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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bollywood's Journey from Poetic to Pragmatic Foeticide


At one of the more critical moments in Mughal-e-Azam when Bahar attempts to incite Akbar against Anarkali all she needs to say is ' Aajkal mahal mein anar ki kaliyon pe bahar aayi hai' . Taking the cue, Akbar responds, ' Humne bhi Anarkali ko bahut dinon se nahin dekha. Use hamare saamne pesh kiya jaaye' . No shrewish speeches, no histrionics, just a simple verbal play weaves the intrigue. The art of dialogue is rhetorical speech, of a verbal effect so sharp and arresting that the visuals are left redundant. Here is Anarkali's formal thanks to Akbar for his generosity in pardoning her life ' Baadshaah ki in behisaab bakhshishon ke badle yeh kaniz Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar ko apna khoon maaf karti hai' . The line combines the irony of a kaniz pardoning an emperor with a higher act of generosity — she judges Akbar by mortal and immortal standards and forgives him by both. It puts paid to all the action for the only proper response to it is to applaud. It comes from the orality of our narrative tradition perhaps, this tendency to celebrate the verbal in our cinema. And if dialogue is the most important ingredient of our cinema (the stuff that remains after all else is forgotten — Deewar, Sholay ) then Mughal-e-Azam remains the most complete and stunning Hindi film ever made. For the first four decades of their existence the Hindi talkies were really Urdu and not Hindi cinema. With good reason too, for the origin of the Bombay talkies lay in Parsi theatre, so called because of the entrepreneurs who controlled it, but written and performed mostly in Urdu. Once they understood the nature and impact of sound, studio managers went overboard in hiring writers who could reproduce the rhetoric, melodrama and rhyming prose of the hugely successful Parsi theatre. Men such as Pandit Narayan Prasad Betaab and Agha Hashr Kashmiri, the leading playwrights of the time, reproduced the language, and the format, of their theatrical past into the films they wrote. For the same reason, dialogue and song, two of Hindi cinema's most crucial ingredients, quickly came to acquire preponderance over all else. For a long time afterward, Hindi cinema remained enchained to the literary moorings of Hindustani/Urdu literature. Villains or vamps, tramps or reformers, debonair rakes or profligate black sheep all spoke a language and employed a vocabulary that was unmistakably literary Urdu. The tradition was strengthened also by the modes of training. Sunil Dutt, acting in B R Chopra's Waqt was given diction classes by Akhtar ul Iman, one of the greatest of modern Urdu poets. Right up to the Bachchan era, in fact, characters, even degenerate ones, who appeared in this cinema spoke in a manner resembling the gentility. When Amitabh tells Iftekhar in Deewar , ' Dawar Saheb, main aaj bhi phenke hue paise nahin uthata hoon', the urbanity of his vocabulary belies his roughness. Over the last decade, this robust dialogic tradition has been steadily emasculated. The growth of satellite television, the explosion of the music industry and the arrival of the NRI market have so transformed Hindi cinema that it is now difficult to call it a mass medium in the same way as it had seemed earlier. Music, television and overseas rights now sometimes contribute more than the collections on the box office and therefore there is no compulsion now to make please-all, catch-all films. Concomitantly, dialogue and the careful crafting of language that was once its leitmotif have lost their importance. Even advertising commercials are forced to rely on old classics when they go looking for punchy dialogues. Today, it is the 10-25 years age group which determines a film's trade-value, and the films they champion have even redefined love in Hindi cinema. Instead of the social, sentiments centring on the family have become the chief obstacle or spur for love. On the other hand, Bobby, Aradhana, Guide , Mughal-e-Azam , all the mega love stories of yesteryears posited a wider social issue as the central conflict in love. While the new action films shed the poor this new love cinema sheds society. Time was when one had to learn Urdu to survive in the Hindi film industry. Now, if one doesn't know English, one would find it difficult to find work of any sort. Most of today's stars can speak only English fluently, if that at all. Hindi film posters and promos rely increasingly on English. Scenarios, screenplays and scripts are written in English and even the dialogues are translations from English. The actors' and the makers' lack of command on written or spoken Hindi seems of no consequence. With a change in personnel, and time, a change in language was bound to occur. But whether this new language will play the same attention to metaphor, poetry, rhetoric and subtlety, as almost all the Indic poetic and literary traditions are wont to do, is unlikely. All to the good then that legendary Lucknawi tangawallah, who asked a tourist to get off because his horse would revolt at the visitor's language is no longer around. The horse needn't bolt any longer, for to paraphrase Ghalib, 'Rau mein hai Rakhsh-e-zubaan, kahan dekhiye thame' . The horse of language flies away, who knows where it will stop!
(Mafa is a Delhi based Dastango and writer. A version of this piece was earlier published in The Times Of India)

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