Chutzpah comes to Bollywood

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Chutzpah comes to Bollywood

Monday, 13 October 2014 | Navras Jaat Aafreedi

Popularised by the new Hindi film Haider, the Yiddish word refers to a combination of audacity and arrogance. But don't try translating it, for there is no other word for it, and no other language can do justice to it

Director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, the celluloid adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, is the first Bollywood film ever to use a Yiddish word. It is doubtful if any other Indian filmmaker would have had the chutzpah to make the kind of film, set in Kashmir, that Haider is. The word is chutzpah, though mispronounced in the film.

The initial “ch” stands for the sound of “kh” made from the epiglottis, and not how it has been pronounced in the film, as the “ch” is pronounced in “chess”. Considering the perfectionist that Mr Bhardwaj is, one wonders if the mispronunciation is deliberate — to add a little spice to the film, for the first half of the word when mispronounced the way it has been, sounds much like the colloquial Hindi word for the female genital.

According to Jewish scholar leo Rosten, the word stands for “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts’, presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.”

Steven Silbiger notes in his book, The Jewish Phenomenon: Seven Keys to the Enduring Wealth of a People (2000), that “chutzpah is a Yiddish word that comes from the Hebrew word meaning ‘audacity’”. He quotes the author of the book Chutzpah (1992), Alan Dershowitz, to define the word as “boldness, assertiveness, a willingness to demand what is due, to defy tradition, to challenge authority, to raise eye brows.”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in  Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes say about Jews (1992) draws our attention to the overwhelmingly negative connotation chutzpah has in Hebrew, “epitomised in the story about a man who murders his parents, then pleads with the judge to take pity on him because he is an orphan.”

It is a similar story that the protagonist Haider tells his friends, when the word is used for the first time in the film, as he explains its meaning. In 1986 a Palestinian, accused of a terrorist murder, pleaded for mercy, in an Israeli court, on the grounds that he was blind. He had actually lost his vision when a bomb he was making exploded.

According to Rabbi Telushkin, “the terrorist’s chutzpah was in turn compounded by the anti-Israel Boston Globe, which headlined the incident “Israelis Convict Blind Palestinian” (October 28, 1986). On the word’s adoption by Yiddish, it attained a more positive connotation: “Guts bordering on the heroic,” as lexicographer Robert Hendrickson wrote.

The word chutzpah is used on two more occasions in the film: When Haider addresses the people at a crossing in the town and, when those very men to whom he had once explained its meaning, attempt to kill him. When Haider gives a speech using the word chutzpah, he defines it with a joke: A man robs a bank and then returns to it to open an account. In the credits at the end of the film, the two jokes that accompanied the use of the word on the first two occasions  in the film, are attributed to Indian philosopher Osho.

Interestingly, Osho had scandalously said that Jews “are guilty people, and their guilt is very great” because they are guilty for Jesus’s crucifixion; out of this guilt, they are “always in search of their Adolf Hitlers, someone who can kill them”. He outrageously asserted that only when Jews “reclaim Jesus”, “they will be healthy and whole, and then there will be no need for Adolf Hitlers”. Notably, the declaration Nostra aetate of the Second Vatican Council relieved Jews of the traditional Christian accusation of being ‘Christ killers’.

Osho also said that “living in poverty is far more dangerous, far more suffering than dying in a beautifully, scientifically managed gas chamber in Germany”, and found Hitler’s violence “far more peaceful” than (for example) the violence of Partition. Hitler “killed people in the most up-to-date gas chambers... Thousands of people can be put in a gas chamber, and just a switch is pressed... Within a second, you evaporate. The chimneys of the factory start taking you, the smoke — you can call it holy smoke — and this seems to be a direct way towards God.”

(The author is an Indo-Judaic studies scholar, and Assistant Professor at Gautam Buddha University)

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