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Byline by MJ Akbar : The Prude & Prudence
How is a film song like Ishq ki gali vich no entry (No entry into the lane of love), currently being repeated ad nauseam by Indian music channels, conceived and written?
The first criterion is money. Amendment, the only criterion is money. The producer’s single motive is to cobble up a song that can become popular enough to carry the movie, and possibly make money on its own, for music can sometimes be a bigger earner than the film.
So the producer sits down with a versifier, if one can call the film-poets of the day even this, and opens the discussion with a three-letter word. It used to be a four-letter word in the old days, love; but now it’s a three-letter word, sex. Love in its infinite variety used to keep the whistlers in the theatre happy; sex in its finite variety keeps the punters going these days. So the producer lays down the first commandment. It has to deal with sex.
Then the supplementary: how far can one go? I don’t suppose they actually telephone Mahesh Bhatt to find out, but a pie chart, or a spreadsheet of statistics could be a useful management tool. X film had 12 kisses, six lip locks and two item numbers in which dozens of long-legged extras slipped down well-greased, aluminium, phallic poles. So that’s been done.
What do we do next? At which moment the versifier justifies his salary. "Don’t worry, boss. I’ll fill the song with salacious puns simple enough for Salman Khan and Bipasha Basu to understand. Every music channel will lap it up and every bar girl in Mumbai will make it her theme number. Just get me a tune."
"Tune? That’s no problem. There are hundreds lying in the same cupboard. We’ll mix bhangra beat in it, I think. That’s the rage now."
"Punjabi? I better put in a Punjabi word somewhere. Everyone sings only the opening line, who remembers a song after its 15 seconds of fame? Here you are. Ishq. Not true love, boss; true sex. Di galli. Love’s tunnel. Geddit geddit geddit?" Uproarious laughter all around. "Vich." That’s Punjabi taken care of. "No entry!" Everyone keels over laughing and a hit is born.
And when Salman Khan ends the song by pleading with Anil Kapoor to "Kar entry (Please enter)" the tunnel of Bipasha Basu’s love, he makes absolutely sure that even the dumbest idiot in the audience has got the point by acting out the process with a vigorous hand. You can’t blame the censor board. They thought this song was about traffic policemen.
To be prudent is not the same thing as being a prude. Television controls the mass idiom and this idiom, along with popular mythology, shapes mass culture. Let’s leave good and bad out of this. Yesterday always dismisses today as immoral, and today doubtless will have the same thing to say about tomorrow. The relevant point is that mass culture creates its own set of consequences, upon attitudes, thought processes, politics and the economy.
The print media still abjures the use of an unmentionable four-letter word, which is why it is not being used in this column. But its absence is a fiction. It has become part of everyday conversation, among all generations, and no one is particularly shocked. Certainly no one is ignorant of its meaning.
All mass communication has found space for high and low language. Theatre was the medium of Shakespeare’s age: he created the movies of his time. And so while Macbeth could fantasise or tremble in sonorous iambic pentameter, the jester would complain or joke in the earthy language of a mean pub. In journalism, till recently, it was quite common for the language of the editorial to be different from that of the news, not just in pace (which is necessary) but in attitude (which may not be). Bengali newspapers used what might be called the priest’s language for editorials and maidan-speak for news.
The most powerful, if not the most important, mass medium of the moment, television, speaks in just one language, with the bar being constantly lowered. Some of it must be driven by the democratic urge, the need to be explicable to all men. Most of it is driven by the compulsion for higher ratings, which we cannot condemn. But if as Marshall McLuhan noted, the medium is the message, then the message is bacchanalia. Salman Khan, Bipasha Basu and Anil Kapoor’s entry theme on MTV is followed immediately by an advertisement warning a middle class family about AIDS, and no one sees the irony.
This advertisement is part of a strong campaign being conducted by the government of India against AIDS. It is aimed at the middle class, the people next door who, 20 years ago, hinted to their kids, in the unlikely event of the subject coming up, that sex was something that Rekha did. The worried mother is thoroughly unglamorous, protective, loving and concerned about children who are just entering their teens. She recognises that the environment will have more impact upon her children than all her homilies, or religious morality, or indeed Dad’s threats if there is any Dad left who can successfully browbeat his children anymore. She knows that there is only one way to reach her children today, by appealing to their self-interest. Self-interest is the governing philosophy.
Equally important, the practical age of consent has collapsed in India. Or perhaps it would be more relevant to say that it has returned to the arranged-marriage era, when love was permissible at the age of 16 and girls were married by the time they were 18. You do recall Dev Anand’s classic film with Asha Parekh, Solva Saal. The sixteenth year. A girl was considered a woman at 16. In fact, the children in the anti-AIDS government advertisement are below 16, which is refreshingly honest. Sex is happening in some schools at less than that age; and awareness about its perils needs to be communicated early. (They are aware of its joys.) Government advertising tends to be as boring as government. It is unusual to see a professionally-crafted campaign that does not get tempted towards flashiness and misses the point.
If sex sells for the moviemakers, then it must also sell for the Tatas. The image of the giant House of Tata is synonymous with integrity, and may that never change. That integrity was not the least bit besmirched by the Titan ad for a new range of watches aimed at students. A teacher is taking a roll call, and calls out "Siddhartha". In response, a number of pretty girls, not together but sequentially, answer "Yes!", each "Yes" more orgasmic than the other until the crescendo reaches late-night movie pitch, and Mr Siddhartha hides his reddening face. All very contemporary and modern. Women are at least as aggressive as men in the battle of sexes, as long as the battle is treated as one between equals and there is no brutish physical aggression involved. There is absolutely no reason why they should not ogle as freely as men once did, or demand satisfaction, or shrug off the one-for-one approach of traditional true love.
Half a dozen girls were getting orgasmic about one Siddhartha after all. What upset me a great deal was not any collapse of morality, but the collapse of grammar. The sign-off line of the advertisement was "How many you have?" Excuse me? I know the line of watches is called Fastrack. You can fast-track a "t" from the word on an agency’s advice, but you can’t fast-track a verb out of a sentence. One expects certain standards from the Tata House. The protection of correct English is among them. Incidentally, this is not good economics either. How?
Television language slips easily into conversation. I can hear giggles across college canteens as a first year student gurgles to another, "How many you have?" Let that young man get a job as an outsourced voice, relapse into "How many you have?" and the company will lose the contract.
Every new layer in a language is welcome. Language has to be flexible, procreative to survive, and English has always lived in a virtuous cycle. But change needs the yeast of good sense. Don’t throw the prudent out with the prude.