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Word that rhymes with ‘today’ runs afoul of Indian censors

Ellen Barry
Ulrich Baumgarten | Getty Images

When he released his first music video, the Mumbai-based musician Mihir Joshi understood that it would be reviewed by India's Central Board of Film Certification for obscene or offensive lyrics. When the board objected to a single word, he quickly agreed to part with it.

But he was flabbergasted to hear that the word was "Bombay."

"I started laughing, and I said, 'What are you talking about?'  " Mr. Joshi, 33, said in an interview.

The music video was broadcast on the MTV Indies cable channel over the weekend with the offending place name replaced with a bleep and blurred in the accompanying subtitle. "I have nothing against the word 'Mumbai,'  " he added, a little plaintively. "I'm not calling it 'Constantinople' or 'Atlantis' or whatever."

He chose "Bombay" in the second line of the song, he said, because he needed a rhyme with "today." But by doing so, Mr. Joshi stumbled into one of India's many unresolved tugs of war over history and identity.

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Mumbai, a word drawn from the Marathi language, has been the official legal name of Mr. Joshi's home city since 1995, when the nativist political party in power chose it to replace the Anglicized name Bombay, used since colonial times.

Not everyone adopted the new name, though. Some kept using Bombay out of long habit or institutional inertia — the city's stock exchange and its high court still bear the name, for example. Others stuck with Bombay as a political statement, rejecting what they considered xenophobic politics behind the change.

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Though this divide leads to regular dust-ups on televised talk shows, Mr. Joshi's case was the first in recent memory in which an artist has been called out for using Bombay.

"If the name of this city has been changed, it's only fair that we adhere to the new name," said Meenal Baghel, editor of The Mumbai Mirror, a daily newspaper. "But should it have been bleeped as if it is a four-letter word? I think that's ridiculous."

The film censor's decision drew considerable criticism and mockery on Monday, but the board's top official, Pahlaj Nihalani, said he stood by the decision, which was made by his predecessor. (Mr. Nihalani became the board's chairman in January.)

"Given the past controversy over the use of Bombay in films, this was avoidable," Mr. Nihalani told The Hindu, a daily newspaper. "There are some elements who make deliberate attempts to create controversy by using Bombay, keeping in mind future prospects."

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Mr. Joshi, for his part, was adjusting to his new status as a test case. He uses both names interchangeably — his album is called "Mumbai Blues" — and describes himself as so apolitical that he reads only the sports and entertainment sections of the newspaper. The song in question, "Sorry," was written as an imagined lament of a father to his daughter, written on the anniversary of a brutal gang rape in New Delhi.

Mr. Joshi wondered about the censorship board's priorities. Noting that he does not drink or smoke and rarely uses profanity, he said: "Look at the songs that are coming out in Bollywood, one song that says 'I am an alcoholic,' and another that says 'weed from this place is the best weed to have.' If all of that is acceptable, and it can come out, and people are dancing to it, how can it be a problem that I have used the word 'Bombay?'  "