New Delhi: Mohit Suri’s romantic drama Half Girlfriend and Irrfan Khan-starrer Hindi Medium released this week have, perhaps unwittingly, managed to touch the same nerve—the age-old obsession that India has with the English language.
While Half Girlfriend is an adaption from Chetan Bhagat’s bestseller, Hindi Medium delves into the education system in Delhi. But both films confront the same dilemma that many in a primarily non-English speaking country face—of competing for the same opportunities as those better versed in English, a language that academic, professional and social set-ups clearly favour.
“The initial intent was to write a film on education and how parents are obsessed with getting their children into big brand schools,” said Hindi Medium director Saket Chaudhary. “As we researched more, we started discovering the kind of criteria on which parents are rejected and their children not granted admission, the most obvious one was address, then it started becoming about educational qualifications and finally we realized there was a very strong bias against parents who were not very fluent in English.”
Half Girlfriend, on the other hand, narrates the linguistic and romantic struggles of a rural Bihar-bred boy who takes admission at an English-medium college in Delhi and falls in love with a girl educated in the capital. Bhagat had dedicated his 2014 book to “non English-types” with his protagonist ultimately not just winning the girl, but also managing a successful life in his own village.
The movie trend, which began a few years ago with Sridevi’s light-hearted comedy English Vinglish, has, more recently, also been evident in full-fledged advertising campaigns like Micromax’s “Angrezipanti ko Angootha” to target middle-class consumers with its Unite 4 smartphone.
Not very long ago, advertisements for even the most popular biscuit brands communicated their messages only in English. But the acknowledgment of Indian languages and a more local orientation picked up in the early 2000s with local archetypes like Coca Cola’s “Thanda matlab Coca Cola”.
Today, some of the most successful television campaigns are not in English and the ones in the south are all created (and not dubbed) in the local languages, said Saurabh Uboweja, chief executive and chief brand strategist at brand consultancy firm Brands of Desire. “English may seem mainstream to us because we live in the big cities but for brands, Hindi and regional languages are pretty centric to their campaigns,” he added.
In cinema though, it may be a specific reaction to a more recent phenomena.
“I think what we’re seeing today is just a specific acknowledgement of language and what it means. And in cinema at least, it is a reaction to the multiplex phenomenon which has legitimized a certain English-speaking, educated elite,” said Santosh Desai, chief executive and managing director, Future Brands Ltd, referring to the fact that Hindi films today use a lot of English words and some films are even being largely shot in English.
“In a sense, it’s a response to the mainstreaming of English that has happened. Particularly to do with the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon and the whole set of new novelists who cater to and write in a style that is much more accessible and in sync with the English that is understood and spoken,” Desai said.
While filmmakers like Chaudhary see the relative cool quotient associated with vernacular languages as a reflection of the growing influence of a middle-class that has purchasing power, brand experts point to the cultural shift, where India is seen as becoming more confident of its languages and of itself in the global space. Perhaps, this has also to do with the larger political climate and the implicit emphasis that Prime Minister Narendra Modi places on language (in this case, Hindi) as a tool to unite the country.
“Those who see themselves in the cultural mainstream today are not people who don’t speak English but they are just more comfortable with their own language and their world revolves much more around local languages than English,” Desai said. “There is a slight shift in the self-image of who is the elite and who is heard most in India today. There was a time when the English-speaking elite was heard the most, today there is a much more local language-speaking kind of elite that is emerging. I don’t know if vernacular is the new cool but there is certainly much greater self-confidence with the vernacular.”