Bollywood’s tryst with Indian languages

From just catch phrases in different Indian languages, will the Bollywood song yield space for more?

In 1998, many boys in North India on the cusp of adulthood were busy rolling their tongues around a few Malayalam lines, starting with ‘Punchiri Thanji Konjikko’. It loosely meant ‘flirt with your smiles’ and worked as a conversation starter with the other gender.

The lines are part of the Malayalam chorus of ‘Jiya Jale’ (Dil Se), adding texture to Gulzar’s evocative imagery. Interestingly, it was the lyricist who insisted on retaining the original line and not translating it. Shot in Kerala’s backwaters, it gives the ethereal song a sense of setting.

Shahrukh Khan and Manisha Koirala in the 1998 film, Dil Se

Shahrukh Khan and Manisha Koirala in the 1998 film, Dil Se

This was the time when Mani Ratnam and A.R. Rahman had emerged as pan-Indian icons, helping South Indian cultural symbols travel north as by-products. Such was the impact of dubbed films from South India that lyricist P.K. Mishra wrote, ‘Janti Ho Hindi Main Pyar Ke Kitne Akshar’ while translating ‘Urvasi Urvasi.’

These songs came to mind after a recent incident where a Tamil Nadu politician was asked by a security officer at the airport to speak in Hindi or English. Did the officer miss out on the ‘Kolaveri Di’ wave that hit the country in 2011? The Prime Minister has appealed to citizens to try and learn a new word of an Indian language every day, but to begin with, can the Bollywood film song help in the cause? What has been the story so far?

Inspiring tunes

Over the years, the Hindi film industry has copied or has been inspired by the tunes of iconic songs in different languages, but when it comes to lyrics, it has seldom moved beyond the Hindi-Urdu binary.

Though Mumbai became home to composers and singers from across the country, the lyricists mostly hailed from the Hindustani belt. In the Dev Anand-Suchitra Sen starrer Bombai Ka Babu (1960), S.D. Burman draws from a popular tune used in a Telugu hit Rojulu Murayi (1955) to create the Asha Bhosle chartbuster ‘Bambai Se Aaya Hai Babu Salona.’

In ‘Sun Mere Bandhu Re’ (Bandini, 1963), Burman gives you the feel of bhatiyali, a form of Bangla folk music, but the words are by Majrooh. It suits the script and could spur the seeker to learn the language. Is it enough?



Even English, India’s bridge language and the language of the market, didn’t have it easy in Hindi film songs. Before Independence, there were instances where Shanta Apte and Devika Rani sang English numbers in films but after freedom, it was limited to the ‘Monica! O My Darling’ (Caravan) or ‘My Dil Goes Mmmm’ (Salaam Namaste) variety. Interestingly, an English club mix version of ‘My Dil Goes Mmmm’, sung by Shaan and Caralisa Monteiro, was present in the album but it was not picturised or publicised.

Lakshmi in Julie.

Lakshmi in Julie.

The English bits remained hook lines, reflecting either the ecosystem of a forbidden space in the 1970s or the mind space of a globalised citizen in the post-liberalisation era. Of course, decades earlier, ‘My Heart is Beating,’ a full-fledged English song in Julie, gave hope but the relationship remained fleeting. Even in K. Balachander’s ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’ where it could easily have been the bridge, Anand Bakshi kept it limited to ‘I don’t know what you say’ in ‘Hum Bane Tum Bane’.

Kamal Hassan and Rathi Agnihotri in EK DUUJE KE LIYE

Kamal Hassan and Rathi Agnihotri in EK DUUJE KE LIYE

In a television interview, Preeti Saagar said that when she sang ‘My Heart is Beating,’ she thought the song would be picturised in a club setting and was surprised when she found the lead actor Lakshmi singing it in a family-friendly setting.

Maybe the story, about an Anglo-Indian family, allowed the English song (written by poet-dramatist-actor Harindranath Chattopadhyay) to jump the proscribed space but nobody can deny that in the 1970s and early 1980s, the song played in every household with a transistor or tape recorder. Yet, Preeti was given a ‘special’ Filmfare Award and not the ‘usual’ one in the playback singer category.

During the disco rage of the 1980s, Usha Uthup’s contralto voice suited English songs but like Burman in ‘O Bandhu Re,’ Bappi Lahiri only gave us the feel of the genre. Years later, the English song was ‘normalised’ in a Hindi film setting when Kangna Ranaut lip-synced to ‘Old School Girl’ in Tanu Weds Manu Returns. It was a rare occasion where a Haryanvi girl was singing in English to impress her UK-returned boyfriend. No, it was not a caricature. Raj Shekhar’s lyrics made sense and Kalpana Gandharv sang it with heart. Unfortunately, the song didn’t gather much traction.

Hindi in the South

As the south becomes an important market for Hindi films, scripts have started including South Indian characters, opening opportunities for a smattering of southern languages in Hindi songs. Shah Rukh Khan headlined two such films. In Ra. One, he plays a nerdy South Indian scientist while in Chennai Express, he is caught in a Tamil Nadu village.

I particularly like the way director Anubhav Sinha and composers Vishal Shekhar use the language as a plot device in Ra.One. In the ‘Chhammak Challo’ song, they use Akon as the voice of Shah Rukh because in that song he is not the scientist but the machine. During the song, Kareena Kapoor, who plays a Punjabi girl, suddenly shifts to suggestive Tamil lyrics, ‘Unnai Thotta Penn, Ullathai Uruka Mattaya,’ ostensibly to seduce G.One in his creator’s mother tongue. Later, we discover that the evil Ra.One had entered Kareena’s body and it was perhaps his ploy to manipulate G.One. This is not explained through dialogues, making it all the more immersive.

Rahat Indori using ‘Bumro’ in Mission Kashmir (2000) to describe a bumble bee evoked similar interest in Kashmiri folk music. It evolved further when Gulzar wrote, ‘Urzu Urzu Durkut’ in Yahan (2005). Sounding like blank rhyming words, it is actually a blessing for good health, literally meaning ‘strong knees’. There has been a resurgence of the influence of Marathi Lavani in Hindi films as well but as for the vocabulary, it is limited to ‘Mungada’.

By the way, in Dil Se, Gulzar added one Bengali word to our vocabulary, which Mahalaxmi Iyer sang during the interludes of ‘Ae Ajnabi’. Guess which?

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