IT MAY SEEM UNIMAGINABLE to a generation brought up on Abhishek Bachchan's Bluffmaster! rap and Kareena Kapoor's size-zero diet, but 20 years ago, Hindi films were not cool. In large numbers of upper-middle-class, English-speaking Indian families, children were banned from watching "that trash". Even if they grew up watching Hindi films on television (and later, video) in the company of grandmothers and household help, they would transition, by their teenage years, into thinking of them as a sort of guilty pleasure.
But a decade and a half ago, something changed. The reemergence of the teenybopper romance, now enclosed in the cloying folds of the family, began to wean the middle-class audience away from their TV-VCR viewing and back to the cinemas—which were themselves being revamped into multiplexes. In a kind of reaction to the saccharine-sweet, sanitised, mostly foreign locales of these films, there emerged the gritty urban gangster film. For 42-year-old Navdeep Singh, who had been working as an advertising professional in the US, the moment of transformation was coming back home on holiday in 1998 and watching Satya. He went on to direct Manorama Six Feet Under (2007). For 27-year-old scriptwriter Ishita Moitra (whose credits include 2009's Kambakkht Ishq, and this year's Always Kabhi Kabhi), then barely in her teens, it was Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). "Earlier, you spoke to your friends about Batman, but not about the Hindi films you watched. That changed after DDLJ," says Moitra.
Over the past decade, people like Singh and Moitra—people whose primary language is English—have come to form a larger proportion of the Hindi film industry than ever before. In the changing demographic of Hindi cinema, not just of actors and art directors, but even directors and scriptwriters are people much more comfortable in English than in Hindi. What does it mean, one wonders, for most films to be made in a language that no longer comes easily to their creators? What does it mean for Hindi cinema if most films under that rubric are now in fact conceived, thrashed out and largely executed not in Hindi but in English?
Shyam Benegal, director of acclaimed films like Kalyug, Mandi and Welcome to Sajjanpur, dismisses the question as falsely conjuring up a linguistically pure golden age. The Hindi film industry, he argues, has its origins in a hybrid, cosmopolitan mix of people and languages. "If you go back to the 1930s and think about a studio like Bombay Talkies, you'll find that the producer was Himanshu Rai, a Bengali; the main director was Franz Osten, a German; and the star actress was Devika Rani, whose Hindi wasn't something to write home about!" Benegal says. "But in any case, directors, technicians—how does it matter if they can't speak Hindi for peanuts? Actors, well, they can get language coaches. The only thing that makes a difference is the writer."
So let's talk about the writers, then. From the 1930s right up to the 1970s, Bombay cinema was famously a vehicle for accomplished writers in Urdu and Hindi. "Whether it was Pandit Mukhram Sharma, who wrote so many socially conscious films for BR Chopra, or men like Kamal Amrohi, KA Abbas or Wajahat Mirza, the writers of the '50s and '60s had a connection to the language," says 51-year-old Anjum Rajabali, himself a well-known scriptwriter (Drohkaal, Ghulam, Rajneeti) and someone who has helped institute scriptwriting courses at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the Whistling Woods International film academy in Mumbai. Rajabali points out that even as late as the 1970s, most of Hindi cinema's scripts were written in Urdu. Javed Akhtar—one-half of what is probably Hindi cinema's most successful scriptwriting team, Salim-Javed—wrote in Urdu, which was then transliterated into Devanagari for the benefit of those who couldn't read the Urdu script. But Rajabali is also quick to point out that the bound screenplay didn't really figure that much in the Hindi film industry until very recently. "When Mahesh Bhatt first met me in the 1980s, he said to me, ‘I believe you write?' You see, very few scripts were actually written at that time (with the exception of Salim-Javed). There would be a 10- or 20-page story, on the basis of which a director, producer, technicians and actors all came together, and the screenplay actually emerged in the process of making the film. Which meant that scenes were written, if at all, on scraps of paper, and there was no complete screenplay written out."
Rajabali seems to suggest that the emergence of a culture of screenplay writing in Hindi cinema was itself coterminous with the linguistic transition to English. Part of the reason for this, as Rensil D'Silva (screenplay writer, Rang de Basanti and director, Kurbaan) matter-of-factly points out, is technological: it's about people typing screenplays on computers with English keyboards and screenwriting software that would enable writers to time their scenes only being available in English. In any case, the major directors who started working in the 1990s, from a Sooraj Barjatya to an Aditya Chopra, wrote their screenplays in English—though they may have written their dialogues in Hindi. Today, Rajabali estimates, more than 50 percent of screenplays written for Hindi films are originally written in English, including the first draft of the dialogue. It is only at a later stage that a Hindi dialogue writer is brought in, and the English translated to Hindi.
Now, one can argue that filmmaking is—and always has been—a collaborative exercise, and the screenplay (that is, the film script), in particular, is often the product of several stages of writing and rewriting by different people. By that logic, a division of labour between the screenplay writer and the dialogue writer is just a function of different skill sets.
But what is interesting is that the dialogue writer as a named separate entity is unique to India. In Hollywood, or in European cinema, for example, there is no such thing. There may be several people credited for the story—the original germ of the plot, with the bare bones of characters and events in place—or for the screenplay, the fleshed-out script of a film, containing a scene-by-scene description of the action: what characters will do and say, how and where they will do so, and instructions for shot transitions. But there is no separate credit for dialogue.
So why did Hindi cinema need the specialised ‘dialogue writer'? Was it because, as Rajabali argues, the film went directly from the story stage to the shooting stage—steered by a forceful director—and then all that was needed was dialogue for each scene as it came along? Or was it because, as Javed Akhtar points out, Hindi cinema—unlike Tamil or Malayalam or Bengali cinema—did not emerge in a region where Hindi, or rather Hindustani, was the spoken language? The roots of Hindi cinema lie in Pune, Calcutta, Lahore and Bombay. "Bengalis, Marathis and Parsis, who were great screenplay writers, were not necessarily conversant with spoken Hindi/Hindustani. So they needed dialogue writers who were," says Akhtar.
If the epic cinema of the 1960s—a Mughal-e-Azam or a Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam—demanded a dialogue writer with a poetic sensibility, the gritty urban cinema of the 1970s and 1980s—especially after the success of Salim-Javed—demanded memorable punchlines. Also, mainstream Hindi cinema's tendency to repeat the same plots (families separated by fate reuniting at the end of the movie, poverty-stricken mothers with illegitimate sons, starcrossed lovers trying to bridge the class divide) made it more and more important to have dialogue that distinguished one film's mother-son scene from another's, one star's screen persona from another's. For scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni (Chak De! India, 2007; Bunty Aur Babli, 2005; Khosla ka Ghosla, 2006), this is what makes the dialogue writer the unsung hero of popular Hindi cinema. "Especially by the 1980s, this Ramlila mode, where you knew exactly what was going to happen, had come to dominate Hindi films. Now, if there's an evil smuggler villain in every single film, how will one villain be differentiated from another? How else but through dialogue?" says Sahni.
If, for Jaideep Sahni, the dialogue writer is the invisible soul of the popular Hindi film, there are others like Rekha Nigam for whom it is the screenplay that ought to get more credit than it does. The nuts-and-bolts business of narrative structure, in this view, is seen as something quite distinct from the embroidered overlay of cinematic dialogue. Nigam, who has written dialogue (Parineeta, 2005) as well as screenplays (Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, 2007), describes the difference between the two functions as akin to the difference between interior decoration and architecture: "The screenplay is the skeleton that nobody actually sees. The dialogue is what gets the claps."
AMONG THE MOST ICONIC dialogue writers of the 1970s and 1980s is Kader Khan. Khan exemplifies Sahni's unsung hero—while writing precisely the kind of dialogue that Nigam describes as ‘getting the claps'. Born into a poor, staunchly Muslim family in Kabul, Khan moved to Bombay as a child and grew up in the red-light district of Kamathipura. He did a diploma in civil engineering and began to teach in a college in Mumbai, where he also wrote and directed plays. "People from the film industry used to come see my theatre regularly," says Khan. "They saw me performing. They saw my writings. They saw my direction as well. So they were saying, ‘Why is this idiot not coming to the film industry? He's a talented man.'" In 1972, Khan was approached by producer Ramesh Behl to write the dialogues for the Randhir Kapoor-Jaya Bhaduri starrer Jawani Diwani. The success of that film was followed by Khel Khel Mein (1975). Six months after he had finished work on Khel Khel Mein, he got a call from Manmohan Desai, who was then making Roti. "He was fed up with some Urdu writers. He said, ‘I hate this language. These writers, they write all proverbs and muhaavras and similes. I want my colloquial language,'" remembers Khan, who went on to work with Desai on some of the director's most iconic films, including Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Coolie (1983). He also wrote the dialogues for Prakash Mehra's trendsetting films like Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978) and Lawaaris (1981). Khan remained prolific until the 1990s, writing dialogue for Mukul Anand's Agneepath (1990) and later, a whole series of extremely successful Govinda films: Coolie No. 1 (1995), Saajan Chale Sasural (1996) and Anari No. 1 (1999).
As the 1990s drew to a close, somewhat ironically, the professional dialogue writer—who had taken Hindi films from highfalutin, poetic speech to the colloquial language of the Bombay street—became a figure associated with what many of the new breed of directors and screenplay writers derisively refer to as dialoguebaazi. A portmanteau word that's itself a superb example of the composite English-Hindi linguistic culture we have inhabited for years, dialoguebaazi (literally ‘speaking in dialogue') suggests a language of theatricality, rhetorical flourish, bombast and melodrama: in short, it suggests the kind of speech that would only appear in an old-style Hindi film, not in real life.
But much of this hip, new multiplex cinema, while ostensibly dropping the filmi in favour of the real, has come to inhabit a linguistic universe which exists only in the translated-from-English imagination of its creators. In this imaginary world, the principal of a Delhi University college can say in welcoming a new colleague, "Tumhe toh maloom hai ki mera office kahan hai,"—a dialogue from Rensil D'Silva's Kurbaan (2009), which must seem entirely mystifying to those not familiar with the casual Americanism, "You know where my office is." In Imtiaz Ali's Love Aaj Kal (2009), a young Indian man in London can propose to a woman he's romantically interested in by saying, "Tum mere saath baahar jaaogi?"—a literal translation of the entirely figurative, "Will you go out with me?", which makes the entire exchange appear ridiculous.
While, on the one hand, turning idiomatic English expressions into nonsensical literal translations, most of the new generation of Hindi film writers (barring a handful) is loath, on the other, to actually use idiomatic, spoken Hindustani—which they seem to believe to be extinct in reality. According to one screenwriter who inhabits this imaginary world, for example, people "in real life" don't say such things as "Tum yahan kaise?" or "Kya waqt hua hai?". Now, it may come as a surprise if you've never stepped out of your posh South Mumbai or South Delhi neighbourhood, but there are still plenty of people in India who actually do speak full sentences in Hindustani. Sometimes they even use such difficult words as waqt.
Obviously, the precise turn of phrase, the extent of loan words from English and so on, would depend on a whole range of factors—the speaker's class, education, gender, his or her location in space and time, who is being spoken to and in what context. So, a man in Delhi speaking to the bus conductor is much more likely to say, instead, "Time kya hua hai?" Indeed, several recent films—Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), Band Baaja Baaraat (2010) and Do Dooni Chaar (2010) are all good examples—have managed to capture the unselfconscious cadences of a Hindi-English mixture the way it is actually spoken by millions of people every day: "Tab mujhe realise hua ki," or "Main India ki the best wedding planner banoongi," or even "Sab mind kar lo bhai." And more power to them.
Certainly, there are those, like Javed Akhtar or Prasoon Joshi, who can often be heard bemoaning the declining standards of vocabulary in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani. In a public debate on the state of Hindi at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Joshi recalled a recent incident when the entire unit of a recent Hindi film was unable to tell him the meaning of the word sattna, a commonly used word for "clinging". "In the name of realism, we are using a language in cinema which is so poor," says Kamlesh Pandey, the longtime scriptwriter on the films of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. "Anybody who can write tapori language is supposed to be a good dialogue writer. Tapori language is spoken in a very small section of the Bombay underworld—but films these days show young people speaking tapori language because the filmmaker thinks it'll make it popular." Several of the new crop of screenplay writers are matter-of-fact about not having the linguistic resources which rich dialogue demands. Niranjan Iyengar, 41, a scriptwriter on several Karan Johar productions, grew up in Dombivli, studying English in his convent school, speaking Marathi with friends and Tamil with his parents and taking high-level Hindi exams ("Bal Bodhini, then Prathama, Praveen, Prabodh") as an extracurricular activity. Even he is clear that his Hindi is not particularly good. "It's just that others' Hindi around me has deteriorated so much that I am seen as a scholar or something," he says.
But the point is not to hark back to some pristine moment when characters in Hindi cinema spoke in shuddh Hindi or mellifluous Urdu. It is not even to complain, as apparently some older industry people did, when Iyengar first tried—in Kal Ho Na Ho (2003)—to do away with the popular older mode of using English dialogue only to follow it up with a literal repetition in Hindi ("You've come? Tum aa gaye?"). It is, instead, to ask why characters in today's Hindi films—or at least the large number of them that claim to be striving for realism—can't speak a little more like they actually would offscreen. Why, for example, do the New York-based NRI characters in Kal Ho Na Ho, or the public school-educated, aspiring rock musicians in Rock On!!, or the staff of a chic lifestyle magazine in Wake Up Sid, not speak in English more of the time? After all, they would have in real life, would they not?
PERHAPS WHAT AFFLICTS current Hindi cinema, then, is not so much a depletion of language as a frustrating linguistic inauthenticity. If, as Shyam Benegal argues, the rather skewed pre-1990s cinematic depictions of how the upper-middle-class, Westernised Indian lived ("The houses, the clothes, and so on were all a bit odd," he says) can be attributed to the fact that those who were making Hindi films came, for several decades, from the middle and lower-middle classes, the situation today is exactly the reverse.
A large proportion of people writing and directing Hindi films today know very little outside the metropolitan, upper-middle-class milieu in which they themselves have grown up. And this is very new. A generation ago, someone like Javed Akhtar, even if he grew up entirely in cities, like Lucknow or Bhopal, retained a connection to the rural dialect. Because his nani (and the constantly visiting relatives) spoke only Awadhi, Akhtar was completely fluent in it. "The urban, middle-class professionals—doctors, engineers, managers or whatever—their connection with the qasba was intact then," says Akhtar. "Now the younger generation in Hindi cinema doesn't have any sense of the small town, let alone the village."
Kader Khan stopped writing for Hindi films at the end of the 1990s. In a remarkable interview with the academic Connie Haham, he has described his sense of the acute gulf that separated him from the emerging league of directors. "When I saw the new generation arriving in Bollywood and taking over—some new boys, and those boys who used to work under my director's assistant, not even chief assistant but fourth assistant, fifth assistant—they became heroes and they became directors. So there was a generation gap. There was a gap of thoughts and feelings. I worked with one or two but could not continue… It becomes very difficult to discuss with them. Unke thoughts vo saare imported hain."
For most of the new generation of Bombay filmmakers, any sense of an India outside the contemporary metropolis is twice-removed from reality, an image shaped by the films they might have watched as children. The gaon in their minds is an image that comes from Mother India. And more and more films are about life, love and angst in urban metropolitan contexts, whether the story is set in Mumbai, Delhi or, as is increasingly the case, London, New York or Melbourne.
Is there anything wrong with making films about what one knows, what one is familiar with? At an individual level, of course there isn't. The advice offered to every first-time fiction writer is always, "Write what you know." But as more and more of the industry's directors and writers come from privileged, upper-middle-class, English-educated backgrounds, will the Hindi cinema of the future restrict itself to telling the stories of only this minuscule section of the population?
Even if the Hindi film industry decides that it is content to look out at the world with this sort of tunnel vision, the problem of language remains—on two levels. At the most basic level of audience reception, it is a question of believability: language is crucial to dialogue, and the delivery of dialogue is crucial to a convincing portrayal of any character. When the upper-middle-class, English-speaking characters in an otherwise fairly well-conceived film like Rock On!! or Sorry Bhai! attempt to have life-altering conversations in Hindi, they sound entirely unconvincing. Either the sentences they speak are an impossibly foolish-sounding direct translation from the English that the dialogues were originally written in; or the Hindi they're being forced to mouth is too formal, a textbook Hindi that has no place in conversation—especially a conversation between characters whom the audience recognises as largely English-speaking.
More fundamentally, then, the Hindi-English problem emerges at the level of characterisation itself. Characters conceptualised in English are transformed in all kinds of ways when they have dialogue written for them in Hindi. Niranjan Iyengar insists that "the notion that a dialogue writer will polish [the script], change it or restructure" is "quite accepted". But the relationship between screenplay writers and dialogue writers is often fraught. One could argue, in fact, that the very idea of a clean division of labour between screenplay (almost always written in English) and dialogue (written in Hindi) is an untenable one. While a screenplay writer might claim that the dialogue writer merely translates the English dialogue provided, the dialogue writer might often see his or her work as far greater in scope and impact. The process of collaboration is not made any easier by the differential statuses that unfortunately attach not just to the nature of the work, but also to being English-speaking or "vernacular" in this country.
A BITTER ARGUMENT THAT ERUPTED on the website Passion for Cinema (PFC) in March 2010 between Piyush Mishra and Anjum Rajabali over the writing credits for The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) brought several of these issues out in the open. Rajabali had been credited for the screenplay and English dialogue, and Mishra for the Hindi dialogue and lyrics. Rajabali accused Mishra of making false claims about the extent of his contribution to the screenplay. While Mishra took his time replying, others weighed in on the PFC comments section. Anurag Kashyap, 38, a friend of Mishra's and a celebrated young director who himself started out as a writer, cut to the core of what was by now an unsavoury public squabble. "i have a personal experience of reading what anjum use to call a screenplay on two seperate (sic) occasions... and i call it outline", wrote Kashyap with barely veiled sarcasm. "anjum writing in english and hence he becomes the screenplay writer and the hindi writer who actually fleshes it out and articulates them is just the dialogue writer."
Sometimes, it is the screenplay writer who feels cheated by the eventual shape that the dialogue gives to a character. Shibani Bathija, 42, who wrote the screenplay for Fanaa (2006), has never quite gotten over the fact that the Aamir Khan character, whom she visualised as a taciturn desi version of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, was transformed into an overtly flirtatious, shairi-spouting tour guide in the first half of the film. "It seems like he's two different people in the two halves of the film, right? That wasn't how it was in my script. It happened because of the dialogue," she says, shaking her head.
It's also an inescapable fact that English in India is not just any language—you could probably make a Bengali-speaking character into a Hindi-speaking character while retaining the core of her personality and background, but being English-speaking carries much more baggage. Navdeep Singh confesses that in his experience, characters conceptualised in English tend to be more liberal, less parochial. "As soon as you start thinking the same characters in Hindi, you suddenly become more aware of regional groupism, caste affiliations, religious affiliations," says Singh (in an unwitting echo of film studies scholar M Madhava Prasad, who has argued, drawing on films as different as Mr and Mrs Iyer and Dilli-6, that the characters who speak in English in Indian films are often the only ones allowed to have a critical, reflexive take on the society they inhabit.)
Conversely, Singh points out, an upper-middle-class character who might be able to express complex thought in English would likely not have the vocabulary to do so in Hindi. "The moment you start making him spout abstractions in Hindi, you have to fix his background in a weird way." Usually, though, that can't be done. So what we get, in a film like Ayan Mukherjee's Wake Up Sid, is the suave editor of a cool Mumbai city magazine trying to impress his personal assistant by talking about jazz—in Hindi.
So we return to our earlier question: why can't a situation like this, a film like this, be shot in English? Pose that to the newer directors or scriptwriters working in Bollywood, and their answer is ready: we'd make films in English if there was a market for them. But despite the early buzz around films like Dev Benegal's English, August (1994) and Nagesh Kukunoor's Hyderabad Blues (1998), Indian films in English have never taken off. The multiplex film, however limited its reach in the small towns, still depends for its sustenance on an aspirational audience in the cities—as Navdeep Singh puts it, "people who aren't Sid, but who'd like to be". And that aspirational audience is not comfortable enough with English to watch a film whose characters speak predominantly in that language. So even as young people from upper-middle-class, English-speaking backgrounds enter the industry in greater numbers, often seeking to tell stories about English-speaking people like themselves, the films they make are in Hindi.
SO HINDI CINEMA'S PROBLEM is the obverse of the one faced by Indian fiction in English. Those writing in English about non-English-speaking characters have tried everything to get them to ‘sound right'—from attempting to replicate in English prose the sing-song quality of a spoken Indian language, to strewing their English dialogue with the occasional vernacular phrase. The jury is still out on what works or not, but perhaps the written word is more forgiving. Large numbers of Hindi films, in the meanwhile, are flailing—and often failing—to get their non-Hindi-speaking characters to sound right.
Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na director Abbas Tyrewala, who also writes screenplays, dialogues and lyrics, published an article online several years ago, in which he despaired of ever getting his characters to "sound like they're talking". Having announced that he wrote "fairly decent, clean, universal Hindi", Tyrewala managed to foist his (stated) inability to write "the way people speak" onto "Hindi" itself, claiming that "Hindi in its pure form" is not spoken anywhere. Making the highly muddled argument that the listing of muhavaras (idioms) in Hindi textbooks used in schools was proof of an academic attempt to give the language "a pretense of plebeian usage", he proceeded to discount all spoken variants of Hindi as having been made "rocking" only by the addition of "a little Urdu here, a hint of Farsi there, and a little English adulteration".
More recently, though, Tyrewala seems to have changed his mind, allowing that such a thing as conversational Hindi does exist. In the run-up to the now-panned Jhootha Hi Sahi (2010), he was quoted by Mid-Day as defending the film's hero, John Abraham, who was being coached to sound "natural" in Hindi by Tyrewala's mother-in-law Veena Mehta: "Look, which actor today thinks and speaks in Hindi? I guarantee you, John will be speaking fluently and credibly once Amma is done with him."
It is commonplace to hear actors wreck perfectly well-written Hindi dialogue with stilted delivery that betrays how little they speak the language in real life. "After Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir, the next generation of heroes who have come up are just not that comfortable in Hindi," agrees Dibakar Banerjee, director of Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Love, Sex aur Dhokha (2010), among the few directors on the scene today who are entirely bilingual (in Dibakar's case, trilingual, because he is also fluent in Bengali). "The entire language of communication on most Hindi film sets is English," says Rekha Nigam, a screenplay and dialogue writer who describes herself as bilingual and has two decades' experience in the advertising industry. "Most actors cannot read the Devanagari script. Even those few who are comfortable speaking Hindi insist they be given their Hindi dialogues written in the Roman script." In a strange reversal of Tyrewala's original premise, Nigam's fear is that Hindi will die out as a bhasha, a written language with literary underpinnings, and survive only as a boli, a spoken language.
For many of the current scriptwriters and directors, certainly, any relationship to Hindi (if at all they have one) has nothing to do with the written word. What does exist for some is a half-expressed sense that Hindi encodes one's relationship to romance, to intimate friendship, to unguarded emotion. "Hindi is the language my friends and I get drunk in," says Ishita Moitra. Fascinatingly, this sense of an emotional connect to Hindi is mediated by Hindi cinema generally and by Hindi film songs, in particular. Rekha Nigam's suggestion that a Lata Mangeshkar song has a resonance "even for people who may never speak Hindi in their everyday life" has as its corollary Shibani Bathija's idea of "thinking in English" but "feeling in Hindi". For Bathija, English is "the language of the head" as opposed to Hindi/Hindustani, which serve as "the language of the heart".
Perhaps Ishita Moitra and Shibani Bathija do have some emotional connection to Hindi, especially to Hindi movies. But the reason why they write for Hindi films is also that Hindi films constitute the most important form of popular culture consumed in this country. Dibakar Banerjee argues that the first major shock for the English-speaking class was when the English music channels, Channel V and MTV, had to make the momentous switch from their Western song set to Hindi film music and Indipop in order to survive in India. "That's when the tastemakers, that section of the English-speaking class that 20 years ago could only have joined an advertising agency, found another avenue. They saw the truth—that, boss, you cannot escape Bollywood," says Banerjee. "Now all these cool people are making films in a language they don't talk in. Not because they're hypocrites, but simply because they're good businessmen and good creative people who want to reach out to the maximum number of people."
It is fitting that Banerjee's analogy is to advertising, the industry from which filmmakers as diverse as Pradeep Sarkar (Parineeta, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag), R Balki (Cheeni Kum, Paa), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Aks, Rang De Basanti, Dilli-6)—and Banerjee himself—have emerged in the past decade. Advertising is also the traditional precursor to today's Bollywood, an industry staffed by English-educated, upper-middle-class people trying to connect with the Indian mass audience. Sometimes, the fact that copy was written in English and then translated into the vernacular languages led to huge bloomers. Rekha Nigam recalls "Campa Cola: The Only One" being translated into Hindi as "Campa Cola: Sabse Akela", which means "The Loneliest One". At other times, they hit the nail on the head despite not being insiders to the world they were recreating—the thrifty, middle-class housewife Lalitaji of the classic 1980s Surf ad, for example, was a character created by advertising guru Alyque Padamsee, an urbane South Bombay Parsi.
It's clear that being able to create an identifiable character, with whom large numbers of people can connect, does not entail being that person, or having known someone exactly like them. It helps, though, to really know the milieu from which your characters come.
People like Nigam insist that the advertising industry has changed a great deal over the years, with more and more creative people coming in from the Hindi heartland and the industry becoming "less posh, more bilingual". In the film industry, too, directors like Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap, and more recently Abhishek Chaubey (Ishqiya, 2010), Abhinav Kashyap (Dabangg, 2010), Maneesh Sharma (Band Baaja Baaraat, 2010) and Habib Faisal (Do Dooni Char, 2010), all of whom display a firm grip on the North Indian cultural and linguistic milieu they work with, have had both critical and commercial success. But we should steer clear of falling into the authenticity trap. It is by no means the case that you can only make an Omkara if you're from the badlands of Meerut. Navdeep Singh is unlikely to have hung out with the likes of Satyaveer Randhawa, the Public Works Department engineer and parttime novelist who is the protagonist of his film, Manorama Six Feet Under. Nandita Das presumably had no prior life experience of working-class and middle-class Ahmedabad life when she started to make Firaaq (2008). Yet both Manorama and Firaaq are films that show a rare empathy with their characters.
One hopes that the Bhardwajs and Kashyaps will open the door for others like them. One hopes also that there will be more Navdeep Singhs and Nandita Dases, whose curiosity and concern about the Indias they do not know will lead them into making more films like Manorama or Firaaq, in settings not chosen for the director's familiarity with them. One hopes also for Ayan Mukherjees of the future, whose affection for the India they do know will lead them to make their films in a language closer to the one they speak. But Hindi cinema is still at a cusp. Kiran Rao's Dhobi Ghat was released this year in a superb bilingual version in a very limited number of metropolitan cinemas—and everywhere else in a dubbed Hindi version where an NRI investment banker and a high-flying Mumbai artist romance each other by discussing Dakshin Asia. Clearly, change will take a long while yet.