The curious case of OTT profanity

Why are avuncular voices suddenly piping up against ‘bad language’ on streaming sites?
Last Updated 20 November 2020, 18:20 IST

One of Sorabh Pant’s best-ever stand-up routines is titled 'Uncles on WhatsApp', and despite its brevity, is a vertiginously deep dive into the great oceanic garbage patch that is Houston to all the problem — uncles in the world.

He walks you through how uncles of WhatsApp spread supererogation and tautology while pretending to be helpful, how this soon graduates to fake news and group-gobaring, and how they get pig-headed and behave badly when caught out.

It’s hard-hitting, it doesn’t just nick the bone, it shaves the hair off the avuncular skull and shows you that what looked like fine and upstanding calcium is wet, soft chalk.

After seven speedy swishes of Pant’s rapier wit, there is nothing left to do except to recognise your own future uncle somewhere in the bloody mirror he holds up before us, and to then make Lakhnavi afsos to the mirror, the reflection, and the hands that hold it up, before saying a dank alvida to that future through some form of mental hygiene such as WhatsApp hara-kiri.

Last week, without any warning, 'Wake Up With Sorabh', his YouTube show, ran an equally hard-hitting sequel. They didn’t title it 'Uncles on YouTube', perhaps because they were trying stealth marketing. Ambush. Guerilla stuff. Silence is the secret of corona’s virality, so let us be ruthless as a mist of floating fomites etc.

Instead, in a fine feint, he called the sequel Jethalal and one Sarabhai, and got Sumeet Raghavan and Dilip Joshi of 'Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai' and 'Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah' to reminisce about their long innings as familiar TV faces.

It started innocuously, with the regulation banter, and the hahahas that presage further vague noises, and once these were done, some memories, and the odd yorker from live chat that was played with a straight bat. Fitful memory work lost in all this lard can only bring on an allergic response called reminiscea where you feel wistful, in no time, about amnesia for yourself and red ants for the others, but let’s not be uncharitable for there were no uncle moments yet.

Just an odd minute while Joshi murmured about how you get requests you can’t turn down, and that’s how he came to be in Varanasi in 2014, campaigning for some candidate named Modi.

Pant prepares for landing eventually, and asks if the panellists have closing remarks. Out of nowhere, Joshi launches himself into centrestage to twist an uncle while trying some kind of moral science belly dance.

"These OTT shows," he ranted, "have too much bad language, who talks like that, would you talk like that before your parents, something needs to be done, why don’t you show people going to the bathroom, in 'Bandish Bandits', somebody swore, and it was unbearable."

How can you describe, and do justice to an uncle who starts bellowing and harrumphing like a lost cow out of nowhere? Let’s borrow from the most famous poem written by the most famous practitioner of free verse in the free world. The suddenness, the sheer suddenness of the moo, the unexpected nature of the moo. The unpredictability of… You get it because you’re a gau-getter.

Joshi was quickly outdone by Raghavan, whose grouse was there was too much kissing, and sex, because culture. And how he was offered a role that would have required him to kiss a man on an OTT show, and he refused not because it was a gay role, but because he was uncomfortable kissing anybody. Whether gay people might have wanted to see any of this was not part of the discussion.

To his eternal credit, Sorabh Pant was quick to offer the point that the content was already user-regulated, and that you could use swearing or intimacy to establish a milieu or world view. But the uncles were too busy stampeding by now, to listen.

We will not comment on the spectacle of the kings of sanitised stereotyping and soundtrack-driven inverted commas offering cultural criticism. A few minutes before this outburst, Joshi was defending himself against wokesters nipping at his pachydermatous ankles with the words ‘Don’t watch it if you don’t like it’, and that is merely ironic in context.

Onions are rarer than ironies in our world, and we shouldn’t even comment about that because said onions can’t push their way out of desert sand in Saudi Arabia. Justice Chandrachud’s use of the don’t-watch-it defence of Arnab’s right to re-enact a local gas tragedy on television may make my comment on uncles having a Houston the Pythagoras’ Theorem of our time, but that is an observation, not a comment.

The precision, and the prescience, with which Joshi and Raghavan offered criticism of OTT platforms one week before it was announced that the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting will now regulate these platforms allows us to make more observations. One, to speculate about whether an uncle-shaped crumb of office will fall from heaven on either of these two willing compliers. The other observation is a suggestion that Noam Chomsky should retitle his book to Manufacturing Dissent, and at least add a chapter with that title.

The term ‘over the top’ was first used during World War I for soldiers who went mad from sitting in trenches for weeks while it rained and launched themselves at the enemy fire because they couldn’t take it anymore. That sense of the term may come back into currency after this government decision.

It is definitely worth remembering in any case. It may now apply to governments that want to take away from mature adults the right to regulate how they use the Internet. Or to what these adults may now do to protect these rights.

SM Krishna once wanted to turn Bangalore into Singapore. The party he joined has a bigger ambition — that of reducing all of India to a Singapore that it can play nanny comfortably. Leave them to it. Say hello to VPN and say welcome back, old friend, to whichever proxy you can find for Torrentz or Pirate Bay.

(Published 20 November 2020, 18:20 IST)

Follow us on