June was a big month for Indian cinema. We can’t really say the month cinema grew up because no one becomes an adult by just swearing. But yes, it turned just about old enough to enter a frat house, at least according to the Censors.
It was the month when our films finally admitted some of the most ostracized and choicest of expletives on to the movie screen – even if they were just used for fun. While Aaranya Kaandam took the Censors to court to get the nod, Delhi Belly had the backing of Aamir Khan to sneak it past the board. It probably helped that the film was largely in English and the Censors were allowing Hollywood films with far more explicit content into the country.
“I used expletives to portray the mood of the character or the moment,” says director Thiagarajan Kumaraja who made ‘Aaranya Kaandam.’ “Earlier, unless there was something as heinous as rape, characters would be granted permission to use a swear word – like Bastard. But we use such words in a traffic jam, we even fondly call friends swear words. Maybe those days, probably friends never abused each other. Maybe they called each other ‘Brother.’ So our censor and government officers from another era would find swear words disturbing.”
Kumararaja also believes this wasn’t always the case. “What’s surprising is that the word ‘thevidiya’ was used very casually thrown around in an old black and white AVM film called Sabapathy just for the sake of humour. I have seen smooching scenes of TA Mathuram and NS Krishnan (can’t recall the name of the film). But I don’t know what happened suddenly. We regressed. But today, the society has become liberal and the censors haven’t caught up.”
It was in 1952 when India, fresh out of British rule and under the spell of the Victorian morality, drafted the Cinematograph Act that imposed censorship of all cinematic content meant for public exhibition. While films before this were largely censored for political content, the Central Board for Film Certification eventually turned into a moral guardian for the society. Hollywood went through a similar phase in the 1950s when Billy Wilder defied the censorship code with his teasingly raunchy portrayals of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch.
Though we had the occasional film slip past the censors under the guise of arthouse cinema, swearing for the sake of humour or entertainment, especially if it wasn’t emotionally called for, was a strict no-no. On the contrary, the vigilance just became all the more stricter over the years. While Raj Kapoor got away with even nudity in the seventies and eighties, Nagesh Kukunoor in the nineties, had to take the fight up to the Tribunal to get Hyderabad Blues, his film ridden with unprecedented four letter words in Indian cinema cleared.
Maybe because aesthetics of nudity can always be debated in a country that gave the world the Kamasutra, the Censors also warmed up to all the sex and kissing over the last decade. But swearing, no, it was and is still considered uncouth and low art.
“I asked the Censors how come characters in ‘No One Killed Jessica’ are allowed to use four letter words and we are not,” Gautham Menon recalls his negotiation during ‘Nadunisi Naaygal.’ “They said, it may be acceptable in the North but we are like this only. We do not want to hear swear words.”
Luv Ranjan, director of Pyaar Ka Punchnama, had to take his film through four revising committees before he could get a U/A certificate. “With censors, it’s different if you are Aamir Khan Productions or Yash Raj Films. Otherwise, they give you a really hard time. They said my theme is adult but yaar, even marriage is an adult institution. There’s no liability or accountability from the Censors because the people on the committee do it on a honorary basis. They come to watch a film that are not made for them for a Rs. 700 a day allowance. Imagine want kind of people would do that work? Who are these people passing judgment on investments of Rs. 25 crores and Rs.30 crores? You can’t question them, they can’t be sued, they cannot be punished. Legally, they have no accountability.”
And then came the surrogate swear word. More like, if you won’t allow me to swear, I will make up a word that sounds just like the one I want to use or use an existing word that sounds like a cuss word. If Delhi Belly made DK Bose run, Singham’s trailer employs the lesser used Urdu word ‘faqt’ (only) to the same effect as the English swear word it sounds like and Double Dhamaal plays with balls and calls a guy ‘Gandul’ (Pigeon Pea).
The surrogate swear word, a byproduct of repression of six decades, cleared by the Censors, has now entered the public domain through the television and gets easily picked up by kids, an audience the film is not intended for. Ask any kid singing Bhaag DK Bose.
Gandu, directed by Q, pushes the envelope further with its unprintable Bengali cuss-word title. “My intention was to legitimise the adjective by granting it the status of a noun. Hence, a word that wouldn’t have been printed in any Indian publication becomes accepted,” says Q. But Gandu earned its place under the sun by winning accolades in some of the most prestigious film festivals around the world including Slamdance and Berlin. When it plays at the Censor-exempted Naya Cinema Film Festival in Mumbai in its first ever “overground” screening in the country this month, it will kick another door wide open.
But the day it applies for censorship, we have to pray that our Censors decide that adults in this country are really old enough to watch a film with expletives and pornographic content.
(A censored version of this story appeared here)