The position of the colonizer's language within the changing culture of its former colony is always a fraught one, and the difficulty of the matter is severely compounded in a country like India, whose citizens never shared a common language prior to their colonization. Lack of a common language must be one reason why English persisted in India after Independence, despite the fact that it had little penetrated the colonial population. Although it's still far from being a language of the masses, English is more widely spoken in India today than it was in colonial times.
English remains a first language of the uppermost classes, and it's increasingly gaining traction as a lingua franca, the language of the modern office place. Yet Indian novelists who write in English have been taken to task for their choice of language, and questions regularly arise as to the "authenticity" of their works. These are matters worth discussing, but we can acknowledge that the answers will never be neat or straightforward.
In The Caravan, Trisha Gupta has added to this conversation by describing the surprisingly complex relationship of the Hindi language to Hindi cinema, suggesting a relationship that's always been difficult, if not contrived. Gupta describes the changing registers of filmic Hindi, and how, as Hindi filmmakers increasingly come from English-speaking households, and as more and more of their films are actually depictions of the Indian English-speaking world, this messy relationship continues with new challenges and artifices.
The Hindi film industry, [Shyam Benegal] argues, has its origins in a hybrid, cosmopolitan mix of people and languages. “If you go back to the 1930s and think about a studio like Bombay Talkies, you’ll find that the producer was Himanshu Rai, a Bengali; the main director was Franz Osten, a German; and the star actress was Devika Rani, whose Hindi wasn’t something to write home about!” Benegal says. “But in any case, directors, technicians—how does it matter if they can’t speak Hindi for peanuts? Actors, well, they can get language coaches. The only thing that makes a difference is the writer.”
So let’s talk about the writers, then. From the 1930s right up to the 1970s, Bombay cinema was famously a vehicle for accomplished writers in Urdu and Hindi. “Whether it was Pandit Mukhram Sharma, who wrote so many socially conscious films for BR Chopra, or men like Kamal Amrohi, KA Abbas or Wajahat Mirza, the writers of the ’50s and ’60s had a connection to the language,” says 51-year-old Anjum Rajabali, himself a well-known scriptwriter (Drohkaal, Ghulam, Rajneeti) and someone who has helped institute scriptwriting courses at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the Whistling Woods International film academy in Mumbai. Rajabali points out that even as late as the 1970s, most of Hindi cinema’s scripts were written in Urdu. Javed Akhtar—one-half of what is probably Hindi cinema’s most successful scriptwriting team, Salim-Javed—wrote in Urdu, which was then transliterated into Devanagari for the benefit of those who couldn’t read the Urdu script.
Partly for this reason, Hindi cinema may be unique in the world in requiring the services of a "dialogue writer" for each film, a writer who is credited separately from both the script writer and the director.
So why did Hindi cinema need the specialised ‘dialogue writer’? Was it because, as Rajabali argues, the film went directly from the story stage to the shooting stage—steered by a forceful director—and then all that was needed was dialogue for each scene as it came along? Or was it because, as Javed Akhtar points out, Hindi cinema—unlike Tamil or Malayalam or Bengali cinema—did not emerge in a region where Hindi, or rather Hindustani, was the spoken language? The roots of Hindi cinema lie in Pune, Calcutta, Lahore and Bombay. “Bengalis, Marathis and Parsis, who were great screenplay writers, were not necessarily conversant with spoken Hindi/Hindustani. So they needed dialogue writers who were,” says Akhtar.
As the 1990s drew to a close, somewhat ironically, the professional dialogue writer—who had taken Hindi films from highfalutin, poetic speech to the colloquial language of the Bombay street—became a figure associated with what many of the new breed of directors and screenplay writers derisively refer to as dialoguebaazi. A portmanteau word that’s itself a superb example of the composite English-Hindi linguistic culture we have inhabited for years, dialoguebaazi (literally ‘speaking in dialogue’) suggests a language of theatricality, rhetorical flourish, bombast and melodrama: in short, it suggests the kind of speech that would only appear in an old-style Hindi film, not in real life.
But much of this hip, new multiplex cinema, while ostensibly dropping the filmi in favour of the real, has come to inhabit a linguistic universe which exists only in the translated-from-English imagination of its creators. In this imaginary world, the principal of a Delhi University college can say in welcoming a new colleague, “Tumhe toh maloom hai ki mera office kahan hai,”—a dialogue from Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan (2009), which must seem entirely mystifying to those not familiar with the casual Americanism, “You know where my office is.” In Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2009), a young Indian man in London can propose to a woman he’s romantically interested in by saying, “Tum mere saath baahar jaaogi?”—a literal translation of the entirely figurative, “Will you go out with me?”, which makes the entire exchange appear ridiculous.
Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), a Karan Johar production set in New York City, was a top-grossing movie in India and the overseas market. While, on the one hand, turning idiomatic English expressions into nonsensical literal translations, most of the new generation of Hindi film writers (barring a handful) is loath, on the other, to actually use idiomatic, spoken Hindustani—which they seem to believe to be extinct in reality. According to one screenwriter who inhabits this imaginary world, for example, people “in real life” don’t say such things as “Tum yahan kaise?” or “Kya waqt hua hai?”. Now, it may come as a surprise if you’ve never stepped out of your posh South Mumbai or South Delhi neighbourhood, but there are still plenty of people in India who actually do speak full sentences in Hindustani. Sometimes they even use such difficult words as waqt.
Obviously, the precise turn of phrase, the extent of loan words from English and so on, would depend on a whole range of factors—the speaker’s class, education, gender, his or her location in space and time, who is being spoken to and in what context. So, a man in Delhi speaking to the bus conductor is much more likely to say, instead, “Time kya hua hai?” Indeed, several recent films—Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), Band Baaja Baaraat (2010) and Do Dooni Chaar (2010) are all good examples—have managed to capture the unselfconscious cadences of a Hindi-English mixture the way it is actually spoken by millions of people every day: “Tab mujhe realise hua ki,” or “Main India ki the best wedding planner banoongi,” or even “Sab mind kar lo bhai.” And more power to them.
The full article is worth a look, here.