English is a funny language, but the real objects of our mockery are those who speak it funny
Do you remember Yashraj Mukhate? He first arrived on stage with “ Rasode Mein Kaun Tha ”, a musical meme that mixed upbeat music with dialogue from the Hindi soap opera. Saath Nibhana Saathiya and went viral within hours with its withdrawal from prime-time soaps.
Now another of his “ compositions ” is on everyone’s lips, thanks to Taapsee Pannu and his family, who shared a video of themselves dancing to his soundtrack while on vacation in the Maldives. In Mukhate’s original video, “ Biggini Shoot, ” he takes an exchange from a 2011 conversation on a show called Emotional Atyachaar, adds a set of rap lyrics and creates a catchy number that caught the attention of the Indian interweb. The hilarity of it seems to rest on the protagonist, Poonam, the bad pronunciation of a word very little heard or seen in Indian public space, the bikini.
The Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that the word bikini refers to an atoll in the Marshall Islands where an atomic detonation took place in 1946, as well as “a two-piece beachwear little worn by women.” As academic Neville Hoad speculates in an article on the Miss World pageant, there must be some similarity in the effects evoked in male viewers by the atomic bomb and the bikini. Return to the iconic scene of Ursula Andress in Dr No and the skyrocketing sales of white bikinis after this emergence. This was recreated by Halle Berry in another Bond film, Die another day, and has been a benchmark for countless other scenes. If these are the explosive abilities of the bikini, why did Poonam’s reference to “two pieces only” elicit mocking laughter as opposed to lustful lust?
Maybe I’m saying the obvious when I say that, well, she calls that a biggini and not a bikini, even though the right-faced anchor makes her repeat the word. He asks, seemingly innocent, “What shoot?”, To which she replies, “Biggini.”
As Amitabh Bachchan once said so iconically in Namak Halaal that English is a funny language, our notion of laughter seems to rely even more on people who speak it funny. I remember how, when I was a student in Pune, people laughed at people who asked the disguised question: “Will you befriend me?” Friendship was the euphemism for flirting, dating, and maybe a relationship. The subtext of this mockery was that recipients still viewed the poorly worded, non-grammatical question as a class marker. We may have come a long way since Macaulay and his exhortation to create a class of English-speaking Indians, but Dr Higginses still abound, seeking to reform Elizas.
To add to this postcolonial quagmire, it might not help that Poonam tries so hard in his interview to appear urban. Her confidence, her bold statement, her details about her career as a brand ambassador at Indore and as a model for Maharani Beer, it all seems to fuel some joy. This joy is not found when, say, Akshay Kumar states that he did “an underwear dance” in “blue” on a Koffee with Karan episode. The little town girl’s trope looking for fame performing her sexuality and attractiveness can go many ways. Sometimes it produces a Kangana, other times a Poonam. At all times, it’s a risk, as you might well become the subject of the mockery before you get rich, famous, and powerful enough to excite your detractors. We are left with only binary tropes of insiders and outsiders with no ability to overturn the structural violence of language, gender, caste and class hierarchies.
Instead, let me suggest another solution. Considering the controversial history of the bikini in the Indian beauty and pool space, perhaps the most apt word is ‘biggini’. Because that includes everyone – those on Instagram who parade in their “two pieces only” as well as these women in salwars, kurtas, saris, dresses and burkinis, united in their need to be attractive or to swim or both or nor both. Mukhate’s music is itself what ethnomusicologist David Novak calls remediation, a sampling process that allows new meanings to emerge as well as new cosmopolitan subjects. Taking a leaf from this practice, how about letting a thousand bigginis bloom?
The writer teaches anthropology for a living and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals and things.