Why the excessive use of swear words suggests our growing poverty with language
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One of the more heartening developments of this week is the Mumbai high court’s decision to clear the release of the film, Udta Punjab, with just one cut instead of the 13 suggested by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It ended the raucous “freedom struggle” between CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalini and the Udta Punjab lobby led by the film’s co-producer, Anurag Kashyap. The latter eventually went to court to fight for his right to show the film as originally envisioned.
There is no telling whether Udta Punjab’s victory will stump other such debates on artistic and cinematic freedom in India but the high court verdict is a revealing one.
The aspect that leaves me most curious is the court’s point of view on the use of cuss words in films. Observing that such words did violate certain guidelines which protect offending human sensitivity by the use of vulgarity, it cleared the use of expletives in Udta Punjab saying that “the work has to be viewed in its entirety”. While upholding this, justice S.C. Dharmadhikari, who heard the case, also agreed with the counsel for CBFC that there was no reason to allow cuss words in every film just because they had been allowed in previous films.
More and more films now use cuss words in their scripts and songs. After Ishqiya, Omkara, Dev D, Gulaal, Delhi Belly and then Gangs of Wasseypur parts 1 and 2 interpreted expletives as the unrealized cool of (Indian) existence—most released five years back or more—this became a trend. Surprisingly, this fascination doesn’t seem to be fading. Subaltern gang wars or urban frustrations, love, sex or hate, misogyny or blasphemy, Hindi films have become profanity-friendly, sometimes using offensive slang without good reason. We haven’t seen Udta Punjab, so the court’s observation that cuss words should be allowed in its case is good enough reasoning; but I am certainly not convinced if swear words must be so frequently employed to show youth and modernity in so many films with different storylines.
While the use of profane puns sounded crass and terribly off-putting in a lame-brained comedy like Humshakals for instance, I must also admit to cringing a bit while watching the recent release, Waiting. It is a good film with good performances. The partly comic story of two people divided by age and mindset, both dealing with issues of existentialism, life and death in the waiting room of a neurosurgery intensive care unit, shows the younger of the two—a role played by Kalki Koechlin—firing away F-words for every kind of emotional expression. Rage, denial, refusal, admiration, wonder—she responds with sharp, emphatic F-words. What a stunted vocabulary, I felt. Her co-actor Naseeruddin Shah recoils at this tendency in the beginning, only to give in and use a few himself as his frustrations mount. The message is clear: F-words are realistic if they are indiscreetly used by those who are “young, hip, modern and city bred” or “hassled and angry”.
An exaggerated familiarity with profanity may even be true for a large and growing number of people in cities whose behavioural expressions are fast escaping language and conduct codes that were unquestioningly followed in India till not so long ago. Even then, it felt excessive in Waiting. It certainly didn’t bring further depth or nuance to Koechlin’s character after a point had been established. That’s not how I felt in Ishqiya, Dev D, Gulaal, Omkara or other films of that genre—cuss words belonged there.
The broader question is about India’s growing comfort for cuss words in public usage. Does new cinema reflect the language we speak now or do we find cinematic liberalism infectious and borrow freely from there? Perhaps both. When we were growing up in the 1980s, girls never ever used F-words; it was sheer blasphemy. The boys who did so were considered vulgar, uncouth and “valueless”. The use of swear words is still taboo in many families across India, and even where they are used, care is taken to utter them out of the earshot of elders, parents, bosses, mentors. It is still seen as indiscreet behaviour.
That’s also why the increasing tilt in films towards F-words must be understood beyond mere castigation. That we are a bristling, angry and easily frustrated society seeking instant verbal catharsis is one explanation. Swear words are known to be tools of expressing anger. The other may be our growing linguistic poverty. One of the many fall-outs of emerging social media vocabularies and emoticon menus is the loss of linguistic complexities. How many of us know metaphors, puns, idioms, proverbs and multiple synonyms within the maps of the languages we speak? F-words are often a short-cut, a symbol of infertile linguistic imagination and a fast escape. Besides, they have become too filmi.
I would rather remain trapped inside the nuances of language than use an expletive as a way out.