Like Krrish marked the arrival, into Bollywood, of characters with superhuman power and Jism was the bellwether in expanding the set boundaries of graphic sexuality, Delhi Belly in a movie critique’s diary will go down as the one that ruptured the unwritten censorship of ‘shit’.
This might seem a bit too obvious to state; what are obscure, however, are: why now? – why were belching and farting hitherto not subjects for Indian humour like it has been in Anglo-American cinema – and is this potty flavour of humour something that appeals to all sections of the society?
After our national economic trajectory chartered a new course in the 90s, the cultural discourse too has switched class allegiance and imbibed the new found aspirations of Gen Next. Hence, an ever increasing number of Bollywood scripts are being shot abroad. Even when it is uncorrelated to the script, directors feel compelled to have at least a few songs shot in foreign destinations - presenting a rosy, utopian, all-is-well picture of these places – assimilating the new found aspirations today’s youth harbour in building castles abroad. This contrasts with the patriotic music and scripts of a by-gone era. Bare-chested and muscular images of the playboy hero, who kills for love, has displaced the angry, gun-yielding policeman protagonist who vanquished the evil enemies of the nation.
And now, Delhi Belly with its dense use of western swear words, liberal portrayals of excrement, and bodily noises has blindly aped modern Western comedies that generously use toilet scenes and (mis)handling of faeces to tickle the audience into brain-dead laughter.
This answers our first question of ‘why now?’. The movie is an other step forward in a ‘blind’ synchronisation of India’s biggest movie industry with Anglo-American cinema, in an age when all other aspects of culture, too, are being homogenised. It must be emphatically stated that this aping is blind.
As the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar has pointed out, there is no parallel in India for the western scatological fixations in speech. Equivalents of the common western expressions of frustration – Shit, Merde (French), Scheisse (German) are not seen in any Indian language. Nor is there any counterpart to ‘Asshole’ or Arschlock (German) as abusive terms. Western cuss words are, almost always, related to excrement, the excretory organs or dirt (‘dirty nigger’, ’dirty Jew’, filthy pig). Freudian thinkers have pointed to the responsibility of toilet training in the nature of swear words that reflect “the long postponed vengeance of a child forced to control his bowel movements” (Quote from ‘The Indians: Portrait of a people’ by Sudhir Kakar and Kathrina Kakar). In contrast, notice all Indian swear words revolve around the genitals or incest. Hence, it is not excrement that provokes the Indian psyche but various incestuous and other sexual possibilities.
Denying the allegation that he abused Australian bowler Andrew Symonds by calling him ‘Monkey’ during a 2008 one-dayer, Harbhajan Singh said he had actually cursed ‘Maa Ki’ and he was misheard. As though it’s okay to abuse an opponent’s mother but not make a racist remark! The idea was perhaps that an abuse against the maternal figure will not provoke a westerner – ‘I am a good looking son of a bitch’ is an oft heard pomposity among western youngsters. Indians, irrespective of our native tongue, never abuse each other, only one another’s parents and relations, a fallout of our strong familial relations.
Hence the use of excrement and English swear words will be of little cultural context to a large number of Indians and the stomaching of Western speech – hook, line and sinker – is nothing but a blind aping of the west in accordance with the trend of our times.
This brings us to our second question. Does this potty humour appeal to all mindsets? Or, what class of Indians recoil with disgust at the sight of excrement or a room infested with garbage and pests like the one Tashi, Nitin and Arup share in the movie?
There is relative unconcern in India with public hawking or belching. The Indian habit of bringing the left hand into contact with faeces and water while cleaning oneself after defecation is something that would fill a Westerner with visceral disgust. The latter’s toilet habits are, likewise, repugnant to Indians – using just paper to wash the anus or soaking oneself in a tub and splashing the dirt onto oneself and calling it a bath.
It can therefore be safely assumed that the kind of comedy depicted in Delhi Belly will go well with those Indians who lead a western-style, opulent way of life.
But then, Bollywood has- over the years- increasingly been catering to this affluent section. Growing up in Kerala I am used to going for movies with nothing more than Rs 50 in my pocket, the ticket cost ranging from Rs 16 for the front-row to Rs 35 for the balcony in an A-class theatre. Here, in the sanitised opulence of metro-Mumbai’s elite halls, one has to part with – on an average Rs 200 for the movie-pass alone. There is relative unconcern for the cultural needs of the poorer sections.
The class filtering is evident, nobody howls in Mumbai’s multiplexes; while elsewhere, among the audience are those who arrive in their Benz’s as also the liquor-stinking, sweat spongy working class people with folded lungis. I doubt if the latter class will find anything at all funny about shit, dirt or dilapidated, pest-infested buildings which is just a way of life for the vast majority of working peoples.
However, dirt, filth and the notion of being polluted do find expression in one pivotal element of Indian life – caste. The need to disavow the ‘universal dirt fantasy’ ( to borrow a term from Lawrence Kubie) is achieved in India by a Brahminical, highly exaggerrated sense of cleanliness. Central to the caste system is the notion of ‘pollution’. By creating the image of the Dalit as one who; seams in filth and dirt, eats ‘impure’ meat, practices ‘impure’ professions like that of the cobbler and tanner, the Brahminical mind finds gratification in his ‘purity’ ( Citations made from ‘The Indians: Portrait of a people’). The darkness of excrement also prompts the Brahminical subconscious to equate body waste with the Dalit, providing a psychological base to untouchability inculcated in most of us from infancy. It will not be surprising, therefore, that to those in whom Brahminical values have been inculcated – consciously or otherwise – scenes such as those in Delhi Belly will generate revulsion and hysterical laughter.
All the same, it cannot be said that in the Indian context no art can depict faeces and defecation. OV Vijayan’s The Saga of Dharmapuri (Malayalam Dharmapuranam) is one such novel. Written during the notorious years of the Emergency, the book is an exposition of Indian political machinations. The plot opens with the King farting loudly while courtiers, who ritually collect the defecation, look on. Dharmapuri is the seat of the government and is populated with corrupt officials, pimps and sycophants of the ruling order. The King’s defecation is routinely televised. The courtiers who collect the King’s excrement distribute it to his subjects that await for it with their platters. The depiction of shit-eating in The Saga of Dharmapuri is grotesque and symbolises the rigid cultism that Indira Gandhi and son Sanjay postulated in, what can be called, the darkest days of our post-independent history.
I write this aboard the Kochuveli-Mumbai Garib Rath express. I had to wait eight hours in the railway station for the delayed train to arrive. Among the various experiences The Indian Railways provide, today I observed (though I have ‘seen’ the same scene many a times) a modestly-dressed, elderly woman washing with bottled mineral water her grandson’s anus after he had defecated onto the railway track. After the cleaning ritual, I noticed the woman wash her hands on her black dhoti. As I write this, its been 24 hours since I left home, the train is behind schedule and I cannot hold back nature’s call. Once again, we confront the reality that even the state-run Railways finds it appropriate for excrement to fall on the track beneath, along with all the other garbage, leftovers and plastic that has become the identity element of railway premises. The sign in the toilet comically reads “Keep lavatory clean and Dry“.
Then, I think of the sort of crowd that watched Delhi Belhi along with me at the multiplex in Mumbai; routine flight goers, I presume. Surely, most will find the lives of ‘People like Us’ comical.
Until a large section of Indians are lifted from their state of having to shit on railway tracks, live in pest-infested slums, eat cheap, road-side eatery food handled by hands that have scratched wherever it itched, movies such as this will have no meaning save for a microcosm of India’s westernised elite.