The Language of Bollywood – Documentary On How Multilingualism Is Handled In Hindi Films (India)

Bollywood productions are today acknowledged as the generator of and vehicle for contemporary popular culture in India. The films' use of language has a remarkable supra-regional and integrative quality. According to subject matter, location and the characters involved, the code switches between sociolects, standard languages and distinct Persian or Sanskrit features, jargons with regional variants right through to other Indian national languages such as Panjabi, Marathi, Gujarati and, not least, English.

Regular filmgoers therefore not only encounter Hindi and Urdu, but also develop an awareness and a certain degree of familiarity with samples of other (North) Indian languages. Mixed in with the style and language of Bollywood films there are also various cultural components, and in this configuration they reflect a notion of an Indian national community that, in view of its geographical extent and diversity; is not easy to grasp.

India does not have a majority language. Hindi and English are specified as national languages of the Indian Union in the constitution and Hindi has the most native speakers (more than 422 million according to the Government Census of India 2001), but it is still below the 50 per cent mark. Beyond the figures given in the census, however, Hindi is also widespread as a second or third language. It is learnt in the schools, in the armed forces, at work, among friends and on the street, or simply through the mass media. In all, 22 of the Indian languages recognised in the constitution are spoken by about 98% of the population. Following independence in 1947, the establishment of numerous states of the Indian Union according to linguistic criteria gave official recognition to and enhanced the identity-creating potential of these constitutional languages. With their elevation to national and administrative languages, they became a factor of delimitation in relation to political competitors from other regions. The official status not only gave them in a new position, but also successively changed their quality. By building up in a deliberate fashion vocabulary and registers of the national languages, for example for school education, technology transfer, administration and, not least, for the purpose of consolidating the respective state-supporting medium, the dichotomy between a 'developed', standardised, written official code and a highly diverse 'common language' has been intensified. At the same time the differences and boundaries between the various national languages have come more to the fore.

Popular medium

Copyright: Bollywood film, music and dance productions, on the other hand, appear as a popular medium in which a linguistic continuum between sharply delineated individual languages in India is successfully projected, even though the performers' underlying Hindi/Urdu testifies to roots in the family of Indo-European languages, and Bengal and South India have their own flourishing film industry in Bengali and Dravidic respectively. The traditional porosity linguists find in the language boundaries in India is also characteristic of the use of language in the Bollywood films. The attitude that individuals of differing regional, cultural and social origin may speak in different ways, but do not therefore necessarily communicate in a foreign language, meaning that one is operating in a linguistic continuum, is based more on a feeling than on a clear awareness of fluid boundaries. Just as English changed in the course of its "indianisation", so Indian national and regional languages do not emerge in the standardised form of a written language, but as variants according to the communicative, economic, religious or cultural contexts. Such flexibility is the characteristic feature of the language of Bollywood. The underlying Hindi acts as an adaptable carrier language which can absorb not only different modes of speech of native speakers, but which can also and effortlessly insert elements from other Indian languages.

copyright: ColourboxWith the popularity of the film productions, which has now extended way beyond the sub-continent, Hindi has also achieved a greater spread and acceptance and is at the same time held in higher regard. Campaigns on the part of the Indian government to promote Hindi as a national language, a heavily sanskritised Hindi as used previously in the state media or the Hindi ordered as mandatory in the schools, have not only experienced little success, but have often even been counterproductive: alongside the suspicion that the language was being used to establish a hegemony of the North Indian elite, Hindi was also seen as imposed, sterile and conservative and the instruction in schools often stifled the little natural affinity and enthusiasm still remaining.

Record ratings

In stark contrast, there is Hindi's triumphal procession through the entertainment industry. Nowadays Hindi soap operas from India's supra-regional television companies enjoy record ratings, and Hindi is, alongside English, the most widely used language in advertising and sports programmes, and of course especially in the broadcasting of cricket matches. For the younger audience, various music channels of the television companies at present show almost exclusively video clips with Hindi pop music, gradually displacing foreign English-language numbers. This overwhelming presence of Hindi in all areas of entertainment is due not least to the films produced in Mumbai. As far away as Tamil Nadu, where the most vehement protest against Hindi as a national language have taken place, Hindi films – undubbed – are box-office hits. Almost throughout India the viewers outdo one another with quotes from dialogues and film songs, their rhetoric and poetry having made Hindi into a stylistically more attractive, modern medium for everyday communication.

As Bollywood films show, the example of India can provide interesting insights into how to handle multilingualism. Here another language is not necessarily seen as a foreign language which can only be learnt with great effort in educational institutions. In particular the life in large Indian cities, and not only there, demonstrates that multilingualism acquired by formal or informal means can be completely normal. Most people in India grow up in a multilingual environment, and they know and use more than one language. Without an adequate communicative competency in different languages, it is difficult to survive in the day-to-day social and occupational routine. Instead of a binary relationship between a native and a foreign tongue, as is common in monolingual European societies, a functional multilingualism is frequently cultivated. Although it should be said that often not all the components of the linguistic repertoire are equally well formed, which means that a switching between different languages is necessary according to the subject, situation and partners involved. The aim is not perfection and purity, but the ability to engage in mutual communication.

The Goethe-Institut New Delhi has commissioned a thirty-minute documentary film which will present in graphic form the Bollywood phenomenon and the linguistic implications stemming from it. Extracts from films, TV commercials and music videos are being taken as examples. As regards the reception in India, Interviews are being conducted with viewers from different parts of the country and different age groups, linked with the call to give an impromptu reproduction of dialogues, songs or dance scenes. Film makers, dialogue authors and song writers will talk about the style of film dialogues and song lyrics. Finally authors, journalists, critics, philologists and teachers will comment on the language of Bollywood productions and its influence on the everyday use of language in India.
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