Beyond English

Bollywood has always treated English as a funny language

Characters contort English for laughs in films such as ‘Namak Halaal’, ‘Raja Babu’ and the May 19 releases ‘Hindi Medium’ and ‘Half Girlfriend’.

Two releases on May 19 deal with Indians and their relationship with English. In Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium, Raj (Irrfan) and Mita (Saba Qamar) want to enroll their daughter in an English medium school. Mita points out in the trailer that a knowledge of English raises social status. Raj readily agrees with her in pidgin English, evoking instant laughter.

It’s a far cry from The Lunchbox (2013), in which Irrfan plays a lonely widower who speaks English in an Indian accent without sounding clownish.

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Hindi Medium (2017).

In Mohit Suri’s Half Girlfriend, an adaptation of the Chetan Bhagat bestseller of the same name, Arjun Kapoor’s character struggles with the language that he associates with India’s colonial masters. “Myself Madhav Jha” is how he introduces himself, and his perceived lack of social skills play a role in his relationship with the posh Riya Somani (Shraddha Kapoor).

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Half Girlfriend (2017).

The bridge language across linguistic diversity in India becomes an object of derision and misplaced patriotism in Bollywood. In Guide (1965), Raju’s introductory scene shows him addressing Indian tourists in Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, and switching to an imitation of the Queen’s English for goggle-eyed foreigners dressed in trench coats and hats. To moviegoers, Raju sounds as though he is rattling off Greek.

The comedy inherent in Indians trying to master English forms the core of the hilarious monologue by Amitabh Bachchan’s rustic in Namak Halaal (1982): “I can talk English, I can walk English, I can laugh English, because English is a very phunny language.”

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Namak Halaal (1982).

The language is not taken seriously even when Madhu (Karisma Kapoor) cancels her wedding to Raja (Govinda) in Raja Babu (1994) after she discovers that he is a fifth-standard dropout. The college-educated Madhu insults Raja, but the man is undeterred in his pursuit of his lady love.

Does Raja pick up the language overnight by speed-reading a copy of the Rapidex English Speaking Course? Not at all. He hires a troupe of dancers to pose as teachers. They teach him A for Apple, B for Ball and C for Cat. Raja changes the abecedary to make C stand for Card – the wedding card that Madhu tore into shreds. Naturally, a song follows based on the vowels of the Hindi alphabet, “A aa ee oo ou oh” – the only language Madhu needs to understand to accept him.

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Raja Babu (1994).

Indian films in English remain few and far between. Director Aparna Sen’s characters spoke the language with ease and proficiency in such films such as 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), 15 Park Avenue (2005) and Sonata (2017).

Independent movies in English in the 1990s, including English, August (1994), Hyderabad Blues (1998) and Bombay Boys (1998), were made by filmmakers who were staying true to the worlds inhabited by their characters. Dev Benegal, the director of English, August, said in an interview , “It was a film about my generation, which was not only speaking in English but also thinking and dreaming in English.”

More common are instances of Indian English and Hinglish, such as in Being Cyrus (2006), Delhi Belly (2011), and Finding Fanny (2014). However, these films are viewed as niche productions meant for a small group of affluent Indians who are more comfortable in English than in their native tongues.

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Delhi Belly (2011).

The language is still up for laughs in the Hindi speaking universe. In Subhash Kapoor’s satire Phas Gaye Re Obama (2010), an unnamed English teacher (Ishtiyak Khan) launches into a pidgin-flavoured tirade against inattentive students who cannot make sense of his anger.

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Phans Gaye Re Obama (2010).

Shashi (Sridevi) fares slightly better in English Vinglish (2012) after she leaves the country. The inhibited housewife travels to New York City and enrolls in a 30-day English speaking course after being humiliated while placing an order at a cafe. Her teacher and classmates help her overcome her fears. Shashi moves across the city with verve and confidence in her broken English. No one mocks her for trying.

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English Vinglish (2012).
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