Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thoughts on Bollywood's use of gaalis

Sometime in the early 1990s I briefly became very taken with Michael Medved's Hollywood Vs America, a book that strongly condemned the violence and explicit profanity in modern American movies (and pop music), arguing that this was eroding family values and adversely affecting the behaviour of young people. My own biases probably led me to attach more value to some of Medved’s points than they deserved: being obsessed (then as now) with old Hollywood films, I enjoyed his rose-tinted view of the “simple” cinema of the past, and his observation that it was once possible to make great movies about unsavoury people (gangsters, for example) without subjecting audiences’ ears to the foul language that these people would have used in real life. Why couldn’t today’s films be better-behaved, he asked rhetorically.

It seemed like a good argument at the time, but gradually I understood that Medved was a conservative political commentator – often motivated by religious orthodoxy – and that his book was shrill and one-dimensional, presenting just a single side of a complex topic. (Studies have indicated that screen violence can also have a cathartic effect on viewers, making them more passive and less inclined to emulate what they see.) There will, of course, always be movies that use violence or bad language gratuitously, or in a way that contributes nothing to narrative or character development – but it’s equally possible for such work to push boundaries and to shake viewers up by using options that were not available to artists in a more conservative time.

As Martin Amis pointed out in his fine essay "I am in Blood Stepp'd in So Far", when the Hollywood censorship code was revised in 1966, “film edged closer to being a director’s medium, freer to go where the talent pushed it”.
As we now know, the talent pushed it away from the mainstream of America and towards the mainstream of contemporary art, while playing to its own strengths - action, immediacy, affect...

...Does screen violence provide a window or a mirror? Is it an effect or is it a cause, an encouragement, a facilitation? Fairly representatively, I think, I happen to like screen violence while steadily execrating its real-life counterpart. Moreover, I can tell the difference between the two. One is happening, one is not. One is earnest, one is play. But we inhabit the postmodern age, an age of mass suggestibility, in which image and reality strangely interact.
(The complete essay can be read here)

Watching recent films like Ishqiya, Yeh Saali Zindagi and No One Killed Jessica, it seems like Hindi cinema is somewhere near that uncertain place where the American cinema was in the late 1960s. In the past couple of years, the censorship rules pertaining to profanity have become less rigid, and many films – especially the edgier ones set in the hinterland – now routinely use language that would once have been unthinkable in a mainstream movie.

Naturally, the results are mixed – new freedoms always bring missteps and over-indulgence, but there are also the occasional moments that feel just right. Take the early scene in No One Killed Jessica, which establishes the spunky character of the TV reporter Meera: when a co-passenger on her flight gushes on stupidly about the Kargil war being “so exciting”, she shuts him up by smiling sweetly and saying “Aap wahaan hote toh aapki gaand phat jaati”.

The scene is hugely effective for a number of reasons: 1) the startling use of a once-severely taboo word in the midst of a laidback conversation, 2) the fact that the word is preceded by the respectful "aap" and spoken by Rani Mukherjee, who has played mostly vanilla characters (in terms of their speaking habits, at least) in her career up to this point, and 3) the guy on the receiving end so clearly deserves to be put in his place that we in the audience feel vicarious pleasure in his public humiliation. The balance between the "bad word" and the faux-polite tone is perfect; a putdown expressed in milder language (or in an angrier voice) wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same impact. The moment also adds to our perspective on Meera and the contrast between her and the film’s other protagonist, the mousy Sabrina.

With Sudhir Mishra’s Yeh Saali Zindagi, on the other hand, though I liked the film, I wasn’t convinced that it would have been less effective if it had slightly cut down on the maa-behen gaalis sprinkled through the script. They fit certain characters perfectly – such as the crooked policeman wonderfully played by Sushant Singh – but at other times their use felt forced, as if the film was trying too hard to be gritty. But on the whole, I think we can look ahead to some exciting times as scriptwriters and directors work out how best to use the new liberties available to them.


  1. Sudhir's "Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi" had just 2-3 instances of gaali-usage but they were very effective and natural ...
    for ex, the scene where Yashpal Sharma is pleading with Shiney to help him join the ruling party, and hence stay away from jail. Shiney is unrelenting. An exasperated Yashpal bellows, "A friend in need is a friend indeed, behenchod samjha kar yaar".

    The definitive movie on gaali-usage is, of course, Omkara !
    And the worst, implied, use was in RNBDJ, where Shahrukh uses the word "Macho" followed by some word starting with "D". Well, if you gotta say it, just say it ..

  2. AshKash: thanks - haven't seen HKA and Omkara recently enough to remember specific examples. I think I did mention that "macho" usage in my post about Rab ne... though.

  3. Rani Mujherjee earlier used some expletives in Bichchhoo, but yeah, I think that is her only exception from vanilla speaking habits.

    Meera's exact dialogue is "Gaand phat kar haath mein aa jaati", a slightly more impactful one.

  4. After 1966, movie audiences halved, and they have stayed halved. Auteurism did more damage to the industry than the arrival of

    This is an extract from that Amis essay you linked to.

    I've a couple of problems with this statement. Audience counts started declining markedly in the late forties itself thanks to television. The decline surely didn't begin in the late 60s.

    Nor did auteurism begin in 1966.
    Any post 60s decline can, I think, be attributed to two developments - the near extinction of two popular genres - the Musical and the "women's picture". Both these developments were essentially retrogressive and reduced the diversity of the fare available at the movies. No wonder there was a drop in the audience counts.

    Are movies a superior medium for self-expression today than they were in the studio-era? I don't think so. Tough, politically incorrect films like The Searchers or even Freaks would be hard to make in Hollywood today. Even if they were made, they probably wouldn't enjoy the mainstream status that they enjoyed back when they were released.

  5. @ashes: Thank you. Yes, I remember Rani's utterance of choo in Bichchhoo, and it was pretty effective. But ever since I noticed another quiet little curse she soundlessly mouths behind her father's back early in the film, I knew this wasn't just any 'lady'. Her Yash Raj phase has always disappointed me. The candy floss genre completely underutilized Rani and wasted the best years of her life. To me, Rani as Meera has been one of the very few roles that do justice to her talent, of which she certainly has immense and most of it so far unrealized.

  6. Well... it is sort of spunky to use gaalis in a "propah" setting where it has shock value and a near- guarantee of the recipient not responding in kind.

    But its a lot spunkier IMO for the character to use it in a rough street situation with ppl who may react at or even exceeding that level. The other kind of spunk looks faux in comparison.

    just my 0.02


  7. Peepli live was amazing in this regard (as it was in many other ways). See the last 10 seconds of this (thankfully uncensored) trailer for instance :)


  8. Heh, isn't it amusing that of all things YSZ got into a flap with the censor board over the word "saali"?