of all those who would rather not tackle the substantial issues confronting those in whose name they speak.

However, his objections to the dialogues in the film Wake Up, Sid are ludicrous, to say the least, Karan Johar’s apology notwithstanding. Johar’s apology has an economic rationale – he cannot afford to have his film banned, or be the cause of violence directed at the theatres screening the film. Sid asks Aisha (in the film) why she came to “Bombay”, and not Mumbai, from “Calcutta”, and not Kolkata. Indeed, both the characters in the film, as several others, continue to refer to the two cities by their older, British names. Of course, Bombay is not the Marathi name, but is it an insulting reference to the city of dreams? So, if the Marathi Manoos is supposed to feel insulted, the Bangali Bhadralok ought to rise up in revolt too. Come to think of it, why have they not? Now we – finally – understand the real problem plaguing West Bengal – people are simply not insulted enough by the persistent use of “Calcutta”!

Perhaps it is time for Raj Thackeray to float an all-India “network of insulted people”, who are incensed by improper nomenclature but are quite content otherwise. If only they could be addressed by the “pro per” names in the “proper” language (as defined by this network), all would be well with the world. I write this with the full awareness that the MNS phenomenon is considerably more complex than this caricature,

October 31, 2009

country: Hindi cinema.

Objection to Jati Names

The combination of extreme sensitivity to nomenclature with corresponding indifference to the real causes of disparity and discrimination is not a monopoly of the MNS. Witness the furore over two songs recently: the use of Mochi in the song from Aaja Nachle and the use of teli in the delightful Kaminey song: created by two separate, rather unknown, outfits. There is no doubt that jati names of dalit castes are routinely used as invectives in most Indian languages, intended to be derogatory and demeaning. It is, therefore, not surprising that sweepers in north India would prefer to be called Valmikis, rather than the various caste names in Hindi and Punjabi, as the latter are offensive and abusive. Also, in this case, the insulting and disparaging nomenclature completely reflects the widespread ostracisation and marginalisation of the sweepers.

However, this argument can not be extended to all caste names. Take, for example, the Manna Dey classic from Teesri Kasam: chalat musafir moh liyo re, pinjre wali muniya. Each stanza refers to different occupation groups – the Halwai, the Panwari and so forth – but none of the references are derogatory. Or, Sridevi’s sensuous reference to the tailor through a mock complaint in Chandni (meri darzi se aaj ik jung ho gai, maine choli silayi thi woh tung ho gai – “I had a fight with my tailor because he stitched my blouse too tight”) is the complete opposite of derogatory. To come back to the two songs mentioned earlier, while synonyms of Mochi are insulting, it is not apparent that the use of Mochi per se can be interpreted as insulting (and that of Teli, even less so). If those who objected to the use of these two specific caste names had instead utilised their energies in demanding some concrete improvement in the conditions of these two (dalit) castes, that would have been exemplary, completely justified and long overdue. But why take the difficult route when there is a

vol xliv no 44

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

cosmetic short-cut available, which is all thunder and no rain?

Easy Publicity

Targeting Hindi films to avenge a socalled “insult” is an easy and profitable strategy: the publicity-to-cost ratio is very high; given the economics of the film industry, an apology is virtually guaranteed, and thus, the champions of the insulted can bask in their quick and artificial victories. In this process, the real and serious casualty is the natural and easy use of language, both inside films as well as in the outside world. It does not matter that millions of Sids and Aishas in “Bombay” refer to the city that way and nobody is offended, because they have no reason to be. Countless Maharashtrians, like me, alternate between “Mumbai” and “Bombay” depending on which language we are using.

In fact, an MNS candidate himself used “Bombay” during his election campaign, clearly because in certain contexts, that is the natural usage. Cultural dictators the world over are known to have scant regard for the everyday, natural, multifaceted, secular forms of interactions between people, so what else can we expect from Raj Thackeray, keen as he is, to establish himself as the sole heir apparent. It is particularly ironic that Wake Up, Sid is targeted as being disrespectful towards “Mumbai”: in a refreshing break from the current craze for foreign locations, the film is shot completely in Bombay, displaying its myriad hues, unveiling its magical and magnetic charm and enticing the viewer to fall in love with the city. Far from being disrespectful towards it, it is actually an ode to Bombay, something that genuine lovers of the city should be proud of.

Obnoxious Portrayal

What is doubly ironic is that such protests, which thrive on creating fake and trivial controversies for the sake of publicity, are completely silent at the truly offensive portrayals – of women, linguistic groups, people with disabilities, religious minorities and low castes. While on the one hand, Hindi cinema is going through a very creative phase of breaking stereotypical portrayals and defying formulae, on the other hand, there are some who, in the name of “mass entertainment”, are wedded to appealing to the meanest and lowest common denominator. As an example of the latter, consider the recent commercial success of one of the worst Hindi films ever, a complete antidote to political correctness: a shockingly sexist film called Kambakht Ishq. It is not clear what is more shocking: the fact that such a film got made in the year 2009, or that nobody really seemed to mind, or that a large number of viewers liked it enough to make it a hit.

The hero is a testosterone-laden, foulmouthed, utterly crass stuntman, who wears his “women-as-sex-objects-to-beused-and-discarded” views rather proudly on his sleeve. In addition to calling the heroine “bitch” in every second sentence, he reiterates his views about women in every single scene, just in case we had missed the point. He openly flaunts his preferences for virgins (kacchi kaliyan) in the song oh, mangalam, mangalam. The banality of the storyline, or rather the complete absence of it, is the least of the film’s problems. The character called “Kami ni” (literally meaning the desirable one, a synonym of woman, with an “aa” sound) is deliberately mispronounced as “Kamiini” (with an “a” sound, meaning a worthless, low-life, greedy, unscrupulous woman), repeatedly, and this is just one instance of the kind of humour it portrays.

Blatant Racism

All the women, especially the heroine, are absurd caricatures, designed to prove the hero’s assertions. In one (of several) repulsive scene, all the popular prejudices are rolled into one, when the hero is asked to step aside at an airport for a private security check on suspicion of carrying drugs. The woman who asks him to step aside is a white blonde and hero is thrilled, as he believes this to be a sexual invitation! Inside the room, however, his fantasy is soon shattered, as a fat, black woman ends up searching him in the most vulgar manner, and what is more offensive than the search is the physical portrayal of the woman – exaggeratedly ugly – rather like a blood-thirsty rakshasin out of Ravana Sena – a representation that is both blatantly racist and anti-women. This is not the first, or the only, instance of the explicit portrayal of whites as sexually desirable partners and of blacks as undesirable: as a fierce debate on racism and racist portrayals rages on internationally, sections of popular cinema in globalising India have still not evolved beyond the habshi syndrome: in Fashion, the heroine realises, with horror, that she has reached the nadir of debauchery, when she is so completely intoxicated that she ends up actually sleeping with a black man!

I could give many more examples from Kambakht Ishq, as the film is a treasure trove of abusive portrayals, or from other films, but the simple point is that other than a few critical reviews, these depictions do not generate even an iota of anger or controversy, as compared to the furore over completely harmless references in Wake Up, Sid or in Gulzar’s lyrics (dil dildara mera teli ka tel). This is not an argument in favour of censorship at all, as the real rebuff to these obnoxious and derogatory portrayals and use of offensive language would be popular outrage that would relegate these works to the dustbins of history, in addition to a strong antidiscri minatory legal framework, which would make individuals cautious about heaping abuses so casually. At the moment, both are lacking in sufficient measure and thus, the so-called custodians of culture, morality and whatever else, continuously try to misdirect popular sentiment towards trivial non-issues mainly for self-promotion and quick and cheap publicity, while truly retrograde, offensive and insulting portrayals, if backed by the right amount of star power and produced with the right amount of sheen, can rake in the moolah at the box office.

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Economic & Political Weekly

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October 31, 2009 vol xliv no 44

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