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On the Bollywood beat


FOLLOWING last month's "Wordspeak" on the use of cancer as metaphor in the context of politics, a number of readers wrote back pointing out metaphors and euphemisms frequently used in the Indian media. Some suggested wildly imaginative similes, while others had questions about word origins and etymology. One word, mafia, is the subject of a part of this month's column.

There was also the e-mail from Bevinda Collaco, who may be responsible for one of the most frequently used and misused proper nouns in India today: Bollywood. Collaco's missive was among the pleasant surprises I have had in writing this column, a feeling that I only slightly exaggerated when I wrote to her, "Can't say if seeing my name in the Republic Day's honours list would have given me more pleasure than hearing from you. I had been literally flopping around for a long time trying to figure out if Bollywood was by accident or by design." Collaco explained:

"Bollywood was not by accident. It was very much by design... I got into film journalism by pure accident and knew nothing about Hindi films... I was given a studio beat to do. I was not happy with the name of the column Studio Roundup and thought of `Flipping around Follywood', but it sounded too harsh. I settled for `On the Bollywood Beat' instead. From a studio roundup column I began commenting on what was happening off the sets too and it turned into a gossip column. In no time at all the stars were calling up to find out why they were mentioned in Bollywood and others to find out why they were not mentioned in Bollywood. I guess they were responsible for giving my word longevity.

"I remember I asked my sister to design the column slug so she did one of those graded lettering curling slugs. While I worked at Cine Blitz in 1978, 79 and 80, I used the word prolifically, but I never thought it would get official international usage. Actually I don't know whether to laugh or to cry when I see my word become common usage... "

My sentiments exactly, in view of spin-offs such as Lollywood, Tollywood and you name it. Bollywood-inspired monikers took their cue from the flotsam and jetsam left in the curlicue wake of the Watergate scandal, named after a building complex in Washington, D.C. that was the site of a burglary in 1972. The suffix "-gate" has been used since to denote a scandal involving alleged illegal acts and often a cover-up, especially by government officials. Most politicians in the United States worth their name, including U.S. Presidents, have had scandal-gate du jour; many readers will remember Irangate and Contragate scandals. Even Prince Charles had his Camilla-gate.

* * *

Another catchy word on equal footing with Bollywood and a favourite of the Indian media is mafia. I accessed the electronic edition of a newspaper at random while writing this column, and two headlines jumped at me: "Mumbai mafia money under scanner" and "Don D.P. Yadav joins BJP".

The Mafia began as a secret terrorist organisation in Sicily, in early 19th Century in opposition to legal authority. In early 20th Century it became a secret criminal organisation of Italian origin operating in the U.S. and engaged in illegal activities such as gambling, drug dealing, and prostitution. Mafia came to be used as a generic name for any of various similar criminal organisations, especially when dominated by members of the same nationality. In informal usage, mafia now means a tightly knit group of trusted associates, as of a political leader or in organised crime.

The Mob is sometimes used in North America interchangeably with the Mafia, and both have an informal use in the sense of coterie, secret fraternity or gang, or insiders. Its most likely source is the word "mafia" from a Sicilian dialect, which means "boldness" or "bravado". And let's discount two popular misconceptions about the origin of the word: that it came from the cries of terrified Sicilian parents, "Ma fia!" (My daughter) when they saw Arab invaders land; and that it is an acronym for morte alla francia italia anela (Death to Frenchmen is the Italian Cry).

English borrowed a host of Mafia-derived terms from the Italian language, but the Indian media is particularly fond of another: don, meaning the boss. Mafia and don go together like idli and sambhar; the Mafia is called "the family" by its members, and the don is the head of family. Among other usages of don are: as a term of respect for a gentleman or aristocrat (Don Giovanni); a professor or an academic (a Cambridge don); and a leader or a commander. Another noticeable Indian usage is to describe a person as "a mafia," or as reported under one of the headlines quoted above, "the controversial western U.P. mafiosi D.P. Yadav." The actual term for a member of the mafia is mafioso, and the plural of that is mafiosi.

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