Saturday, August 05, 2006

Omkara and Being Accused of Harboring the Oedipal Complex

To move on to something totally different, which is what I wanted my earlier post to be about, but I started getting fish cravings and it became something else. Anyway, so the Indian blogosphere has been abuzz with reviews of the film Omkara, and how wonderful it is, and how everyone should go see it. And every single review seems to devote a large section of the text to the fact that the lead male characters abuse and use swear words freely in Hindi, and how that injects a sense of earthy realism in the movie because it captures the ethos of small town and rural North India. The implication being that the coarse expressions become signifiers of rusticity for the audience, along with the locale, the costumes, etc. (caveat: haven't seen the movie, just paraphrasing from reviews).

To this I say, you urban Indians grew up around some mighty polite people it seems. My Presidency College-educated, Fulbright-recipient uncle thinks nothing of using words like bokachoda (roughly, idiot fucker, but more nuanced) and haramjaada (bastard) in his everyday Bengali conversation. My very urbane microbiologist cousin uses gandu (asshole) as a term of endearment. In Delhi, in my high school, we thought nothing of peppering our conversation with chutiya (cunt), but once I casually used it in front of my father, and he was not amused. My college classmate Sandy, who later went on to greater things at IIMA, could not say a sentence without using behenchod (sister fucker) in it. He also did Shakespearean theatre. I can be quite potty mouth when I want to, but then you already knew that about me, right?

My point is, use of swear words is neither a class, nor regional marker or attribute. At least the Indians I know use swear words regardless of class or urban-rural origins. There is some gender difference though, some words seem to be exclusively used by women. Chhinaal (whore) and kanjari (kept woman) are mostly used by women towards other women. But other than that, the use of swear words follows a near identical pattern in urban and rural India. Swear words are used freely in the company of peers, especially young men in the company of other young men, however, they are almost never used in the presence of elder family members. This is even more so in the villages, where the hierarchical family structures ordain deference to older, specifically male members by the younger members. And trust me, despite what your impressions might be, no one in his right mind would swear in front of his family in rural Uttar Pradesh. Ever.

So with this background I fail to understand why urban Indian filmmakers try to get their rural characters to speak in a barrage of swear words to presumably emphasize their authentic rural context. If so, it is only fair that their urban characters should incorporate swear words into their speech given that urban Indians swear as much as rural Indians do. But it seems that for a lot of urban filmmakers, rural = coarse everyday speech, regardless of context.

It sort of reminds me of a bunch of non-mainstream Indian films that are ostensibly based in slums and show female characters who look like shit with ratty, messy hair, no make-up and dishevelled clothes. Makes me wonder if any of these filmmakers have seen an actual slum or interacted with women in the slums. When I worked in a slum a few years ago as a social worker, the younger girls all eagerly traded skin care tips with me, and were better put together on any given day than I was (not hard to do, as the last post has shown). Even the women who would stay at home and not work, would neatly brush their hair and tie it in a bun, apply kohl to their eyes, stick a bindi on their forehead and had at least a few ornaments, mostly cheap glass or metal bangles and necklaces. None of them looked like the "graduated from fugly-wins-award Charlize Theron school of acting" women acting in these films.

In the same way as no-makeup becomes a shorthand for edgy and alternative for women, it seems swear words have become the same for men. Except that the shock is not so much that there are men in India who swear so much, but the fact that in the past film dialogue has been so over-sanitized (thanks to the censors), that anything approaching how people actually talk (though exaggerated) seems so revolutionary. Unfortunately, this fairly normal, everday aspect of speech has somehow been associated only with the rural underclass and urban criminals in Hindi films, thus perpetuating yet another set of stereotypes which would only set to alienate the rural and urban underclass, not entice them to contemporary Bollywood.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

People might think it weird, but the endearment I love the most is when my best friend of 12 years calls me "abbe chutiya" :))

2:20 PM  
Blogger gammafunction said...

well chutiya actually means "one who is born the natural way" as opposed to cesarean birth....

2:46 PM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

urban = class, rural = crass .... hence the distinction, i guess.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

I was coming to correct you but it seems gamma already did! And that is the literal meaning. Non literal means same as - idiot.

3:16 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

While I agree with the point more generally (that urban India being polite is largely a myth), I think you really should watch Omkara to see what the reviews are talking about. I don't think it's just that Bhardwaj uses a lot of expletives - it's more that the dialogue is rendered in rural dialect, using expressions and figures of speech that are genuinely alien (at least in my experience) to big city speak. If Bhardwaj had simply added a lot of swear words to normal dialogue to make it sound more rural I would agree with you entirely, but he's done a far more careful and nuanced job than that. Which is where the 'earthy realism' comes from.

8:51 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Anonymous: I've heard many people use chutiya as a term of endearment, as well as harami :).

Gammafunction: You're absolutely right. I just used a quick shorthand, which is rather misleading. I stand corrected.

Bonatellis: You mean those are the broad generalizations Bollywood works with? Or are you stating something as fact? If the latter, we can argue over it :).

Adagio: Correct again. By the way, it's fascinating to compare the swear words in different languages. In Greek by far the commonest (to the point where it's a term of endearment now) is malaaka (wanker). In Persian, the two most common are maader-jendey (yo mom's a whore) and pedar-sag(yo daddy's a dog).

9:56 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Falstaff: Guilty as charged, I haven't seen the fim. Though I have seen snippets in trailers and clips, and I'd like to make a very, very qualified comment, subject to revision when I actually see the film.

There is no single monolithic Hindi, just as there is no single rural Hindi dialect. This is especially true in the so-called cowbelt, where moving from North-western UP to South-western UP you go from Khari Boli and Jattu to Braj Bhakha, which are completely different dialects. In central UP, Awadhi (the language of Tulsidas Ramayan) is widely spoken, and in the East Purbaiyya dominates.

The film is ostensibly set in UP, but the dialect doesn't sound like anything I've heard in any part of UP. It just sounds like the kind of generic, concocted "rural dialect" that Hindi films seem to attribute to rural UP all the time. It only exists in Bollywood movies, not in any real part of UP. Not much earthy realism there, eh?

If realism is what they were aiming for, shouldn't they have tried to incorporate elements of a specific dialect and then sort of cleaned it up to make it accessible to urban audiences?

10:04 AM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

hehe I knew about the malaaka one. the greek friend over here (not the common one we refer to, antoher one) used it a bunch of times.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vishal Bharadwaj has attempted an encore with Omkara after the success of his earlier adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Maqbool. And by all accounts he seems to have succeeded yet again. Based on the bard’s Othello Omkara is set in mofussil UP with Ajay Devgan, Kareena, Saif Ali Khan and Vivek Oberoi essay the main roles. Inam ul Rehman, a regular critic on has reviewed the movie exhaustively...
Link of this review >>>

10:43 PM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

T_M: no, no ... the first one. You need to come to Mumbai and travel once in the men's first class compartment that goes to Gujjuland like the north-west suburbs ...
the poor buggers use b'c__d in one out of every 3 words ...

btw, i hope your diction reg the curse-words is better than the interpretation (like gamma pointed out) ;-)


3:51 AM  
Blogger sunshine said...

the best was when this pakistani guy's chinese girlfriend at my univ said BC.. most memorable moment rated by some!

5:25 AM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Saw the film, liked it muchly. The characters use swear-words in appropriate settings e.g., never in the presence of the Bhai (Naseeruddin Shah).

And I think extreme western UP has this dialect and intonation which is pretty close to Jat lingo, so it may not be "concocted".


7:30 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Adagio, my significant other has perhaps the least malaaka usage of any Greek I know.

Anonymous, thanks for the review.

Bonatellis,yet upper class kids are so pristine in Hindi films. And I assure you, apart from that faux pas, my swear word knowledge is fairly solid.

Sunshine, yeah that's the most fun, innit? One day I heard a knock on my door, opened it to find my friend scream "behenchod" at the top of her voice to me. She's white American, and has a desi boyfriend, and begged him to teach her swear words. She's also picked up a bunch of Persian swear words.

JAPda, I really need to see the movie before I go shoot my mouth off. But the little I've heard doesn't sound like any Jat or Western UP dialect to me. They speak Jattu and Khari Boli in Western UP, and this is neither.

1:53 PM  
Blogger jhantu said...

Bang on analysis, though one thing you must take note is that there is a huge difference in the manner in which an urban indian will say "chutiya" compared to the UP/Bihar usage. If you have heard/spoken the normal dialect used in north bihar/north UP in their regular conversatiopn it will burn your ears to hell and back. Not bcos of the super-dosed usage of swears but bcos the whole accent and dialect itself sounds like someones swearing horribly viciously at you all the time with every word. I guess thts wht the film-makers try to capture, the sensible ones atleast while still trying to stay within the censure-circle

6:52 PM  
Blogger K said...

Arre behanchodo....
In defence if TM, as a Delhi-ite...
But Chutiya, behanchod and madarchod (though not betichod) are such natural and lovely terms of endearment - maybe you won't understand how closely we hold these words to ourselves in Delhi. Even though this very fact makes non-Delhi people think we're uncouth (or Vinod Mehta for that matter, who would rather we adopt angrez terms of endearment such as motherf***er, the rustic feel to c/bc/mc makes them sound 'crass' according to the intelligensia) these 'abuses' are very much normal (even though my mother, being a good Cal girl gets horrified when she chances on my conversations at times). I'm fairly upper middle class Delhi kid, something TM will vouch for, but we've been using these words for so long its lost its effect, but it is lingo. Just like the F-word. Big deal!
Now if you want really crass north indian gaali's... No I guess this is a family oriented blog!

2:24 AM  
Blogger AB said...

Well I too use gandu as a term of endearment*sheepish grin* Ask essar. She goes mad when I say it...

3:17 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

TM: Fair enough. I neither know enough about the 'standard' rural dialect used in Hindi movies (I watch too few of them) nor about the dialects actually spoken in UP (I've never lived there) to comment. For what it's worth, to my admittedly undiscerning ear the dialect in Omkara sounded significantly different from the usual 'rural' dialect that gets used in Hindi movies. How linguistically accurate the difference is I can't say though. (frankly, I found the dialect fairly annoying. I'm all for realism, earthy or otherwise, but if you are going to use copious amounts of dialect, you could at least provide subtitles with the english translation, so one could follow what was being said).

At any rate, saying that dialect in Omkara is an inaccurate representation of the dialect commonly spoken in Western UP is a fundamentally different criticism from saying they've simply inserted coarse expressions to convey rusticity - which is what your post was originally saying.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

i finally saw it!
i dont think the earthy realism comes from the abuses and swear words that are used in the film. In fact after a while you do get immune to them (atleast i did).
Also, agree with what Falstaff has said in his first post.Large chunks of the dialogue were beyond my comprehension.
COming back to what you said though, its true that Bhardwaj hasn't used a rural UP dialect. The customs, traditions etc in the movie suggest its set in Eastern UP - western Bihar, where Bhojpuri (which itself has dialects!) is mainly spoken. The dialect in the film is nothing like it, it seemed to me to be more Rajasthani frankly.
I dont think many people would have understood anything at all if Bhardwaj had chosen to go with chaste Bhojpuri. I guess Bhardwaj wanted the realism but didnt want the audiences to be completely clueless. *shrugs*

9:20 PM  
Blogger Sudha said...

agree that film dialogue is overly sanitized. i think its more becoz parents don't want their kids to hear stuff like that.
and then again, save for a couple here and there, when have (bollywood) films largely and properly represented life?

Linked to your post "fair and ugly" on my blog.

12:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cussing has undoubtedly been taken to new hieghts in the movie (in comparison to other mainstream Bollywood movies) and though it may seem unnecessary to some, I think that what they eventually imply once put together and the insinuations they provide is of more significance than the fact that they've been used at all!

11:14 PM  
Blogger Rimi said...

This really is a pointless comment, as I chiefly wanted to say thank you, people pooh-poohed me when I tried to say the same. And then whatever I had to say about the dialect has been said by Uncle J(AP) and answered as well.

But I must say I was surprised at the attention the expletives received, because they're hardly in profusion. Misplaced focus, if you ask me. Watch the movie quick and tell me if you agree!

12:26 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Jhantu, I respectfully disagree. The dialects of Hindi spoken in central UP (Awadh), norther UP which is now Uttaranchal (Kumaon, Pithoragarh, etc.), Eastern UP (Banaras, Ballia, etc.) are some of the most beautiful sounding accents. Ditto for Bihar, where Bhojpuri, Maithili and Sadri are all very sweet dialects.

Please do explain how you decided upon your generalizations regarding Hindi spoken in UP and Bihar.

K, great explanation! Folks like Mr. Mehta are funny, their hearts bleeds with liberal kindness for the underdog, and yet they shun any association with the plebian masses. Reminds me of the classic Amitabh song, "Hum dua bhi den to lage hai gaali, aapka kya hoga janab-e-aali"

AB, Essar is a lovable gandu, isn't she (oops, gotta get outa here pronto)

Falstaff, the dialect question was raised by one of the commenters, it wasn't the focus of my original piece.

Szerelem, but chaste Bhojpuri, or anything mimicking what is spoken in Eastern UP-Western Bihar would have been a much softer, refined dialect. The most beautiful Hindi I've ever heard was in Banaras and Allahabad (and the best Urdu in Lucknow, sigh!)

Sudha, thanks!

7:41 PM  
Blogger Wild Reeds said...

Dear Thalassa,
Fascinating, how stereotypes become a shorthand for a certain community or genre. Butchness and lesbianism is one such combination that comes to mind, in both Bolly- and Holly-wood. In fact even assertiveness on a woman's part, outside her accepted paradigm, is seen as somehow "queerifying".
Superb post!

2:54 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

you're right. perhaps that why Bhardwaj didn't use Bhojpuri - it would sound more poetic and he probably wanted a more rustic tone.
i love awadhi, its absolutely lyrical.

10:57 PM  
Blogger Rahul Ghosh said...

There's a strange kind of concensus terrorism prevalent in India these days.

Hindi is 'cool' thanks to a mish-mash of reasons that range from the Rise of the Great Indian Small Town and their Burgeoning Buying Power to the coolness of Bollywood!

It is now cool for A-listers in Bollywood to act in 'rustic' roles. Advertising is being created in Hindi to reach out to the masses as opposed to being translated from English.

What people forget is 'Hindi' is a language that is spoken in UP, Bihar, MP and Rajasthan. Hence if one thinks of broadbasing a brand or a film's appeal, he loses out on the South (with its four strong languages), East, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab, each of which have very strong local lingua franca.

Contrary to the trends of Indian politics, UP is not India. The Hindi belt is only a belt.

And at some level it is a kind of Hindi colonization that pop-culture is perpetrating by identifying Hindi as the 'voice of the masses'.

1:00 AM  
Blogger Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Say what you will, I loved the film from the opening line. Maybe it went downhill from there.
Have you seen it yet?

9:16 PM  
Anonymous as said...

My comment on the movie: "realism" w/ interspersed "item numbers" is not entirely realism. S.Ray wud have rolled in grave if told to sit thro' these #s. then again, he wud do the same with the utterance of 'bollywood'.

9:26 PM  
Blogger fatterbelly said...

haven't seen the film but a friend ,descendant of an iconic Khari boli literary figure and himself acutely sensitive to use of language,loved the film esp for its atmospherics.also met Shyam Benegal who singled it out for exceptional praise.I believe the regional reference is generally to western u.p .

use of vernacular cusswords by Presidency,Fulbright,St stephens,Oxbridge types is almost always self conscious and certainly an acquired still carries either shock value when used in chiffon and pearls and chippendale settings,High Tables and in the presence of your children's schoolfriends or signifies your belonging to the relaxed , non/anti pseud(a 'sixties' stephanian term) unpretentious set who are equally comfortable with using post-modernist speak.the unwashed lot,however ,uses it because they picked it up not by choice but by inheritance.there is a significant difference.

12:07 AM  
Blogger fatterbelly said...


12:08 AM  
Blogger fatterbelly said...


12:08 AM  
Blogger fatterbelly said...


12:09 AM  
Anonymous chandi said...

Interesting discussion, but I guess I am a little puzzled by the call for a certain kind of verisimilitude (different from realism. realism doesn't claim to give you life as it is. It represents). So if, in order to present a slice of 'criminal, masculine' culture from a certain part of UP, Bhardwaj mixes and matches, but still gives a credible impression of a language-social culture what's the problem? Have you seen any other work of art/film/literature in which characters speak the way they would in real life? Shakespeare? In blank verse? It's all a matter of generic conventions isn't it? And Bhardwaj is borrowing freely from Hindi movie conventions of representing (where you take an impression, a word, an expression) to give the feeling of the whole. He can't have an entire movie in Braj bhasha or khari boli. I would argue that all literature does that--represents by selecting details.
I should add that like tm, I haven't seen the movie either-ha ha.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Azahar Machwe said...

how boring even those insults were... wish they had come up with some interesting combinations of anatomical parts and social relations...
something to make the audience sit up n take notice...
Nice to see Shakes being taken to the Indian masses...
Not the first of his works to be made into a Hindi movie tho..

6:43 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Rimi, I should certainly take the time to watch it. It's really unfair to pontificate so extensively without even having seen the film.

Wild Reeds, absolutely. Lesbians are relentlessly stereotyped in Western popular culture, and in Indian films they are near absent (except as predatory evil characters).

Szerelem, I had spent quite a bit of time once in a slum with lots of Awadhi-speaking residents. Oh, joy, the lilting tones are so adorable.

Rahul, I don't quite understand how criticizing the hegemony of Hindi popular culture is related to the discussion of Omkara. Unlike a multilingual country like say Indonesia for instance, India has a thriving film scene in a number of other local languages besides Hindi. Many Tamil films have large overseas markets and make more money than Hindi films do. And now even Bhojpuri films are challenging the standard Bombay Hindi film. It's a bit more nuanced, you see.

Arthur, no. But I wasn't really discussing the merits or demerits of the film per se.

AS, yes, Ray detested the Bollywood label. Very derivative.

Fatterbelly, when you say Khari Boli, do you mean standard Hindi? I presume that's what you mean, because the Khari Boli dialect doesn't have much of a standard literature per se. See, there is an argument and theory that contemporary Hindi is derived from Khari Boli, which is perhaps correct, but Khari Boli per se is also an independent dialect, very different from standard Hindi. It is spoken in the area around Delhi, roughly in Haryana and Western UP.

I grew up hearing all kinds of dialects of Hindi including Braj, Jattu, Gujri, Khari Boli, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Purabiya, tc. No, this does not sound like Khari Boli.

5:38 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Chandi, I think the notion of verisimilitude is misplaced here. If the idea was to aim for verisimilitude, then they would have been more careful in distinguishing dialects, since the aim would be to approximate real life speech as closely as possible.

However, I'm assuming that the idea was to aim for something less than realism and verisimilitude, which is why the filmmaker was cavalier with the language.

And please, the history of cinema is full of discourses and filmmaking trends that discuss the notion of reproducing reality as honestly and as multidimensionally as possible on celluloid. I guess in this magic realism and postmodern age, it is hard to remember those early concerns of cinema.

Azahar, yes there have been other films based on Shakespeare.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Sugzter said...

TM, first the obvious criticism of criticizing a film without watching it. But I think there are indications in the movie that justify the language. There are many references to places like pilakhwa and bulund-shehar, hence the dialect spoken is one commonly spoken in places like Meerut. Its similar to haryanvi though I think it also goes by bangroo. Just my 2 cents

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guys, the language used in Omkara is Khadi boli spoken in UP areas adjoining Delhi. It sounds like Rajasthani/ Haryanavi. It is the base of modern Hindi. The songs are in Awadhi, a language used in Central UP (Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad). There is no usage of Bhojpuri in the film.

11:37 AM  
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