The Churuli row: Why are Malayalis so upset by profanities?

Differences of opinion about movies are best put forth as reviews in private or public spaces, but it is problematic when you want a film banned because you didn’t like it.
Still from Churuli
Still from Churuli
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The way Malayalis are taking offence at the use of profanities in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new film Churuli, you’d think we were raised in an underground barn, much like Brendan Fraser in Blast from the Past, shielded from the nasty world and its evil designs. You’d think we were fed a steady supply of evangelical films – no bad words, no horrible deeds, everyone is as nice and warm as a teddy bear.

Are we now following the example of a curious lot of people who seem to take offence at anything at all, real or imagined? It would seem that way, given that all this while we didn’t flinch at the rogues in cinema, we even took pride at the roguishness of our heroes, especially when it was directed at the heroines “in need of a lesson”. But all of a sudden, we are offended. Not by any explicit criminal behaviour, nor by its glorification. But by the use of curse words by the people in the fictional village of Churuli, created by the lot of Lijo, his scriptwriter S Hareesh, and the original story writer Vinoy Thomas.

When I watched the film back in February for the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), sure there was a certain amount of shock at the way the polite men in a car suddenly turned vicious when they crossed a certain bridge leading to Churuli. It intrigued more than offended me. Why would you take offence unless you were one of the two unfortunate police officers in that jeep, disguised as commoners seeking work in the village and subject to the men’s fury? Or is it that the viewers, many of them together, somehow turned empathetic at that point and found themselves in the place of Chemban Vinod and Vinay Forrt, who play those cops, entrapped in a strange village and its strange folks.

It all seems strange at first but as you discover along with the two visiting cops, crudeness is just the way of life in Churuli. Somewhere along that bridge to Churuli they shed the polished behaviour you are taught when you cross childhood. There can be a hundred different interpretations to why Hareesh or Vinoy added a chunk of expletives into the dialogues of Churuli’s men and women. Mine was that they just wear on the exterior what others try to hide within. If you are more imaginative, you can explain it off as a fantastical village with unusual ways, and there may be more such villages waiting to be discovered, similar to the worlds Gulliver (fictional protagonist in Jonanthan Swift’s novel) stumbles into. Every world needn’t be a replica of the one you are used to living.

The expletives used in Churuli begin at a defined moment in the film, making it clear that the abuse is part of the characterisation that Lijo lends to the village. It is not just there for shock value or as a casual representation of a section of society as in the case of a series like Sacred Games.

But those who found a problem with the language of Churuli said it made it difficult to watch the film with family members, especially children. Understandable. But why would you insist kids watch a movie that even its makers think is not suitable for viewers below 18? If you missed that warning in the beginning in all your haste to catch up on the new Lijo movie – the director is famous for his maverick ventures – you could still press pause, send all the little ones away and watch the rest alone or in the company of other adults. If you still find it embarrassing because you are not used to hearing foul words in the company of other adults, you could again use the pause-and-watch-it-later technique. Very effective, it’s been found to be.

As a viewer, it is entirely up to you to decide what you should take offence at, of course. You can’t tell someone else what they should be offended by. But in this case, you might want to examine what it is that you found so troublesome. Is it really the array of foul words uttered by the people of Churuli? And is it because you have never heard foul words in a movie before (didn’t watch The Departed or any of the Martin Scorsese films?) and prefer the beep sounds traditionally used in scenes where characters exchange abuses? You have not felt offended by blatant expressions of violence or crime but foul words are where you draw the line, eh?

Every movie draws bad reviews, equal to, less than or more than its share of good ones. Nothing surprising if Churuli has been written off as a nasty one because of its use of foul language – that’s perspective. Another may point you to a different direction, ask you to look at the making of the film, the performances (not just Chemban and Vinay but Jaffer Idukki, Joju George, Geethi Sangeetha and others), the fantasy and the mystery stitched into the film. That’s perspective too. But it’s going to another level when you take your differences with the movie to debates in prime time television, escalate it to the authorities to take action against, with some even going to the extent of demanding censorship knowing fully well how much the creative world has suffered by it.

All the unexplained anger makes you wonder if it is all because of petty political rivalry after all? Joju George, one of the actors making a short appearance in the film, had a row with a bunch of Congress politicians recently, after he spoke out against their midday protest on a road in Kochi. Words were exchanged, car windows broken, police cases filed. A younger lot of politicians took out marches to film sets, making the fight about the whole industry. Film associations, senior leaders and others intervened to broker peace. The issue had almost faded away before Churuli released and Joju was once again on the screen, this time hurling abuses at other characters in the film. Clips of Joju in the act have been circulated, even though other characters have also done the same. However it’s Joju’s name that has especially been jotted down in letters of complaints shot off to authorities.

Filmmakers like Jeo Baby and writers like PF Mathews (who has earlier worked with Lijo for Ee Ma Yaw, another dark film) voiced their support for the film and for freedom of expression in the arts.

Debates remain healthy as long as they are words exchanged in private or public forums. You don’t need to like a film because Lijo made it or Adoor Gopalakrishnan made it. You can express your dislike wherever you like. But when you find it is not enough and want to stop the screening of a film you don’t agree with, that’s a problem. It looks like you’re aping a certain elected lot, in wanting to suppress or ban voices of dissent. It will work in the interest of everyone concerned if instead you took your anger to a Facebook page and wrote a nice long essay on why profanities should stay unuttered in Joju George films and exceptions can only be made if a film has one or the other superstars.

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