Choli ke peeche kya hai
Choli ke peeche?
Chunri ke neeche kya hai
Chunri ke neeche?
We were adolescents when this song from Khal Nayak started titillating us week after week on a show called ‘Superhit Muqabla’ on Doordarshan. Those were not the days when Bengalis knew Hindi almost as good as their mother tongue. Even the parents sending children to English medium schools were not falling over each other to make Hindi the second language. Therefore, we took some time to make out what ‘choli’ and ‘chunri’ meant. How the testosterone levels shot up once we did, is hard to explain to today’s smartphone generation. However, it was not long before somebody decided to play spoilsport and reached the doors of judiciary, alleging the song is obscene. A public debate broke out and soon we found ‘Superhit Muqabla’ was not showing that song anymore. Those who said those four lines sung by Ila Arun were not obscene, pointed to the next few lines sung by Alka Yagnik:
Choli mein dil hai mera
Chunri mein dil hai mera
Yeh dil mai dungi mere yaar ko, pyaar ko.
One could see Nina Gupta lip syncing the first four lines of the song as a question to the luscious Madhuri Dixit on screen. And Madhuri replying with the next three, which clearly explain the thing that is inside her ‘choli’, under the ‘chunri’. So there is no scope for imagining anything remotely obscene – ran the logic. As far as I can remember, the charge of obscenity against the song could not be proved. Hence the makers of the film did not need to cut the song out of the film or re-release it with fresh lyrics, which was the case with another song of the same era. The song was ‘sexy sexy sexy mujhe log bole’ from Khuddar. The court ordered makers to change it to ‘baby baby baby mujhe log bole’. In any case, the debate around ‘choli ke peeche’ could not crush our libidinous excitement. Each one of us drew our own conclusions about what Madhuri’s ‘choli’ held.
Every time the discussion about Gujarat riots 2002 starts afresh and Narendra Modi’s responsibility for it is called into question, I can’t help remembering everything that happened around that song. You have to be patient and go a long way to get a woman’s ‘dil’ (heart). We as teens neither had so much patience nor the intent; our thoughts were only skin deep. We were happy thinking about only that meaning of the song. Whenever we heard it being played on some loudspeaker, we would share a mischievous smile. It’s not that there was nobody with nobler feelings among us. Those boys used to fume. Some of them, with milder temper, even tried to convince us that we were completely off the mark about the meaning of those lines. Thanks to Anand Bakshi, we could understand that a single word can have multiple layers of meaning long before listening to Rabindranath Tagore’s songs or reading William Shakespeare.
Poets of the Romantic Revival in England used to believe human beings are essentially divine. Therefore, they stay innocent for some years even after being born. Then experience spoils them, innocence gets lost. This is why William Blake wrote complementary set of poems called Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. William Wordsworth went a step further and wrote this world is a prison and “Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy”. But when series of incidents like Gujarat 2002 happen, one can’t help wondering whether human beings are essentially divine or predatory. Looking back, I feel Gujarat 2002 was the coming of age moment for India’s religious fascists. Madhuri’s ‘choli’ was the experience with which we graduated out of innocence; while post-Godhra riot was the experience with which the Hindutva brigade graduated out of the hooliganism of razing a mosque to the cool use of state machinery in implementing their genocidal agenda.
The highest court of the land has ruled in multiple cases that there was no bigger criminal conspiracy behind murder, rape and displacement of thousands. The then chief minister Narendra Modi had no hand in it either. That should have been the end of it who can doubt the Indian justice system? Everyone knows it is the most neutral and trustworthy justice system in the world. That is why the Modi government is hell-bent on cancelling the collegium system for appointing judges. The government thinks it is undemocratic. Law minister Kiren Rijiju and Chief Justice DY Chandrachud are fighting a war of words almost on a daily basis. How absurd! The system that crushed every political conspiracy against Modi by ruling he is as sacred as a lotus, is now deemed undemocratic by his own government!
While this is going on, comes the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, saying “Fee fi fo fum, we smell a pogrom”. And the choli question comes up once again.
At this point, let me make it clear why I have chosen this typically lewd objectification of the female body as my example. The reason is simple. I repeat, each one of us had drawn our own conclusions about what the lyricist meant by ‘choli’. Whenever we heard the song somewhere, we winked at each other. Same kind of signalling about what actually happened in Gujarat after Godhra, goes on between BJP and its supporters. Most things shown in the BBC documentary are stale news for Indians. Perhaps the only new information is, the British government had run its own investigation, which concluded that Modi himself was responsible for the death of so many innocents. All the proofs and witnesses cited in the documentary have found space in some Indian media or the other in the last two decades. In fact, Rakesh Sharma’s documentary Final Solution is more spine-chilling than the BBC one. When that documentary was uploaded on YouTube, the government did not have the powers to make YouTube and/or social media platforms block it in India. However, so many people reported the video that YouTube did block it for some time on the pretext of violating community standards.
So, questions have been raised before and every single time BJP leaders and supporters have come up with two answers. One group has always said, all allegations are false. Supreme Court has given clean chit. There can’t be anything more reassuring. Another group says whatever has been done was well-deserved. Muslims should be kept in leash. Amit Shah, for example, told ANI last year that the allegations against Modi were politically motivated. People who made those allegations should apologise since the Supreme Court has exonerated the Prime Minister. But more recently, while campaigning for the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, he said in 2002, Modiji taught a lesson to those who spread violence. That is why Gujarat has found perennial peace.
Everyone, therefore, is left to draw their own conclusions. We used to do the same thing. Some of us thought about Madhuri’s heart, others about her flesh. If you don’t know that this reduction of female body to mere flesh is hallmark of Hindutva, ask Bilkis Bano.
Government of India has ordered blocking of all links to the BBC documentary on YouTube. Many tweets have been deleted, too, for sharing that link. It won’t be mere nostalgia to say our innocent life was better than this experienced life. Because back then the Indian state only regarded sex as obscene. A little bit of coyness could save a film. Makers could get away with it by changing a few words in a song or by spiking a couple of kissing scenes. That, too, would be done only if somebody went to court. But today the government has amended the Information Technology Act to enable erasure of anything it does not like. It can just mark it untrue and get it deleted from the internet. This is exactly what has been done to the BBC documentary. Before this, last Tuesday, a few proposed amendments were uploaded on the MeitY website. Those show the government is planning to give unprecedented powers to its Press Information Bureau. In future, any news that PIB terms fake news would be prohibited from sharing on social media. The onus will be on the platform to ensure it is not shared by anybody.
That means this deletion business is not going to end with the BBC documentary. Rather, it’s the start. Tomorrow you could just post that there was a riot in Gujarat in 2002, and the government could order it deleted. Who knows? Perhaps Ehsan Jafri was never killed; it’s fake news. Bilkis was never raped; that’s fake news, too. If PIB thinks so.
Of course the government agencies can go that way. But the more they act like that, the more questions will be asked about what is there behind the ‘choli’. We may also need to ask why the government needs a choli at all. The who’s who among the accused and convicted of Gujarat 2002 are out of jail anyway. The only people behind bars are innocents like Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam, who have refused to grow up, continuing to believe humans are essentially good-natured.
We can console ourselves by thinking the government still has some shame left, that is why the need for the ‘choli’. However, it is difficult even for a high-handed government to keep its ‘choli’ in place in the age of internet. Spring is not far behind and if you take a boat ride along the river flowing beside Kolkata in spring, you would see some poor souls defecating on the bank. They sit with their backs to the river because they would like to believe you cannot see them since they cannot see you. Blocking information within a country in this age of information boom is a bit like that. You can call this self-deception. But autocracy can’t survive without self-deception.
Postscript: The BBC documentary is going to have a Part 2 as well. To quote a popular Kangana Ranaut character, “Abhi To Humein Aur Zaleel Hona Hai”.
The piece is a translation of Bangla article published at the Nagorik.net.