x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

India's new era in film

Is there any Hindi left in Hindi cinema?

The actress Vidya Balan in a scene from the movie The Dirty Picture.
The actress Vidya Balan in a scene from the movie The Dirty Picture.

At a cinema close to you this weekend is a film called The Dirty Picture.

The film, a biopic based on the south Indian movie siren Silk Smitha, may sound like a Hollywood spoof. Instead, it's pure Bollywood: the all-singing, all-dancing product of Mumbai that has taken to English in a big way.

It was not always so. In a now classic scene in the 1979 Hindi film Surakksha (Security), an extra playing a policeman leans over a body that has just been exhumed. He holds up a scrap of plastic and announces: "Sir, this man has had plastic surgery performed on him."

That was another world. The term Bollywood had not become common currency nor had the form gone viral. The moguls talked often and sanctimoniously of the "masses", the Great Unwashed who were their audience. Popular filmmakers of the day defended their unrealistic plots, melodramatic acting and regressive values on the basis of their audience's need for a dose of escapism. Right up to the 1990s, the city was the locus of evil in Manichean opposition to the "idyllic Indian village".

English? It was the language of the villain and the vamp, a reminder of the injustices of colonialism. The hero and those ranged on the side of the light used Hindustani, a mix of Urdu, a language that had its origins in Emperor Akbar's army camp; and Hindi, one of the many daughters of Sanskrit. This language had no roots in Bombay, which spoke Marathi or Gujarati, two of the 25 languages that call India home. As Rachel Dwyer, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and an indefatigable chronicler of Bollywood, once said: "No one has offered a cogent explanation for why the Hindi film industry settled in Bombay."

Writing about his actor brother Balraj Sahni in Balraj, My Brother (National Biography Series) the legendary Hindi novelist Bhisham Sahni notes that, conversely, there is no Hindi film industry in any of the states that actually speak the language.

What brought men from all four corners of the quadrangle of India was the availability of capital with an appetite for risk and a penchant for glamour. The film industry was once run by an unwieldy bunch of people who brought their languages with them, their sensibilities, their music. What unified them was their assumption about the audience. Manmohan Desai, one of the most successful directors of the 1970s, swore that he would always try to entertain his audiences when he heard that they literally paid with their blood: in the era before Hepatitis B and Aids, blood banks paid for donations, a small sum that just about covered the price of a ticket in the stalls.

Today, Ram Gopal Varma, an enfant terrible grown a little long in the tooth, tells Time magazine that he does not care about the villages. A nepotistically chosen few run the country's largest entertainment industry. They speak English because their parents - the Bollywood stars and the directors of old - wanted them to go to the aspirational schools. They think English because they didn't even watch much Bollywood when they were growing up.

The result? In a cinema obsessed with love, almost every film has the same formula: ostensibly Hindi-speaking characters declaring their deepest feelings in English.

"I love you, Rahul," heroine after heroine says. Imagine Meg Ryan saying, "Je t'aime, Sam." Anglophones would be sleepless all over the globe.

The use of English creates the effect of globalism, as it is now itself often called "globish", said Dwyer.

"It's also the language the elite we see in cinema would use in many contexts," she said. "Now the audience can be assumed to understand a fair bit of English, they no longer have to yell, 'Shut up!', 'Get out!' to show they know English."

Earlier this year, the film Delhi Belly was discussed mostly for its double meanings, but Dwyer pointed out: "It was the mixture of English and Hindi that was so striking, as it felt so natural, even in a lyric".

"The language of a film is only a reflection of its culture," says Ruchi Narain, the Mumbai-based screenwriter and director, who is at work on her second and third feature films. "If I'm making a film, it will be conceived in a mixture of Hindi and English. I would imagine that the same would hold for someone like Farhan Akhtar. But if I were making a film set in the Hindi-speaking interior, that would be reflected in the film too."

Anjum Rajabally is one of the industry's most respected scriptwriters.

"The young filmmakers of today - and their audiences - came of age in the 1980s. This was the decade in which Hindi films were horrible. The industry seemed to have run out of ideas; the look was awful; the filmmaking techniques seemed dated. Naturally, these young people turned to Hollywood and internalised the rhythm and grammar of those films," he said. "The other thing that happened when they turned away from Hindi cinema was a break between the city kid and the Hindustani language as spoken in cinema. They are much more comfortable in English and this shows in the films. But the films continue to work because they address an audience that also speaks in the same way."

In her book King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema (Warner Books), Bollywood's most embedded journalist Anupama Chopra notes that Karan Johar, now one of the most successful Bollywood entrepreneurs, would not talk to Aditya Chopra, another Mumbai mogul and now a close friend of Johar's, "because they spoke in Hindi about Hindi movies, which was just 'too tacky'."

Language is always a social marker. Hindi has its dialects and regional accents too, but these are also in danger of being wiped out by a new Bollywood accent.

Nandini Ramnath, TimeOut Mumbai's film editor, said: "Popular Hindi cinema has never been big on authenticity in any case, so even the use of language has changed, depending on the shifting nature of the audiences. I think there is too much emphasis on 'dialogue' in the movies in any case. Not enough attention has been paid to the language of cinema itself - the way stories get written, shot and edited. Many of the popular classics in Hindi cinema have beautiful-sounding dialogue but also badly composed shots, hammy acting, tacky production design. Many of our movies now look much better than before, but the emphasis on ensuring lovely lines has been lost. You can't have both, it seems. But there are filmmakers like Vishal Bharadwaj and Anurag Kashyap as well as writers like Jaideep Sahni and Habib Faisal, whose dialogue is always a pleasure to listen to."

The new audience Ramnath speaks about is the non-resident Indian and the new Bollywood viewer in Leicester Square and Manhattan. They pay top-dollar and brown-pound to be au courant with the newest Bollywood hits, which are often released the same weekend as in India. This audience is often bilingual. David Crystal, the author of several books on the global dominance of English, describes the new Hinglish as "code-switching", in which speakers segue without conscious thought from one language to another.

Filmmakers don't have it as easy.

"It's a dichotomy that Bollywood has to resolve," says Rajabally. "Thinking in English and filming in Hindi."


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