Bolly ki Boli: Who Won ‘Hindi’ Cinema’s Language Wars Since 1947?

If movies are a mirror to human nature, and if languages express cultural sensibilities, then the languages spoken in cinema must surely convey some profound insights into the society it claims to mirror.

In that regard, the latest decade of Bollywood (2010-2019) made history: for the first time ever, English was the most dominant language in the titles of the biggest blockbusters (44%), before Hindi (40%) and Urdu (15%).

2019 was linguistically striking for different reasons: among the titles of the top ten highest grossing Bollywood films, not a single one featured a word in Urdu.

What do these trends tell us about India?

“Hindi” Film Industry, Really?

Bollywood, which Wikipedia defines as the “Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai”, is probably today the best ambassador of Hindi language in the world. I myself use the term ‘Hindi cinema’ abundantly. In my country of origin, France, the word ‘Bollywood’ is somehow derogatory: it is synonymous with super-cheesy, three-hour long, dance-loaded movies, largely courtesy Shah Rukh Khan of the 1990s.

I had always felt the word did not give justice to other types of Mumbai-produced movies I liked – the Udaans, the Shanghais, the Arths, the Miss Lovelys. ‘Hindi cinema’ appeared to me less connoted and more objective.

Yet, in a way, I was wrong. Right from the beginning, one could argue, the term ‘Hindi cinema’ was inappropriate.

In 1951, for instance, the most popular movies produced in Mumbai happened to be Awara, Baazi, Deedar, Jadoo, Bahar and Amanat. All these words belong to Urdu. Why not talk about ‘Urdu cinema’ then?

Urdu-Hindi Bhai Bhai

From a linguistic point of view, the distinction between Hindi and Urdu is debatable. Of course, their vocabulary differs, with Urdu borrowing more words from Persian, Arabic and Turkish, and Hindi edging more towards Sanskrit. Yet the idioms of the common folk – largely based on Khari Boli - are mutually intelligible, and the grammar is almost identical.

I remember once crossing Wagah border and muttering in the exact same, hesitating words the reason of my trip to officials from the two sides. “Wah, aapki Urdu zabardast hai”, I was told in Pakistan. “Wah, aapki Hindi badhiya hai”, was the reaction in India.

As for the script, Urdu and Hindi diverge indeed. Yet, Konkani is written in five different scripts (Roman, Devanagari, Kannada, Malayalam, Arabic) and nobody ever questioned the oneness of the language. For operational purposes, Hindi and Urdu are just two registers of a same language: Hindustani. Not Hindi, not Urdu: perhaps, ‘Hindustani film’ industry would be a more apt term.

What Register of Hindustani Does Bolly Speak?

More Hindi or more Urdu? In the last decade, a major cultural shift has engulfed India. The most influential political force of the country – the BJP along with its ideological powerhouse, the RSS – has been increasingly successfully rooting in the mainstream a renewed form of national identity, largely based on the pride of being Hindu and on the eradication of cultural influences perceived as alien.

Cities, streets and train stations have been rechristened to better reflect the Hindu roots of the land, like Allahabad turned into Prayagraj in 2018. Full chapters of school books have been edited to give more importance to ‘indigenous’ Hindu heroes over ‘foreign’ Muslim rulers.

This was reported in Rajasthan with Maharana Pratap shadowing Akbar. And Urdu has been increasingly targeted as an imported language, despite originating from the very Gangetic plain. In 2017, a BSP representative who had taken his oath in Urdu in the Aligarh Municipal Corporation was booked for “hurting religious sentiments”, after a BJP corporator filed a FIR against him.

Whether one likes it or not, it is undeniable that a significant number of Indians are embracing or at least tolerating this saffronization of society, including among the Bollywood elite.

In this context, we wanted to see if the language of Mumbai-based cinema had changed accordingly. Had so-called alien Urdu lost ground in popular cinema as compared to a more sanskritized Hindi?

The Survey: Analyzing Bollywood Titles

We looked at the ten Bollywood movies which obtained the highest commercial success every year since the independence of India – this represents a sample of 720 films.

For each movie, we analyzed the origin of the words used in the title and we calculated the ratio of Hindi, Urdu, English and other languages. For instance, Lagaan (2000) got 100% Hindi, Son of Sardaar (2012) 66% English and 33% Urdu, and Andhaa Kaanoon (1983) 50% Hindi and 50% Urdu.

Looking only at titles is evidently restrictive – a study of the actual language spoken in the movies would generate richer data. Yet, putting aside evident logistical constraints, focusing solely on titles has an advantage: it tells us about the vibe, the impression, the message movie-makers and producers wanted to give to their film.

To determine whether a word belonged to Hindi or Urdu, we referred to the etymology provided by the Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary. If the word had an Arabic/Persian/Turkish origin, it was classified as Urdu. If not, it was considered as Hindi.

This classification is somehow linguistically absurd: everyday words like kuch, tak, acchha belong as much to Hindi as to Urdu. Yet, for the sake of this study, since they originate from North India, they were associated exclusively to Hindi. The objective was to analyse Urdu through the prism of its presumed Islamic/foreign identity.

Urdu Still At the Heart of Bollywood’s Identity

And the result is: in the last fifty years, Urdu has been losing influence against Hindi, but not massively. In the 1950s, the comparative ratio between Hindi and Urdu was about 60-40. In the 2010s, it fell to 72-28.

Strikingly, in the 1980s, Urdu was even slightly more prevalent than Hindi, with movies like Hukumat (1987), Mard (1985) and Namak Halal (1982). In the 2010s, despite 2019 and 2014 featuring zero Urdu titles at the top of the box office (‘Kabir’ of Kabir Singh, is of Arabic origin, but names were not computed in the study), Urdu remained profusely utilized, as in Baaghi (2016), Kaabil (2017) or Aashiqui 2 (2013).

This finding is significant. The definition of Indianness might be getting narrower and narrower by the day, yet it cannot erase an incontestable fact: Urdu is too much rooted into popular culture to back off from mainstream.

The title of the movie Basant Bahar (1956) is a good metaphor of this reality; Basant means “Spring” in Hindi, and Bahar “Autumn” in Urdu, which perfectly illustrates the pluralist Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb of North India.

Urdu and Hindi have always cohabited, mingled, enriched each other – and Bollywood has for sure played a big role in the process. In fact, would Sanskritised Hindi totally replace Persianized Urdu, the very filmy vibe of Bollywood would be endangered. Ask yourself: are you ready to say “kitne purush the?” instead of “kitne aadmi the”? (yes, ‘aadmi’ comes from Arabic).

English Is The New Hindi

But let us put the Hindu-Urdu turf war aside, for the real surprise of this study comes from a third player, English, which has gained massive weight in the last two decades. While not a single movie of the top-10 box office featured a word in English in the 1940s, Shakespeare’s language colonized 44% of the titles in the last decade.

There seems to be a correlation between the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s, and the rise of English in Bollywood. The more India was opening to the world, the more Bollywood spoke English.

Many titles were not fully in English but in Hinglish, like Jab We Met (2007) or Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017). To a great extent, this represents the way urban Indians speak nowadays, with a great influx of English words replacing Hindi/Urdu equivalents.

Commercial motivations also seem to be a strong factor behind the increasing visibility of English. Today, it is undeniable that English comes with a “cool factor”. You want to give your movie a modern, snazzy, dynamic vibe? Use English!

This is not specific to India. In France, a country long viewed as a stronghold for linguistic chauvinism, American movies – like Avengers: Endgame and Spider Man: Far from Home in 2019 - are increasingly released under their original name, and not under a French translation like it was still the case a few years ago.

English just seems to sell better. In India however, the growing domination of English seems to be a specific feature of Bollywood.

In 2019, not a single Tamil movie of the top 10 box office featured a word in English. The percentage was only 7% for Bengali films, and 25% for Telugu - still far from the 44% of Bollywood. The tendency of Bollywood to look for larger audiences in the global market may explain this difference.

Jai Bollywood

Urdu may be losing a bit of his influence, English may be rising; yet the linguistic diversity of Mumbai-based cinema is still outstanding. Bollywood is for many reasons an abstract of India’s pluralism.

Films are shot in Hindi-Urdu, in a city where Marathi is the official language, with actors who mostly communicate in English among themselves, often with a heavy influence of Punjabi. As an adopted element in this land, this is precisely what fascinates me about India.

Jab I watch Hindustani pictures, mainu lagda ki this diversity is really, truly, atyant mazedaar.

(Hugo Ribadeu Dumas is a French national who has studied and now works in India as a consultant. He is fluent in English, Hindi, Bangla and an avid cinephile.)

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