When streaming players came to India in 2016, writers liberally used nudity and profanity in storytelling because there was no regulatory body to stop them. “But now there’s real concern over how content with cuss words will be received by people,” says Misra. In March, the Delhi High Court rebuked content company TVF for the “use of vulgar language” in its teen drama College Romance after someone filed a police complaint against the use of obscene language in Episode 5 of the show’s first season.
Around the same time, makers of Rana Naidu reportedly removed the dubbed Telugu version of the Hindi series from Netflix because of an unprecedented backlash over cuss words. Instances like these “have led most screenwriters to self-censor dialogue”, says Misra. The desire for a bigger audience and the fear of regulation have come to dictate just how and how often screenwriters use expletives in their scripts for web shows. Cuss words on over-the-top platforms (OTT) are falling, and are likely to fall further in the shows that are set to release next year, as per industry stakeholders.
Over the last four months, this reporter sampled 160 hours of content across eight popular web series and found that six of them had anywhere between 8% and 68% drop in the use of swear words in their latest seasons.
For instance, the second season of Asur, a psychological thriller which released on JioCinema in June this year, had 62% fewer expletives than the first season that premiered on Voot (now merged with JioCinema) in March 2020. The third season of City of Dreams and Criminal Justice, both Disney+ Hotstar shows produced by Applause Entertainment, had 40-50% fewer swear words per episode compared with their previous two seasons.
Sacred Games (Netflix) and Mirzapur (Amazon Prime Video) are known to be the frontrunners of expletive-laden storytelling on web, but the second season of both the shows saw an 8-18% drop in average cuss words per episode.
In 2019, the pilot episode of Manoj Bajpayee-starrer The Family Man kickstarted with swear words—about 10 were uttered in the first nine minutes. However, the second season of this Amazon Prime Video show, aired in 2021, has 33% fewer cuss words per episode. Further, the recurring characters are seen using expletives in Marathi in addition to Hindi, perhaps to add an authentic flavour to swearing as well as dilute the crassness associated with most Hindi cuss words.
Ishita Moitra is surprised by these numbers. “Given that new seasons come after a gap, it’s hard to keep track, but I can say that we haven’t made a collective decision as screenwriters to use fewer cuss words,” says Moitra, screenwriter of films like Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, and web shows like Four More Shots Please!
The decline in coarse language in the recent seasonsof CriminalJustice and Cityof Dreams is “unintentional”, says Sameer Nair, CEO of Applause Entertainment. “With City of Dreams, it could be because the protagonist’s brother, a major foul-mouthed character, dies at the end of Season 1, and Eijaz Khan’s swearing cop turns into a politician in the new season,” he adds. “A shift towards a woman-focused story in a largely upper-middle class setup could be the reason for fewer swear words in the second season of Criminal Justice,” says Nair.
His observation sheds light on a “widely accepted cliche” that tough people from slightly rustic backgrounds are more likely to swear than upper middle class folks. Interestingly, Made in Heaven, a show about Delhi’s poshest crowd, has roughly 18-19 swear words per episode in both seasons, a tad more than Mirzapur Season 2. While the former is largely laced with the English F-word, the latter has most of its characters hurling Hindi slurs.
Puneet Krishna, creator of Mirzapur, says he was not asked to cut any swear words from the script of either seasons. “I think it’s because I put a lot of thought in placing the expletives in a way that they don’t feel jarring,” says the screenwriter. “Sometimes, placing the B-word (a Hindi profanity) in the middle of a sentence can mean nothing, but placing it at the end can turn a harmless sentence into an abusive one,” he adds.
In some parts of the series, Krishna used expletives to show the layers in a character. “In the last episode of Season 1, Divyenndu’s Munna bhaiya throws in a B-word to refer to a supporting character disparagingly.
In the next season, Munna shoots him dead when this character uses the same slur to insult his paternal and maternal families, highlighting that the man shouldn’t have insulted his mother’s side. It’s his way of telling the audience he only dislikes his father.”
As for fewer expletives in the second season, Krishna says it generally had a sense of gloominess to it and was, therefore, less verbose. For instance, “Ali Fazal’s Guddu cusses a lot in the first season, but only once in the second. Meanwhile, Shweta Tripathi’s Golu starts cussing in the second season as circumstances change her personality.”
However, there have been attempts at self-censoring as well. Nair says Applause recently asked one of its new writers’ team to pipe down the abusive tone of a popular character for the upcoming season of one of its shows that first aired in 2020.
A former Netflix executive, who doesn’t wish to be named, says they once asked a screenwriter to remove a lone swear word from a script to keep a PG-13 (Parental Guidance under 13) rating, instead of getting an R-rating (Restricted for children under 17 because of violence, offensive language, or sexual activity).
Two people associated with Delhi Crime told ET anonymously that the makers of the Emmy-winning show were asked to remove a few lines from its second season because of excessive use of foul language.
At 13-odd swear words per episode, the second season of this Netflix series had 70% more cuss words than the first. “But this can be attributed to a change in the writers and the director for the second season, as well as the fact that this season was far more conversational and dived into the lives of Delhi cops,” says one of the people quoted above.
Netflix India, Jio Cinema and Amazon Prime Video did not respond to ET’s emailed queries till the time of going to press. Disney+ Hotstar declined to comment.
TV VS OTT
When streaming started, it was deemed to be different from TV. “TV was always seen as an invited guest into your living room, who is supposed to conduct itself in a civilised manner,” says Nair, who had spent close to two decades in the TV business earlier. “When Bigg Boss came on TV, people were scandalised, even though cuss words were beeped out,” he recalls. With streaming, creators felt they were finally free to show skin and use abrasive language, but a lot of it was just “unnecessary”, notes Nair. “People were abusing at the drop of a hat.”
Over time, most players seem to have realised that coarse language puts more people off than it enthrals. Platforms vying for a larger market share aim to woo the “family audience” now. The buzz is that OTT wants to become “TV++”, which will require the players to shift gears from offering edgy content to a more wholesome variety. “An expanding audience puts pressure on the creators to be more courteous,” says Nair. That pressure is probably why Rana Naidu’s Telugu dubbed version had to be taken off air.
Says BVS Ravi, a screenwriter in the Telugu film industry: “You normally have a small pocket of viewers watching regional content on OTT, but Venkatesh and Rana Daggubati are such superstars here that the regular audience was keen to watch the show as well.” Ravi wrote the screenplay of Rana Naidu as well as its Telugu translation for dubbing. “I think people weren’t able to accept their superstars, especially a veteran actor like Venkatesh, using cuss words,” he adds. “It’s like Shah Rukh Khan uttering swear words in a movie. Can you imagine how the fans will react?”
WHY ON EARTH?
There’s scientific literature that talks about the benefits of swearing for stress relief as well as its adverse effects on one’s mental health. In streaming, though, cuss words largely help writers express the peak of a character’s emotions.
Roughly 44% of coarse language sampled across these shows was a form of self-expression, used to show anger, frustration, shock, or excitement. It was not meant to abuse someone.
In the new cartel comedy on Netflix India, Guns & Gulaabs, Dulquer Salmaan’s Arjun Varma, who plays a cop, utters a Hindi cuss word while talking to Satish Kaushik’s foulmouthed gangster Ganchi. “Instead of directly abusing Ganchi, he says that he uses the B-word to tell his friends off,” says Sumit Aroraa, one of the writers of the Netflix show. “In doing that, he maintains the decorum of his office, by not swearing back at Ganchi, while simultaneously showing him that he is an equal rival and not some newbie cop he can overpower.”
To that extent, cuss words also help in establishing a power dynamic between two people. Which is why content where women swear doesn’t go down well with a lot of folks, “because it shows women in a position of power that a lot of people find hard to digest,” says Moitra of the Rocky Aur Rani fame. In her scripts, she uses them sparingly “because most cuss words denigrate women”. At the same time, she also hopes there won’t be any unnecessary policing of language. “You have to use them if the milieu of the show demands it. If I’m watching Mirzapur, I am expecting bad words, not poetry!”
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