If cinema can be said to mirror the zeitgeist of a society, Urdu’s conspicuous absence from Hindi films is a sad reminder of what we, as a nation, are headed for.
This three-part series will delve into the vanishing treasures of syncretism in Hindi cinema, beginning with the loss of language.
“Jaan ke badle mei jaan, ye insaaf nahin inteqaam hai!” (One murder in retaliation for another isn’t justice; it is revenge!) As Ashok Kumar uttered these words in a thundering speech in the last scene of the movie Kanoon, I was struck dumb. The profound truth of his words coupled with the eloquence of language lingered in my head long after the credits rolled.
The B.R. Chopra-directed Kanoon (1960) is a riveting courtroom drama that raises startling questions about the lacunae in the judicial system. Though the film is in Hindustani – the language nearly all Bollywood films of the era were made in – I couldn’t help but think that its impassioned dialogues would not have been as effective in another language.
While there isn’t a scintilla of doubt that Hindi cinema has matured and metamorphosed over the decades, it has unfortunately also lost much along the way.
One of these things is its portrayal of India’s cherished Hindu-Muslim syncretism through a profusion of Urdu dialogues and lyrics, Muslim characters playing central and important supporting roles, and the creation of a genre – known as the “Muslim Social” – exclusively depicting the Indian Muslim experience. In this three-part series, beginning with the loss of language, each of the aforementioned aspects will be discussed in detail, while exploring the socio-political reasons behind these disappearing treasures and what this could mean for India as a nation.
Watch: Celebrating Urdu in Films with Javed Akhtar and Imtiaz Ali
For almost 80 years – 1930s-2000s – the title of every Hindi movie was flashed in the opening credits in three languages, namely English, Hindi, & Urdu in that order.
This can perhaps be understood as a token acknowledgement of Hindi cinema’s core North-Indian audience, deemed to comprise Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. It can also be seen as an act of giving credit to the language. Moreover, the order of language while displaying the title suggests that this may have been a way of quietly showing regard for the minority speakers of the language. However, this is no longer the norm. Though the practice hasn’t been abandoned altogether, a film title displayed in the Nasta‘līq script is increasingly becoming a rarity.
Songs & Spoken Words
If one was to make a list of Hindi cinema’s most cherished songs, it would be hard to find one that does not contain a generous smattering of chaste Urdu words.
Be it eulogizing the beauty of the beloved, bemoaning the perfidy of the lover, pondering the futility of worldliness, or articulating patriotic zeal – the Urdu language has covered, with consummate perfection, a whole spectrum of human emotions in Hindi cinema songs.
Even if stripped of melody, these songs would be admirable on account of their sheer lyrical beauty. “Jab Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya” (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960), “Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par” (Pyaasa, 1957) “Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein” (Kabhi Kabhi, 1976), and “Tu Meri Zindagi Hai” (Aashiqui, 1990) are only a few examples. Some of the best lyricists of earlier decades such as Majrooh Sultanpuri, Anand Bakshi, and Sahir Ludhianvi were native speakers and even scholars of the Urdu language. However, the continued usage of Urdu by a new generation of non-Urdu speaking lyricists well into the 90s is indicative of the language’s general acceptability among film-makers and audiences alike. Though lyricists such as Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, and Irshad Kamil continue to weave the magic of Urdu into their songs, the usage is not as pervasive as it once was. The last two decades have witnessed an influx of Punjabi and English words into songs which has further pushed Urdu to the margins.
Watch: Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya – Film: Mughal-e-Azam
It is worth remembering that the most iconic dialogues from movies such as Pyaasa (1957), Anand (1971) Sholay (1975), and Deewar (1975), were heavily infused with Urdu words. That these dialogues continue to be replayed through memes and burlesque renditions is testimony to their enduring quality. The genius of writers Abrar Alvi, K.A. Abbas, the duo Salim Khan & Javed Akhtar, and Gulzar deserve special mention in this respect. Film dialogues are well-written nowadays, but they are awash with not just English phrases, but also dialect-related words and intonations. While this has lent authenticity, one does miss the lyrical refinement and cadence of Urdu.
Though Urdu words such as Daulat (wealth), Taaqat (strength), Muhabbat (love), Jaan (life), Waqt (time), Wada (promise), and Insan (human) continue to be used in modern films, these have largely entered common parlance with most people not even aware of their Urdu origins.
Urdu’s waning glory in Hindi cinema can also be gauged from the callous approach to pronunciation. No one really cares to stress the last syllable of Haqq (right), or the gurgling sound of “gh” in Kaaghaz (paper) any longer.
Watch: Top 10 best dialogues of Bollywood ever!
Ostracized at Home
Urdu – born of the marriage of foreign tongues Persian, Arabic, Dari, and Turkish with indigenous ones such as Sanskrit, Braj and Mewati – was born and nurtured in the imperial capital of Delhi.
Though Persian remained the official language of the Mughal Empire till 1857, Urdu was the chosen language, of the common masses, spoken on the streets, in bazaars, military camps, and family parlours. With the partition of British India and creation of Pakistan in 1947, nearly 33% of Delhi’s population – overwhelmingly comprising the educated Urdu-speaking elite – migrated to Pakistan. Millions of Urdu speakers from the United Provinces, Bombay, Hyderabad, and Calcutta continued to migrate in waves after 1947. According to the Census of India 2011, the percentage of Urdu speakers in India has fallen by about 1.5% since 2001, with the total percentage having plummeted to below 4.2%.
Other than Konkani, Urdu is the only language that registered a decline in the number of speakers, despite the Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – areas typically home to native speakers of Urdu – having increased in the same period.
This only suggests that even native speakers are gradually turning to Hindi, not least due to increased educational and employment opportunities. While Partition and the loss of speakers dealt a serious blow to Urdu in India, there is another yet more disturbing reason for its decline in recent decades.
Partition and the creation of Pakistan were events that singularly sowed generational hatred across both sides of the border. Unfortunately, Urdu became the biggest casualty of India’s ensuing bitter relations with Pakistan and that of communal politics. From being labelled a language of Muslims – a communal badge foisted by the British since the late 19th century – it was tacitly labelled the language of Pakistan. Hindi, the new official language of the Union of India, was carefully purged of Urdu vocabulary, resulting in the emergence of a Sanskritized version.
The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the early 1990s made further changes to the political and cultural climate of North India. With the Hindu supremacist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as its ideological parent, the BJP has been committed to promoting Hindi since the beginning. To the BJP, using Hindi to unify vastly heterogeneous Hindus into a religio-cultural monolith is a core component of its ethnocentric ideology, as evidenced by its famous slogan “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”. Even in 2019, the BJP tried to impose Hindi through the National Education Policy, making classes mandatory in all schools. The clause was however withdrawn after facing considerable backlash from southern states.
For Urdu to be stigmatized as the language of a minority community, whose allegiances are increasingly seen as suspect and intentions dubious, is lamentable. The popularity of the BJP in the Hindi-speaking belt may well be a reason for Urdu ceding ground to its twin Hindi precisely in these parts: Urdu was recorded as a primary language by merely 28% Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.
Watch: Rekhta – A Quest to Promote Urdu
The Role Cinema can Play
If cinema can be said to mirror the zeitgeist of a society, Urdu’s conspicuous absence from Hindi films is a sad reminder of just what we, as a nation, are headed for.
It is noteworthy that outside its cradle, Urdu is thriving with nearly 100 million speakers scattered the world over. Clearly, Urdu does not need us.
However, it is we who need Urdu. For Urdu isn’t merely a language, but a child of the confluence of civilizations, a symbol of the Indian sub-continent’s shared heritage. While a mere return of Urdu to Indian celluloid may not help revive its fortunes in the country, it could still give the cultural injection it needs.
It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the exit of Urdu, even from our silver screen, could mean the loss of a large chunk of the mosaic of cultures that is India.