When Bollywood quits minding its language

Profanities, slang, colloquial speech on the streets and incorrect Hindi, English or Bengali no longer raise eyebrows

'Zabaan Sambhal Ke' was a rage in the mid 1990s
'Zabaan Sambhal Ke' was a rage in the mid 1990s

Khalid Mohamed

Ostensibly, Bollywood makes films in Hindustani, a blend of Hindi and Urdu. Or to phrase it more precisely, it at least used to right from its inception right down to the cusp of the 1990s after which the dialogue writing went for a full toss. Streetwise colloquialisms, a gobbledygook form of Hinglish, scant regard for grammatical construction, and with the advent of OTT-series, no-holds-barred profanities, are here to stay.

Besides the corruption of the dialogue, lyrics are frequently mind-boggling. Mercy be then for the stalwarts, Gulzar and Javed Akhtar who still strive to maintain a sanctity in the discipline of song and dialogue writing. Litterateur and dialogue writer Javed Sidiqui, too, does not succumb to compromises either. Not surprisingly, their workload has diminished drastically.

Evidently, top music barons, producers and financiers would rather cater to the lowest-denominator. On a pinch, the trick is to just dip into the files for a quickie, synthesiser-overloaded remix of vintage chartbusters. The debatable excuse is their belief – mistaken or otherwise – is that this is what today’s youth wants. Hence, if Mumbai-produced cinema’s dialogue and lyrics are sprinkled with subtitles, the outcome ranges from the laughable to the ridiculous.

What’s the big deal in a language you might ask? Plenty. Bollywood now appears to advance the notion that the ingredient of English signifies ‘classy values’ while Hindi and state-specific dialects are considered downmarket. The ‘purists’, who are dismayed by this are ignored, permitted to wag their tongues in vain.

Incidentally, India is stated to have as many as 22 official languages. The use of a mishmash of dialogue incorporating slang, cuss words, garbled English– have inexorably permeated, as well, into the popular, highbudget entertainers of Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali and Malayalam cinema.

The neo-argot of filmspeak has even become acceptable. Yet quite piquantly, just back in 2017 in the course of a week, two simultaneous releases, Hindi Medium and Half Girlfriend had addressed the issue of Hindi versus English.

Quite clearly, Hindi Medium directed by Saket Chaudhary, toplining Irrfan Khan and Pakistani actress Saba Qamar, did drive some valid points home. As for Half Girlfriend, adapted from a Chetan Bhagat novel and directed by Mohit Suri, it displayed a quarter-baked approach to the story of a boy (Arjun Kapoor) from Bihar, whose origin and spoken language are handicaps in the supposedly cool ambience of a New Delhi campus– clumsily named St Steven’s to allude to the hallowed St. Stephen’s College. Oh well.

The British TV series 'Mind Your Language'
The British TV series 'Mind Your Language'

Expectedly, the medium-budget Hindi Medium was garlanded with rave reviews to the extent of overpraising the film. Alongside, Half Girlfriend opened to brickbats from the critics. But there’s no predicting the taste of the ticket-buying public at large. Believe it or not, the Arjun Kapoor-Shraddha Kapoor romance fetched more than satisfactory results at the all-important box office.

Few if any of the movie writers, nowadays, are wellversed in Hindustani, which once segued Hindi and Urdu impactfully. Once, there was a litany of legendary writers, whose pens were remarkable in dialogue of the literary kind, the prime examples being Wajahat Mirza, Kamal Amrohi, Kaifi Azmi, Abrar Alvi and Rahi Masoom Raza. It goes without saying that it would be futile to long for their kind of finesse and regard for grammar in today’s anything-goes times.

Needless to lament, times have changed dramatically. In real-life, too, Hindi or Urdu isn’t spoken with their traditional purity. Perhaps Amitabh Bachchan is among the only actors, who has used Hindi as the language ought to be used on the Kaun Banega Crorepati television game show.

Among the heroines, at least Vidya Balan has sought to get her accents dot-on in her dialogue delivery. Sushmita Sen, too, has elocuted the dialogue assigned to her with fluency. Ajay Devgn and Aamir Khan, too, get their accents and intonations right.

To rewind, it was the auteur director Hrishikesh Mukherjee with his origins in Bengal, who had tackled the misuse of Hindi language with outstanding, tonguein-cheek results, particularly in Anand and Chupke Chupke with the collaboration of his writers Gulzar (Anand, Chupke Chupke) and Rahi Masoom Raza (Gol Maal).

Earlier, Mukherjee’s mentor Bimal Roy had extracted unforgettable dialogue from Paul Mahendra (Do Bigha Zameen, Bandini, Sujata) and Rajinder Singh Bedi (Madhumati).

Perhaps, the downcurve of the art of writing dialogue began with the excessive use of double entendres in the David Dhawan comedies. Moreover, when Bollywood films found a ballooning audience of Indians settled overseas, the mix of Hindi and English was warranted and fast. In addition, the youth audience, at home and over-seas, connected with chara-cters who frequently spoke in a smattering of English, kic-king off with Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

Karan Johar’s films (starting off with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai) sought to adapt to the westernised environment depicted. English became cool. And this was especially underscored in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, in which the fun-loving girl played by Lisa Haydon, made linguistic faux pas galore.

Both Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar have banked on polyglot dialogue. The scripts of Rajkumar Hirani, Farhan Akhtar and Zoya Akhtar have also attempted to be ‘hip’ and have at least carried it off smoothly. Innumerable writers though, bank on bombast for almost every second line to titillate the audience with punchlines far more suitable to melodramatic stage plays.

Incidentally, the British TV series Mind Your Language (1977-1986) had inspired the Mumbai-produced version Zabaan Sambhal Ke (1993-1997). The interplay of differing languages and dialects contributed towards making Zabaan... series a household rage.

In a similar vein, the feature film English Vinglish (2012) zoomed in on a housemaker, marvellously portrayed by Sridevi, who joins a language course in New York, to keep pace with her angrezi-speaking husband and daughter.

Quite possibly, the audience is more than aware of the steep decline in film language. But end up believing that this is how life and language are in reality today.

Yet films are such an enormous influencer, that be it the youth, the middle-aged or the seniors, no one ever thinks of crying out loud, “Mind your language."

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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