(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, manzarBet 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 Storys...you 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.