Friday, November 18, 2016

Speaking in tongues

Watching Sairat in Mumbai, hearing the audience around me react to what was being said on screen milliseconds before I reached the end of the subtitle, was a window into the viewing experiences of those who love Hindi films but don’t understand the language. A welcome by-product of the film’s successful run was seeing Hindi-speaking audiences turn out in numbers for a Marathi film. Films in Indian languages other than Hindi are usually dubbed, not subtitled. And the ones that are subtitled definitely don’t gross Rs100 crore.

While it’s possible to overestimate the pan-Indian appeal of Sairat (the subtitling was in English, which automatically excludes a large section of the population), its success might suggest an increased willingness on the part of Bollywood-fed audiences to watch films in other languages—or, failing that, small doses of other languages making their way into Hindi films.

Bollywood has been nibbling around the edges of this for a while. Urdu, ubiquitous in Hindi film songs, finds contextual use in dialogue, mostly when the film is about nobility (Dedh Ishqiya, Bajirao Mastani) or Pakistan (Phantom, Happy Bhag Jayegi). But the second language of Bollywood is now almost certainly Punjabi. There’s hardly a film that releases that doesn’t have a musical number in Punjabi, but even more remarkable is the assumption producers and writers seem to have made regarding the lay viewer’s facility with the language. This year, Udta Punjab, Sarbjit and Jugni—each with a major portion of its dialogue in Punjabi—released without subtitles, to say nothing of half a dozen other films with Punjabi-speaking characters.

Even a smattering of a local language or dialect makes a huge difference; the Malayalam phrases we hear in Waiting, or the ones in Kashika in Masaan, tell us about the world the characters inhabit in the same way that carefully calibrated production design or sound might. Yet, more often than not, opportunities to expand the linguistic palette go abegging. 2 States and Madras Cafe had minimal Tamil. I don’t recall the Kom dialect being spoken in Mary Kom. Te3n is a thriller set in Kolkata, yet it barely has more than a couple of lines in Bengali.

Considerable progress has been made in the last 20 years as far as incorporating dialects which have something in common with Hindi into films is concerned. Many of the landmark Hindi films during this period—Bandit Queen, Satya, Lagaan, Omkara, Gangs Of Wasseypur—have had specific (if varied) linguistic approaches, incorporating local dialects, rhythms and colloquialisms. Hopefully, in years to come, Hindi cinema will take the next logical step and bring in other languages.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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