Thursday, February 13, 2003

are you talkin' to me?

India's old-style movie business may be on the ropes, but a dynamic group of directors is winning fans with films that speak to younger audiences in their own language--English

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in February 2003).

IN THE 1982 HINDI FILM Namak Halal, a character played by Indian movie idol Amitabh Bachchan is asked if he can speak English. In a heavy, comic accent, he replies: "I can talk English, I can walk English, I can laugh English, because English is a very phunny language." In real life, Bachchan speaks English perfectly, but you wouldn't know it if you only watched his Bollywood films. There, English has traditionally been the language of the oppressor, the colonizer, the villain and the vamp.

Not any more. India is now making English-language films for Indian audiences and even Bollywood--long the home of formula-ridden technicolour spectaculars--has started showing its heroes and heroines spouting "Hinglish," a mix of Hindi and English. What's happened?

"English has become an Indian language, appropriated by the younger generation," says Dev Benegal, a 42-year-old Indian film-maker whose popular 1995 movie English, August helped spawn the growth of Indian films in English. Over the past four years, more than 20 such films have been released. This year alone as many as 15 will open on Indian screens.

True, those numbers represent only a tiny fraction of the 150-or-so Hindi films that Bollywood will release this year. However, many in the industry believe they are a sign of things to come, as Indian film-makers respond to the changing interests and tastes of increasingly middle-class audiences tiring of the traditional Bollywood extravaganzas filled with song-and-dance routines.

"This is a phenomenon that will only grow," says Komal Nahta, editor of Film Information, a Mumbai-based entertainment trade magazine. "There is enough space for Bollywood, Hollywood and Indian films in English. Look at the size and variety of our population."

In some senses, that very variety is one of the factors fuelling the rise in English-language films. With India's constitution recognizing 18 major languages and around 400 lesser tongues, "English becomes the link language," says Benegal. Take Aparna Sen's 2002 film Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. The movie, which won awards at Switzerland's Locarno Film Festival, tells of the relationship between a married South Indian Hindu woman and a Bengali Muslim photographer. Their common language? English, or rather "chutney" English--a mix of English and another Indian language, such as Hindi, Tamil or Punjabi.

But the differences in these movies go beyond just language. Unlike most Bollywood flicks, the new English-language films often take a serious approach to social issues, such as infidelity, crime, drugs and homosexuality. Let's Talk, directed by Ram Madhvani and released early this year, is about a married woman who must tell her husband that she's become pregnant while having an affair. Another film, the soon-to-be-released Boom, directed by 34-year-old Kaizad Gustad, depicts the links between the fashion world and the underworld in Mumbai (and, perhaps surprisingly, features one-time Hollywood pin-up Bo Derek playing herself). "My movies are in Hinglish because I think in English but curse in Hindi," says Gustad. "That means my mind is English, my heart is Indian."

The growing popularity of these films doesn't mean Bollywood movies--commercial films made in various Indian languages--are on the way out, though the recent slew of flops from mainstream film-makers may signal that tastes are changing.

There's little doubt that tastes are broadening. Through cable television, India's expanding middle class now has far more access to foreign entertainment than it once did. "People have seen a lot more non-Indian films compared to 10 years ago, and they see how these movies are different from the usual Bollywood stuff," says Film Information's Nahta. "So they are more open to English-language films even from India."

The rise of English-language films is also being driven by the industry's changing economics. "Multiplexes have changed the whole sector dramatically," says Ashish Jindal, senior consultant at research firm Colliers Jardine India. In the 1990s, a slew of state incentives encouraged developers to build multiplexes. "Before, the single big theatres would be 1,000-seaters, but now there are three to four screens that seat between 150 and 300 people. It is much easier to fill up a small theatre."

Those new freedoms are being exploited by companies like Shringar Films, which runs a chain of multiplexes in Mumbai and became an early champion of Indian movies in English by taking on their distribution. It started when Shringar Director Shravan Shroff saw Nagesh Kukunoor's 1998 film, Hyderabad Blues, which tells the story of an Indian who returns home after many years of studying abroad only to find he feels like an alien. That struck a chord with the 31-year-old Shroff, who at the time had just recently returned from business school in Australia. He decided to distribute the film.

"We make money on some, we don't on others. But I like the genre and it gives me creative satisfaction as I can target and market these movies differently," Shroff says. Film-makers, too, are happy with the surplus of multiplex screens. "There's oceans of time and space for our kind of films," says 35-year-old actor-turned-director Rahul Bose.


The titles of the films scheduled for release this year are indicative of what Bose means by "our kind of films." They include Dance Like a Man, Freaky Chakra, Big City Blues and For Real. Unlike Mira Nair's art-house Hinglish film Monsoon Wedding, which was geared more towards Western film-festival audiences, these new Indian films in English are being made for Indian audiences--albeit Indian audiences that are comfortable speaking English. Bose's recent film Everybody Says I'm Fine, for instance, was set in a posh Mumbai salon "so I can't possibly have my characters speak in Bihari," says the director. "The way I look at it, a particular story calls for a particular language. I doubt any of us think 'let me make a film in English' and then think of a story."

Director Benegal agrees: "I just wanted to talk about my generation, and make a film that I and many like me identified with," he says. "My generation grew up in free India and is free of the ideological baggage that those before us had. India is and has always been a multicultural country and Bollywood hasn't recognized that."