Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An Open Letter to the Indian Cricket Fan

(First published on NewsYaps)

Fellow BCCI™ Cricket Fans,

I am Ravi Kumar, a software engineer who lives in DLF™ Gurgaon. And I am sad. In fact I am downright angry. I am a regular Joe like you. I get up, take a Harpic™ dump, catch the Congress™ Metro, go to office, code and get back, tired as hell. Apollo Hospitals™life sucks, people, you all know that. If there’s one thing though that’s a bright Surf Excel™ spot in our lives, it’s the game of BCCI™ cricket. And what better showcase of that beautiful BCCI™ game is there than the Pepsi™ Indian Premier League. That brilliant idea in which India’s richest cities play for glory for two months of the year; and what a two months it is! Is there anything better than coming back from office and sitting down to 4 hours of the beautiful BCCI™ game? (The answer to that question, in case you were wondering, is ‘No’). A few Yes Bank™ Maximums and Maxmobile™ Strategic Timeouts later you’re on your way to bliss.

But lately that Kurl-On™ dream has been shattered. Shattered! (As I write this a Johnson’s No-More-Tears Shampoo™ tear rolls down my cheek). Apparently, there is Indian Parliament™ corruption in the IPL.  The BCCI™ game, pristine as it was, has been Daagh Acche Hain™ muddied.

Three Sahara™ players have been arrested by the Rapists ache hain™ Delhi Police for spot-fixing. Imagine that. It’s almost like all the games I watched and followed with Durex™ passion have no meaning anymore. It’s like, it’s all hollow. What will I do the next time someone hits a Yes Bank™ Maximum? Should I Vicks™ cheer? Or just sit there, knowing that it’s probably all a Red Chillies™ charade.  As an Airtel™ friend recently remarked, now that the BCCI™ cricket’s probably fake, all we’ll be left with is Karishma Kotak, Rochelle Maria Rao, the cheerleaders, the award ceremony, the hour long pre and post match TV shows and the after-parties. Sigh. This spot-fixing episode has clearly killed the game.

You know what this episode means though? It means that, at last, Ayn Rand™ greed has entered even the pure game of BCCI™ cricket. Earlier all cricketers played for was pride and KamaSutra™ love of the game. In fact, in just the latest Pepsi™ ad they show Dhoni enjoying the BCCI™ game so much that it warmed the cockles of my Hallmark™ heart. “What a man,” I thought. “Enjoys BCCI™ cricket even when shooting for an ad”. But all that’s dead now. This shows that the IPL was once all about the BCCI™ cricket but players will even play for RBI™ money.

And what about the nation? Did these scumbags even once think about the millions of their fans who give up everything to watch them in Thums-Up™ action? This act is so anti-national that I won’t be surprised if ISI™ Pakistan is involved. Just take my example. What haven’t I done for the Pepsi™ IPL? I’ve regularly jumped red-lights on my way home from office because I’m usually late for the pre-match show. In fact, at one time I was even caught and had to bribe a policeman in order to wriggle out (missed the pre-match show that day, sadly). As I paid him the money, though, I had no regrets: nothing is too big a price to pay for the country. And why only me? Millions of our fellow countrymen give up productive work, family, friends and do their national duty everyday by plonking themselves down in front of the TV all evening. And it’s this great national sacrifice that these guttersnipes have mocked with this act. We might have hanged Kasab but till people like these are allowed to roam free, our nation will never be Bisleri™ safe, ladies and gentlemen, it’ll never be Bisleri™ safe.

It’s just greed is what it is. These players earn so much and still want to earn some more. Look at me. I own a car and a flat in a metro which puts me in the top 0.1% of Indians. But do I act greedy? Do I indulge in questionable tax-evading tactics to save just that little bit more? Do I back-stab people in office to get that promotion? Do I? The answer to all these questions, since these are rhetorical questions I don’t really need to answer them. But I will say one thing: it is fun to sermonise. Wheee!

Anyhoo, gotta run now, guys. Arnab will be on TV soon thrashing everyone left, right and centre, demanding answers for the nation and making wrong-doers quake in their Bata™ boots. In fact, he’s just started! Look at his opening salvo: “We will be closely involved in this case because YOUR love for cricket is NOT for sale”. His EMI™ voice makes me go weak in the knees. And it sounds so goood on my new TV which I bought only because my favourite cricketer models for it. But I digress. Yes! My love for cricket is not for sale and it’s a shame what these people have done.

Now, Tata™.

A True Cricket Havell’s™ Fan,
Ravi Kumar

Monday, May 13, 2013

Zabaan Sambhaal Ke: The Evolution of Language in Bollywood

(First published on NewsYaps)

The elite in India treat their own languages rather oddly. We live our lives in our mother tongues but when it comes to anything serious, say education or for that matter, online articles (ahem!), we immediately turn to English. As a result, our languages are extremely stunted when it comes to being used as vehicles of our own culture. India’s most talked about novelist, for example, isn’t a Hindi, Bengali or Tamil writer, it’s, whether you like him or not, Chetan Bhagat. In all of this, cinema comes as breath of fresh air. It’s the only place where the masses as well as the elite come together and partake of art in their own language. Which is why it’s so interesting to see how cinema, and specifically Bollywood—as it completes its a hundred years—uses language to express itself.

Since this is a piece on the language Bollywood uses, I'm going to start by defining a few terms. Firstly, I am going to consider Hindi and Urdu to be the same language. This is not my personal opinion but the standard linguistic view given the two have identical grammar. Of course, that’s not to say that there are no differences within the language. The language exists in a continuum where you can use Persian words (Urdu) or Sanskrit words (Hindi) to express yourself. So for the sake of this article, I will refer to this common language as Hindustani and affix Persianised or Sanskritised as adjectives wherever necessary. So, for example, Ghalib's poems are written in Persianised Hindustani and Dinkar's in Sanskritised Hindustani. Capiche?

The Beginning (1930s-1960s)

Unlike Ghalib or Dinkar’s poetry, though, Bollywood has always been a commercial endeavour, a means to make money. For this, it has always had to cater to the lowest common denominator which means that the language it has had to use has always been the popular, day-to-day dialect that is spoken in cities across North India. Back when talkies first came into being, everyday Hindustani, not very different from what we speak today (minus the English vocabulary), ruled the roost as an everyday language and lingua franca. However, a highly Persianised idiom was also popular, given its wide spread as the official register of education and administration (Urdu along with English were the two official languages of British India). Modern Sanskritised Hindustani (Shudh Hindi) was still in its infancy then—the first work of literature in that register had come out as late as 1888—the novel Chandrakanta, which was, a century later, made into the extremely popular TV show. So, for example, when Ram Prasad Bismil wanted to write a popular song of resistance, he penned down the fairly Persianised Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna. While that song is still extremely popular today, most people wouldn’t even know what the word ‘sarfarosh’ in its title means (farosh means vendor. The word, therefore, means someone who is ready to give away his head i.e. a daredevil). Same goes for Netaji’s INA, two-thirds of whose motto, “Ittehad , Itmad aur Qurbani” (unity, faith and sacrifice) would seem incomprehensible to Indians today given its heavy Persian tilt. And when Gandhi wanted to promote a new system of education he gave it the name Nai Taaleem and did not, as the government does today, use the word shikshaa.

Given this state of affairs at the time, it’s not surprising that Bollywood started off with a Persianised idiom. The name of the first talkie—Alam Ara (Adorning the World)—itself attests to that. And while it would need to be “translated” for most Indians today, the film’s success meant that at the time everybody did get the meaning just fine.

The real force of Persianisation, though, wasn’t in the titles or the dialogues, which were still, more or less, in everyday Hindustani, it was in the lyrics. Nobody typifies this more than Sahir Ludhianvi who, like many lyricists at that time, was also an Urdu poet. Here’s a sample of some of the words from his most famous film, Pyaasa (taken from the song, Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Vo Kahaan Hain :
Muhaafiz, ismat, zard, dareechon, fiqare, tanuumand, ham-jins, ummat, rehbaron, manzar
Bet you didn’t get too many. While this song was written only 50-odd years back, given its vocabulary, it’ll be incomprehensible to most today. India, in 1957, though, was a very different country. Far from being incomprehensible, the songs of Pyaasa were, to use a Bollywood term, a super hit and Sahir was the star credited for their success. In fact, so miffed was SD Burman (the composer for Pyaasa) for the attention and acclaim that Sahir got, that he refused to work with him from then on. Pyaasa made Sahir such a celebrity that he actually got paid more than the singers who sang his lyrics, something that would be unheard of today.

In the Middle (1970s-1980s)

30 years and counting as a free country, India had a whole new generation without any formal Urdu education. To quote from a Sahir poem written in 1968:
Jin shehron may goonji thi Ghalib ki nava barson
Un shehron may ab Urdu benaam-o-nishan thehri

(Cities, where for years Ghalib’s voice echoed/In those very cities, Urdu is now without a trace)

Without formal education, the capacity of the paying public to follow highly Persianised vocabulary declined. “Yeh public hai, sab janti hai”(the public knows everything) sang Rajesh Khanna for Roti. Bollwywood’s faith in the public was just as strong. Given its audience’s new linguistic capabilities, it toned down some of its own high falutin’ Persian vocabulary. Sahir himself had to adapt. His most famous song from the period, Kabhie Kabhie is a highly simplified version of one of his poems (recited by Amitabh’s character here).

This period saw a very interesting linguistic trend. For half a century now, Bollywood had used a register oscillating between everyday Hindustani and Persianised Hindustani to express itself. But 30 years after independence, the development of Sanskritised Hindustani had made Shudh Hindi a player as well. And, moreover, given its use by academia, literature and the government, the register carried a weightiness of its own. This is why, as Mukul Kesavan notes in his fantastic essay, Urdu, Awadh and Tawaif: the Islamicate Roots of Hindi Cinema, when directors such as Benegal and Nihalani wanted to title their New Wave films, they chose Sanskritised names such as Ankur, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Akrosh and Ardhsatya. They wanted a clear demarcation between the mainstream, “song-and-dance” Bollywood and themselves. Choosing weighty Sanskritised titles, never used before in the industry, helped them achieve that branding.

Now (1990s- )

A spurt of old-style Persianised lyrics came in the 90s. Unfortunately, however, these were the last throes of a dying animal. This period is typified by the cringe-inducing vacuousness of Sameer with his endless cycle of sanams and saajans, dils and mohabbat. More of a caricature than anything else.

It took some time but as Bollywood entered the 2000s, it had made yet another linguistic shift. This time it introduced a language with generous helpings of English vocabulary, in keeping with the current register prevalent in urban India and even in large parts of rural India. While on a trip to Chhapra in Bihar, a waiter in a local dhaba was unable to understand me when I asked him whether he had any “ghosht” or “maans” dishes. Comprehension dawned on him though when I used the word “meat”. That’s how embedded English vocabulary is in India today so it’s not surprising that Bollywood has followed suit.

Just take a look at some of our recent film titles: Mere Dad Ki Maruti, I Me aur Main, Murder, Anybody can Dance, No one Killed Jessica, Bodyguard, Rockstar, Agent Vinod, Vicky Donor, I Hate Love get the point. English vocabulary is today a significant part of Bollywood’s reality.

I can talk English. I can walk English. I can laugh English. Because English is a very phunny language,” rattled off Amitabh Bacchan’s character in the 1982 movie Namal Halal, poking fun at the Queen’s language. In 2007 though, one of Bheja Fry’s main comedic elements was the fact that the character of Bharat Bhushan (Vinay Pathak) spoke purely in Hindi. In less than three decades Bollywood went from making fun of English to being made fun of because one did not know the language.

The last bastion that English vocabulary is still to breach in Bollywood remains song lyrics. This is a hurdle that, interestingly, Sanskritised Hindustani has still not been able to clear. Songs would still use a dil rather than hriday, kismat rather than bhagya and khoon rather than rakt. In fact, the Sanskritised Hindustani equivalents, if used, would sound downright odd in some cases. English, though, has had better luck.  In Karan Johar’s saccharine sweet family saga, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Hrithik Roshan woos Kareena by crooning, “You are my Sonia” as a crowd of blondes gyrate behind him. Sheila’s introduction to her fans is “My name is Sheila” and, while in an earlier age, love would drive people paagal or deewaana, Aishwariya, instead, is driven “crazy” in Dhoom 2 by her lover’s charms.  Even Gulzar had to bend, getting his characters to ask “personal” questions (Kajrare from Bunty and Bubbly). That said, as the recent song Khushamdeed (Go Goa Gone) shows, Persianised vocabulary does pop up now and then as far as lyrics go even as more Anglicised vocabulary takes over the dialogues.

Given the trend, though, it’s only a matter of time before the industry switches completely to Hinglish as the standard medium of expression. If you’re a purist, this might make you sad. Tough cookies but Bollywood really doesn’t care. It has accurately reflected the way Indians speak for 80 years now and that’s something that is not going to change.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Locking Away History

(First published on NewsYaps)

King George V’s Coronation Memorial

In 1832, after a decade of fighting, Greece managed to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire. Greece had been under Ottoman rule for almost four centuries now, a period that had seen numerous revolts. Naturally, when independence was finally achieved, passions ran high. The new Greek state, therefore, embarked on a campaign to destroy as many Ottoman buildings as it could. Of this destruction spree, the most famous is the demolition drive at the Acropolis including that of a small mosque inside the Parthenon. Independence wasn’t enough. Greece wanted to erase all vestiges of its past as a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Like Greece, India has also had to grapple with the thorny issue of how to deal with an unpleasant period of colonialism. India’s reaction to British rule, though, was and is complex. To understand just how complex, though, you'll need to take a trip to North Delhi’s Coronation Park.

The Coronation Park, as the name suggests, was a site used to celebrate the British Monarchy at a time when they ruled over India. In 1877, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India at this site. In 1903, her son’s coronation was commemorated here. And finally in 1911, the park saw its final and grandest ceremony which celebrated the coronation of King George V.  The final ceremony is marked by a bare sandstone obelisk at the centre of the park. Built on a square plinth, which is reached from all four sides by flights of stairs, the obelisk carries plaques in English and Urdu noting that the new emperor had received “homage and allegiance” from India’s people and princes. Indeed, Ahmed Ali’s classic Old Delhi novel, Twilight in Delhi bitterly recounts how some of the city’s residents had bowed and scrapped to the Emperor on that day—apparently even the walls of the Jama Masjid were emblazoned with gold letters to mark the occasion.

What’s most interesting though are the 5 marble statues which surround the obelisk. You’ll immediately recognise them as British and that’s exactly what they are. The largest is a 50-foot tall statue of King George V which sits there triumphantly facing its own coronation memorial.  The other statues are of various viceroys and architects.

These statues once adorned intersections all over Delhi and were transported here sometime after independence. Greece might have decided to run away from its history by obliterating it but our approach was a bit more nuanced. We hid the most obvious markers of our colonial past, the statues of our rulers, in an obscure park no one would even think of going to. Clever, eh. Yet
, our new rulers kept on residing in the very buildings that were also built by the British. Ironically, the statue of King George V was designed by architect Edward Lutyens, the same man who built Rashtrapati Bhavan and indeed the entire zone called Lutyens’ Delhi in which the crème de la crème of our political class now have their bungalows in.

An unknown statue with an Ashok Chakra panel next to it. The panels are a later addition and were a part of the plan to reopen the park on Delhi’s centenary. Bureaucratic delays, though, meant that 2 years after the centenary, the park has yet to be opened to the public.

R.K. Narayan had once noted this irony in a lovely short story called Lawely Road. At independence, the town of Malgudi, at great cost and pain, manages to remove a statue of one Sir Frederick Lawley, whom they believe had been “a combination of Attila, the Scourge of Europe, and Nadir Shah, with the craftiness of a Machiavelli.” In a typically humorous Narayan twist though, it’s only after the statue has been removed (the recalcitrant statue had to be blown up using dynamite) that the town municipality learns that Lawley had, in fact, been a virtuous governor who had advocated for India’s independence and died in the attempt to save villagers from drowning in a flood.

India has had a complex relationship with its colonial past. On the one hand there is revulsion, even hate, not surprising given the hugely destructive consequences of British rule. This statue uprooting is not confined to Delhi. Bombay’s best kept secret is a small, ramshackle 6X5 feet corrugated tin shed besides Elphinstone College. If you peek through a hole in the shed’s wall you’ll see the ghostly silhouettes of the statues of King George V and King Edward VIII in full military splendour. As in Delhi, these statues once dotted the city. Bombay, though, was so ashamed of these relics of its past that it actually locked them away, lest their presence corrupt the nation. It’s no wonder that a few decades later, the city changed its very name.

Our revulsion, though, is tempered by the fact that we are also products of colonialism. Our government takes large chunks of its functioning from the colonial state which it succeeded. Our police and the IAS, the two pillars of our administration, still function exactly as our colonial masters meant them to.  Our elites (and that means you, dear reader) read, write and, increasingly, speak in English. And, in what is almost poetic in its symbolism, our Parliament functions out of a structure built by the Raj. The complexity of our relationship with our colonial past is bought out by the fact that Calcutta’s most famous public space, the Victoria Memorial still carries the actual statue of its plump namesake, sitting pretty on a throne, patiently accepting pigeon droppings as morning walkers pace frantically around her. Unlike Delhi and Bombay, Calcutta, it seems, is not scared by dead monarchs. And while Bombay hides away its King George V statue, the Gateway of India—built to commemorate the same monarch’s 1911 visit to India—still functions as an emblem of Bombay...sorry, Mumbai. Talk about confused notions of shame and pride.

The fact is, whether we like it or not, we are products of our past. We might not like the past but that does not change the fact that we exist because if it. Attempts to deny history are fraught with danger and are, ultimately, useless. To deny our past, good or bad, is to deny who we are. And that can never be a good thing.