Beeping the beep

Print edition : January 22, 2016

AIDWA members in Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu protest against the "beep song" by actor Simbu and music composer Anirudh for its offensive lyrics. Photo: N. Bashkaran

“BEEP Beep” went the Road Runner in the Looney Tunes cartoon series, as the fleet-footed bird gave the wily but blundering coyote the literal runaround. “Beep” was the only sound the bird ever uttered. It was its only vocabulary and vocalisation. It may not have meant anything specific. But it sounded reassuringly like cocking a snook at the tormenter hell-bent on making a meal of our feathered protagonist. From that resilient taunt to the taint of, to somewhat mix metaphor, an aural fig leaf for an unutterable obscenity, a neutered sound effect that stands in for the unmentionable word—what a deep beep fall.

As theories of representation go, the “beep” must be the most over-represented sound bit in the world today. It may be a blank bland sound, but it is no empty signifier. It silences, suppresses, prevents, pre-empts an insult, an abuse, an infelicity, a slur, an indignity—any of, or anything like, these occurring in the mass media. It takes care of the visceral, as against the cultured or mannered or intellectual, language which naturally uncouth, or deliberately and demonstratively uncivil, people use with, or against, one another. It takes care of the cuss words that make colloquial talk colloquial in real life; the unthinking and frequent crass evocations of the sexual act or human genitalia that make for conversation that can be bonding or offending depending on the company and the context; the scatological terms that somehow, in actual use as against when they are recycled in representation, lower barriers and melt the ice rather than raise a stink by their mention.

As we know only too well, Hollywood dialogue writers do not wince—in fact they are quite liberal—when it comes to putting words which are not exactly kosher into the mouths of characters so that they come across as true to type. But when these films are played on our cinema or television screens the beeps take over. The effect is sometimes zany. Entire stretches of dialogues seem to have more beeps than words. And yet we are never ever at a loss, are we? The beeped words are so commonplace and familiar that we instantly fill in the blanks in our minds and persistence of sound and meaning, like vision, proceed unhindered. Nobody is fooling nobody here. If anything, some sneaking envy may be in order for their films which seem better represented than ours in capturing the subaltern spirit or behavioural essence of promiscuous or profane language which, arguably, is in actual everyday use as much here as there. Only, we zealously guard our media from the expletives we ourselves may use or hear or overhear on our streets, on our campuses, in our places of work, in our circle of friends….

Like we have for long guarded the act of kissing from our screens, even if not, hopefully, from our lives. The means and performative shenanigans by which we got around the kiss on the screen were far more roundabout and suggestively vulgar, when they were not downright silly, than a simple lip-to-lip act. As convoluted, if you like, as this clinical description of the act, which is stuck in the mind since late school days: “...the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction”. We have, of course, progressed in our tolerance and indulgence of the kiss. If it is short and to the point, not long and lingering like in the latest Bond movie before it was cut to size by the scandalised Indian censor, it is permissible to just about do it, and watch it, on screen.

It took a while to get to this level of acceptance of the screen kiss. If leaves, flowers, pillars, curtains or any object lying around did not intervene in time, the camera itself tilted up or down, or panned away left or right, to prevent us catching the conjoining of two pairs of lips drawn towards each other. These props and ploys had the effect, functionally, of a visual “beep”. Unlike the kiss which is, whether premeditated or spontaneous, a deliberate act, the beep-able word, more often than not, is not. It’s second nature in communication with many of us. The F-word, for instance, is so shopworn that you hardly are aware of it, or notice it—and you certainly don’t summon up the act—whether a conversation peppered with it is happening on or off screen. In fact, it is by beeping it that you make it stick out as the dirty word it of course is. The S-word for faeces now passes muster as an expression of surprise, shock or frustration, depending on the context. Among the prefixes it comes with is “Holy” and in that combination beeping it would be almost an act of desecration. A venerable uncle of mine would constantly exclaim, “Shit on toast!” Neither he nor the audience at hand paused to consider what it meant. It was just an exclamation, a venting.

All of which brings us to the curious plight of the Tamil screen maverick, Simbu, whose “beep song” seems to be the controversy of the season. The song itself, which the actor-singer contends is an unfinished pilot track or work in progress which has not been released but which is somehow available online (how it got there could be the key to the case), doesn’t seem to quite warrant the kind of angst and shocked reactions unleashed against it, especially as it is not out there as a marketed cultural product for anyone’s consumption or authorised for circulation by its owner-creator. It is a less-than-mediocre apology of a song with lyrics that are like gibberish, berating a man for being despondent about his love, with a faux folksy chant as score that seeks to imitate the sensationally successful, but equally mindless, kolaveri number by the Dhanush-Anirudh duo. The crux of the objection to it, the part that gives offence, is a beeped word: a word all-too-obvious, all-too-crass and vulgar—indeed like the all-too-familiar beeped words in films—for it to go unrecognised.

Lyrics of songs and dialogues in mainstream Tamil cinema have hardly always been marked by political correctness, gender justness or moral uprightness. They are often in word, if not in deed, sexually exploitative of women, racist in their appraisal of skin colour, and bordering on the prurient in sexual innuendo. Several songs featuring the mega stars of the 1970s and 1980s and beyond were known for lyrics that contained provocative double entendres. At its best it was poetic erotica; at its worst the crass commodification of women. As the Rahmanesque mode of music composition marginalised the lyric so that just about any word that fitted the musical metre would do, street language, tease terms and swear words began to appear with increasing frequency in a new genre of lumpenised film songs.

In this what-you-heard-was-what-you-got pastiche, words did not need hidden meanings, the heart was worn askew on the sleeve, and there was little left to the imagination. Mouthing the expletive had a false film noir quality about it, although, knowing what the censors would do to it, it was mouthed suggestively and silently, and never explicitly. From all this, it was a small step to Simbu’s purported over-the-top beep song. It was waiting to happen.

This is not to suggest that the hybridisation of popular culture that aggressive globalisation has brought about has played havoc with our traditional moral values. Such a reading would be reductio ad absurdum and lead straight to a sanitised form of language fascism. It is fair to say that contemporary Tamil lore, like any other language in India or elsewhere in the world, is also rich in its own ribaldry. It is this seamy, steamy side that makes any language colourful, in the loaded sense of the term. The cuss and swear words and profanities betoken a rebelliousness and irreverence which may occasion a blush on the fair face of the language, but lend it a frisson at its margins.

But then, while there is no social, as against legal, case for moral squeamishness placing limits on free, even licentious, expression, there is no excuse either for what turns into an affront on, an intrusion and erosion of, personal dignity and identity. The line is difficult to draw, but must be drawn. Beeping the insult, as we have seen, does not help. Because it, in effect, reveals rather than conceals the offensive word. So what does one do? Beep the beep?

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