From Archives of
Brunchfor 5th Anniversary Special
When Kanpur boy Ashwin Dheer came to Mumbai almost 17 years ago in search of work, he was acutely conscious of the fact that he could not hold a proper conversation in
It’s not that he didn’t know English. He had studied the language, but Hindi was his forte. Unfortunately, that was when the film industry, where Dheer looked for work, was dominated by people who couldn’t speak the Hindi he was familiar with. He was so intimidated by the English-speaking elite in the industry that he had a tough time narrating scripts to them. Because he’d frequently slip into Hindi.
Dheer has come a long way since then. He’s very comfortable with English, though he continues to slip into Hindi during conversations. Only, now he is unapologetic about it.
What changed? Somewhere between narrating scripts and getting work, Dheer realised that what he thought was his weakness was actually his strength. He had something the English speakers didn’t – a command over the language that the entertainment industry primarily runs on. That gave him the confidence to forge ahead.
“I was getting work because of my knowledge of Hindi. People who did not know Hindi used to ask me for advice on how to write and say things. That was my strength,” says Dheer. Because of this, the TV and film industry has been good to him. Dheer conceived, created and developed the award winning TV serial Office Office; he wrote the dialogues for the Ajay Devgan, Kajol starrer U Me Aur Hum and also made his directorial debut with the film One Two Three.
The people in the entertainment industry are still more comfortable with English, says Dheer, and he’s right. Still, because people like Dheer have something the English speakers don’t, they are now more often heard.
Dheer’s confidence graph is not unlike the confidence graph of the Hindi language, which has steadily risen over the past 15 years or so.
There was a time when the average convent-educated Delhiite or Mumbaikar wouldn’t be caught dead speaking Hindi. It was the language one used to address members of the serving class – the driver or the maid. Hindi movies were laughed at and an invisible line divided the urban youth in college in two: those who spoke English, who were ‘cool’. And those who spoke Hindi, also known as behenjis and bhaiyyas.
Today, Hindi is a language much in demand. In Delhi University, the cut offs (the minimum percentage after which no more candidates are admitted) for the Hindi honours course have steadily risen over the past three years. This is a sure indication of the popularity of the course.
Not only that, English-speaking graduates from elite backgrounds who, a few years ago, wouldn’t have dreamed of a career where knowledge of Hindi was the predominant requirement, have joined the Hindi media in droves. Hindi has suddenly become cool.
Popular perception has it that the media explosion of the last few years changed everything. Indian viewers were suddenly spoilt for choice. From a channel and a half, we had 100 channels in English and Hindi to choose from. The demand for Hindi in the media grew, and therefore the demand for Hindi speakers.
But something came before the media explosion. The change began years ago, in the ’90s, with the liberalisation of our economy.
Liberalisation meant that prosperity flowed into smaller homes in smaller towns like Meerut, says Mrinal Pande, author and editor of the Hindi daily, Hindustan. “There is no market in India as big as the Hindi heartland. And when a market is big, it demands its own language and choices in that language. The demand is ‘If you want to sell me your brand, sell it to me in my language’,” says literary and media critic professor Sudhish Pachauri, who also heads the department of Hindi at Delhi University. So people who didn’t live in the metros or bigger Indian towns finally found that they mattered. They could ask for something and get it too. The growing clout of this large number of Hindi speaking people led to a growing confidence in themselves and their country.
“Whenever countries become con-fident of themselves, they take pride in their language and culture,” explains Mrinal Pande. “With economic prosperity, our youngsters grew up in a free atmosphere and started to see their language as a sort of an identity they are proud of.” But demand for and by Hindispeakers was not enough. The language has seen a resurgence also because it changed. And changed in such a way that it appealed to the youth, across all regions of the country.
Dil Hai Hindustani
“Language becomes cool if the current generation likes it and uses it. It becomes cool if it is part of everyday communication. And that happens when a language is ready to embrace change,” says Prasoon Joshi, awardwinning lyricist and executive chairman of McCann Worldgroup India.
Previously, an almost Urdu-ised Hindi had dominated our cultural space, including Bollywood, for years. But a trend that first started with advertising brought down that Hindi from its pedestal and made it more accessible. Then Bollywood, which was already responsible for the spread of Hindi, took it further, especially into regions that were hostile to Hindi, like the south and east of the country. “I find more and more as I travel,even in Chennai and Kolkata, more and more people speak Hindi now because Hindi films have really penetrated deep into India,” says ad and theatre man Bharat Dabholkar.
Ad man and entrepreneur Prahlad Kakkar traces the origin of ‘cool’ Hindi to the Pepsi campaign of the early ’90s that started with the cry: Yeh dil maange more! “Pepsi started Indianising their ads. So ‘ask for more’ became ‘dil maange more’. ‘This is the right choice, baby’ became ‘yehi hai right choice, baby’,” says Kakkar. This language, Hinglish, resonated with the youth who were looking for an identity. Youngsters were relieved to have found a language they could identify with. It wasn’t so Indian as to embarrass them, nor so Western as to alienate them.
Hinglish made people comfortable speaking a language they were embarrassed about speaking earlier because of a fear of goofing up, says Dabholkar who is seen as one of the founders of Hinglish thanks to his introduction of the language in the Amul butter ads on which he worked for years.
As a mix of Hindi and English, Hinglish made English prominent – but also helped Hindi become popular because the language loosened up. Ravish Kumar, features editor of NDTV India, explains the situation rather well when he says, “Hindi ke acharya ke bojh thay hum par (The weight of academic Hindi weighed many of us down.)”
That weight has gone, believes Prasoon Joshi. “Hindi was overprotected. It was bookish and unfriendly. Of late it has become more contemporary,” says Joshi. That contemporary Hindi can be heard in our movies, some TV serials, Hindi news channels and Hindi newspapers.
“The language of advertising also changed. The stars of the advertising world became the bilingual copywriters; not only for advertising but also as writers for movies,” says Kakkar. Prasoon Joshi has played no small role in helping making the Hindi language contemporary thanks to his work in ad campaigns like Coca-Cola (Thanda matlab Coca-Cola) and Chlormint (dobara mat poochna) and for lyrics in films like Rang De Basanti and Taare Zameen Par. “Previously, the language of common parlance wasn’t manifested in the movies. That has changed now, though not completely,” says Joshi, citing Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munnabhai as examples of films that brought contemporary, snappy Hindi to Bollywood.
If small town India was getting more confident about its language, urban India was being reacquainted with its country – ironically – because of international channels like MTV and Channel V. These channels discovered the youth market in India and worked frantically to tap it, selling India to the Indian youth.
“MTV along with other youth channels drew a lot on the sounds of the street. We took things that were uncool and planted them in places that would make them cool. This included things like street language and calendar art,” says Cyrus Oshidar who headed MTV over those crucial years and now runs a brand solutions and youth marketing firm,Bawa Broadcasting. Their efforts led to a fundamental understanding among the youth that it was not uncool to love your own culture, he adds. Hindi, our national language, benefited from that.
Miles To Go
This doesn’t mean that Hindi is the new English. Yes, more people are speaking Hindi. Yes, there are more jobs available for exclusive Hindi speakers. Yes, Hindi channels are booming. But the truth is, if you want to be recognised as someone who has truly arrived, you still need to know English, and good English at that. “Hindi is still viewed as a downmarket language. English is still the language of the powerful, the elite,” says Ashutosh, managing editor of the Hindi news channel IBN 7. “Even now, many Hindi journalists won’t call themselves Hindi journalists. They will in all probability say, ‘I work for IBN 7’ or ‘I work for Aaj Tak’. This complexity is not attached to someone working in English news channels.”
“English remains the language of aspiration while Hindi is the language of society,” agrees NDTV’s Ravish Kumar.
In fact this pro-English slant is so high that it accounts for the puzzling contradiction that, though Hindi TV channels and Hindi newspapers reach out to lakhs more than their English counterparts, the English media makes higher revenues because premium advertisers always choose English over Hindi. That, however, is changing, says Mrinal Pande. “The footprint of the Hindi market is every marketer’s dream. Other Indian languages represent one or two states, while Hindi and its dialects is the mother tongue in 11 states and is also spoken elsewhere. Hindi is where the revenue is. Why do you think James Murdoch is shopping for a Hindi channel? Why do you think NRIs like Katrina Kaif who cannot speak a word of Hindi come to India to act? They are driven not by a love of the language but by the fact that they can make money out of Hindi. So Hindi is making a lot of strange friends,” she says. If that ensures the language stays alive, so be it.
From Archives of Brunch for 5th Anniversary Special