Sunday, July 01, 2012

Bollywood and the death of Urdu

zabaan-e-hind hai urdu to maathe pe shikan kyun hai
vatan mein be-vatan kyun hai

The tragedy is evident right from when the opening credits roll. If you cast your memory back to any Hindi language film released up until the late 90s or early 00s, you might recollect that the film’s title was generally shown in three languages – English, Hindi and Urdu. It is therefore lamentable, that of the triumvirate, Urdu seems to have lost favor with the folks in Bollywood. For one cannot seem to remember the last film that advertised or depicted it’s title in Urdu. If the old adage about our films being a mirror to our society is true, then that mirror poses many uncomfortable and searching questions.

Urdu has thus far had a deep and meaningful relationship with Hindi cinema. Take the Bollywood court proceedings. Urdu finds pride of place within the legal representation in Hindi films. Terms like ‘chasmdeed gawah’, ‘mujrim’, ‘quaidi’, ‘tazeerat-e-hind ke tahat’, ‘ba-izzat bari’ etc are all examples of Urdu usage synonymous with the courtroom. It has also been the language of choice for love, longing and amorous expression, leaving many a memorable ghazal in its wake, primarily through the once common feature of our films, the courtesan or ‘tawaif’. Urdu was also associated with sophisticated poetry – a fortunate connection made possible in our cinema through the efforts of the likes of Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and many others. Their efforts have immeasurably enriched the vocabulary of the Hindi film soundtrack. In light of these facts then, it is regrettable to note the almost complete disappearance of the language from our silver screens, right from the opening credits to the fall of the final curtain. It is perhaps reflective of the new reality of Hindi cinema, which is now rooted more in authenticity than ever before. Filmmakers nowadays oftentimes use the language and expressions of the region or milieu they place their films in. So you have the Mumbaiya ‘tapori’ tongue, the ever-popular jocular Punjabi language, the UP/ Bihari ‘bhaiyya’ usage and the increasingly popular urban Hinglish concoction. Even Muslim characters do not seem to speak fluent Urdu anymore (not that they alone should be the torchbearers). Urdu, in India today, does not really have a region of its own – with the possible exception of parts of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, both filmi backwaters.

So the antipathy towards Urdu in cinema may be understood in context of the gradual decline of the language itself. We have done ourselves as a nation a great disservice by failing our languages. There are instances where one hears of Urdu being branded a foreign language, a notion which may explain the gradual apathy. This is also a notion, which is patently false. Urdu is a completely indigenous language – a happy mix of Farsi, Turkish and Sanksrit – originating sometime during the Mughul rule and then coming to be known more commonly as ‘Hindustani’ in the northern regions of the country, and this was extensively patronized by both the later Mughal rulers as well as the British colonialists, who followed them. Post the 1947 bloodshed the idea that Urdu was the language of Muslims or Islam gained currency. This bizarre notion wasn’t completely bought even by Bollywood as recently as 1970, wherein Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s terminal but cheerful Punjabi Hindu hero Anand preferred to read and sing his poetry in Urdu rather than in Hindi (‘Kahin door jab din dhal jaye’), signifying ownership of Urdu as our very own, unfettered by religious affiliation. But continued skirmishes with Pakistan exacerbated the situation and further pushed Urdu from being ‘the language of Muslims’, to being the ‘language of Pakistan’. This in India, coincided with a calibrated move towards Hindi as the link language to unite the country and the later move towards English as the middle class elixir to globalisation and upliftment. Hindustani (the perfect amalgam between Hindi and Urdu) had failed to be established as a recognized formal language. Whilst efforts to promote Urdu are still alive with the dedicated news channels and pedagogy in schools, these are but tokenisms, which hardly arrest the decline in the language’s fortunes. Urdu now remains ghettoised, much like the majority of the nations’ poor Muslims, living in fear and unable to truly soar. With English (and occassionally Hindi) being the major business and governmental language in play now, there remains no major incentive to learn the Urdu script as well. This probably explains why Bollywood has dropped the Urdu title.

Our films are key repository and reflection of language, societal norm, custom and tradition. On current evidence, the fate of this wonderfully sophisticated language looks bleak, at least on celluloid. The dream merchants have all but abandoned it, a reflection of the wider malaise of the slow death of the language itself. For reference one will need to return to the cinema of the 40s, 50s and the 60s. It is true that languages tend to change in tune with aspirational motivations of the larger population and the prevailing politics of the day. Thus many languages remain dynamic, some atrophy and others metamorphose into something new. One hopes for regeneration in the case of Urdu – but it is clearly wishful thinking. It’s days seem numbered. 


This article first appeared in the July 2012 issue of KINDLE.