Bollywood and Urdu: Why the new crop of actors rarely get the language right
Published: Fri 17 May 2019, 12:00 AM
Last updated: Fri 24 May 2019, 1:25 PM
Diction - you either have it or you don't. Without exception though, today's hot and happening Bollywood actors just don't know how to deal with Urdu - or even Hindustani, a mix of Hindi and Urdu - while enacting Muslim characters on screen.
Varun Dhawan who portrayed Zafar, a hot-headed ironsmith of the pre-Partition era located in a town called Husnapur, in the lavishly-mounted Kalank, is a case in point. He elocuted reams of dialogue from the script without the requisite pronunciation and the rhythm of the lines assigned to him. By comparison, Madhuri Dixit, who played his mother Bahaar Begum, was at least passable.
Of course, the inexpert dialogue delivery - at points, there was a giveaway lisp alas - can be blamed as much on the otherwise likeable, peppy Varun as it can be on the writer-director Abhishek Varman and the sound-recordist or diction coach, if there was one on the shoot. The milieu of the turbulent year of 1947 was sought to be recreated in Kalank with so much fuss and fret - complete with ostentatious sets, bespoke costumes galore, billowing satin curtains, not to forget the presence of a studio Venice-like waterway - that the rest of the niceties of filmmaking went tumbling down the cracks.
Only fussy purists for diction may be bothered by this, you might say. But begging your pardon, when there's no attention to detailing, the outcome rankles even the lay viewer with an ear for dialogue delivery. For instance, both Varun and Alia Bhatt, his co-star insisted on pronouncing 'chaahiye' (want) - stemming from the word 'chaahat' - as a short-formed 'chaiye'. This could pass muster in the modern-day colloquial speak of Gully Boy, but certainly not in a period drama.
By comparison, the outbursts of thunderous dialogue by Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat (2018) were executed with far more credibility, relatively that is - thanks perhaps to the extravaganza's punctilious director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Earlier, too, quite perceptibly, Hrithik Roshan, as the Mughal emperor in Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodhaa-Akbar (2008), appeared to have made an effort to speak with a letter-perfect cadence.
Perhaps it's the old guard which still cares about grammar, syntax and diction when it comes to penning dialogue for films centred on Muslim-related themes. Of these the number has dwindled drastically. Once, stories like Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963), Dil Hi To Hai (1963), Mere Huzoor (1968), Pakeezah (1972), Umrao Jaan (1981) and Nikaah (1982) weren't a rarity. With time, films with Muslim characters have been ghettoised as chancy at the box office.
Indeed, I was warned while writing three films (Mammo - 1994, Sardari Begum - 1996 and Zubeidaa - 2001) for Shyam Benegal and directing three (Fiza - 2000, Tehzeeb - 2003, Silsiilay - 2005) that I was flirting with commercial disaster. "Why do your subjects have to be about the identity and status of Muslim people and that too, women," trade pundits would cluck, suggesting, "Take a vaster canvas." To that, my only retort would be, "Because that's the world I know. And we may be a minority community but an integral one to the nation's fabric."
In this challenging task, if I may say, I was aided immeasurably by the noted film and literary writer Javed Siddiqui, who had also authored the dialogue of Satyajit Ray's memorable Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977). His advice was, "Don't listen to the naysayers. If you have a story worth narrating, do it." Siddiqui's lines, written for most of my films, adhered strictly to the Hindustani argot.
Fortuitously, the acting ensemble strived to get their diction in order. To Shabana Azmi in Tehzeeb and Tabu in Silsiilay, it came naturally. Vis-à-vis, Hrithik Roshan and Karisma Kapoor in Fiza, they would discuss the dialogue sheet assiduously before every day's shoot. On the sets of Zubeidaa, Benegal was assisted by his regular lieutenant Shama Zaidi, to get every intonation spot-on.
Citing these personal instances is not a bid to blow my own trumpet. It's merely to assert that diction and dialogue are key departments, which call for as much finessing as a film's direction, editing, cinematography and sound-mixing. The snag, doubtlessly, is that actors, nowadays, tend to think intuitively in English. In fact, scripts are written in Roman English, since most directors and the acting crew find reading Hindustani texts a chore.
Over the decades, Dilip Kumar is the thespian who has stood out the tallest, in preserving the adad and lehza of Urdu. With the arsenal of pauses, emphasis on selected words and a flair for enunciation, he remains incomparable.
To ask for the millennials' favourite stars to be as accomplished as Dilip Kumar would be asking for the moon. Yet, no discussion on the topic would be complete without mentioning him - or Balraj Sahni, Prithviraj Kapoor, Raaj Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah, Rishi Kapoor, Aamir Khan, Ajay Devgn, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Tabu and Sushmita Sen, who have constantly been considered as master practitioners in the art of film dialogue pitch and pronunciation.
At the other end of the spectrum, the audience seems to nurse a forgiveness factor for artistes whose accents have been far from credible. These include Hema Malini whose rendition of Raziya Sultan (1983) was an earnest try but jarred in its overall impact. In recent years, Katrina Kaif is still to get rid of her English accent. Ditto Akshay Kumar who could surely improve upon, what is called, his 'dialoguebaazi'?
That feat doesn't seem to be likely though. The credo is to speak as the 21st century youth does, packed with cuss words, colloquialism and street-smart catchlines. To a degree, that belief has its logic, after all, the priority is to connect with the current-day audience.
However, when it comes to a movie set in a bygone era, even the immensely popular Varun Dhawan cannot get away with indifference to the Urdu culture that was. Just a little homework would have made a world of a difference.