The Language They Call English

I am an NRI, translated into: no-real Indian. I follow Indian cinema in my quest to find only one million original films before humanity as we know it disappears. I will use the term Indian cinema sparingly because I only have access to Hindi films, not Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and other languages.

The only reason why I have Chupke Chupke, directed by Hrishkesh Murkherjee in my shopping cart for original movies is the take on the English language. I’ve always wondered why it is the way it is, some of it doesn’t make sense, something that Dr. Parimal Tripathi (Dharmendra) questions in the film. He is a Botany professor but disguises himself as a driver Pyaremohan, to find out more about Raghav, his brother-in-law because his wife Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) cannot stop praising him.

Pyaremohan also questions the mixing of English and Indian languages, something we are grappling with in South Africa. Characters in South African soap operas cannot finish a sentence in Zulu, Venda, Sesotho or Xhosa without putting English words. It’s not their doing. They are following the director’s script. English and Afrikaans soap directors don’t use African languages. They are loyal to their respective languages.

“It’s not desirable to use English words while speaking Hindi. I don’t like English because it is not scientific,” Pyaremohan the driver complains to Sulekha’s brother-in-law Raghav. He does not understand why the word put is not pronounced like cut. The word go is pronounced as in foe. Go and do are written in the same way but pronounced differently. He feels go should be pronounced like do, which will be ‘goo’, which means something else in Hindi, human body waste. What is even funnier is Pyaremohan challenging the following:

The word no is pronounced like ‘know’. Why is the ‘k’ silent?
Why is the ‘p’ silent in pneumonia but is not in pthysis?

English is also under scrutiny in Bhool Bhulayiaa, which also has the kind of Indian dancing I like. It was the scene where the Bengali dancer Manjulika (Vidya Balan) dances with the court dancer Shashidhar (Vineeth) she was in love with in the dream sequence scene. English is questioned at the beginning of the film, where the community is watching a game of cricket on television.

Someone complains about the commentary, “We should ban this English language. Nothing can be understood.” They call Sir Ji, the local professor who explains the similarity between Hindi and English. Mr. Batuk (Paresh Rawal) joins the discussion and says Hindi is spoken and written the same way and English is not.

One of the reasons why I enjoy English spoken by the ordinary woman in Lagos, Nigeria, Jamaica, Trinidad and other countries is the way they speak the Queen’s English. They have no allegiance to it whatsoever. Too bad if Professor Higgins in the play Pygmalion objects!

Pygmalion was written by George Bernard Shaw about Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney (working class caste in London) girl and Professor Higgins. The good professor had a wager with his friend that he could change Eliza’s Cockney accent and turn her into a lady with a proper English accent. Pygmalion was later turned into numerous films including My Fair Lady. Pygmalion was written at a time when your accent immediately placed you in a certain class in English society.

Shankar also plays around with language in his latest film Endhiran. Dr. Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) has created a robot that will fight India’s wars to avoid men dying in combat. His boss Bhora (Denny Denzonga) is jealous because his own attempt to create a robot is a failure. Bhora asks his robot to pick up a gun. It picks up a hamburger bun.

Languages! I respect anyone who speaks more than four languages. I failed to learn French in Canada because I could not understand that some words are female, others male. I’m having fun with Hindi because some words sound like Zulu, something we’ve discussed in previous posts.

Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness the novel.


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