In a 21st century take on the “Muslims Social”, Dedh Ishqiya does a marvellous job of using High Urdu to amaze and entertain. Looking beyond the wordplay, though, the film’s layered take on language provides some intelligent and much needed commentary on the state of Urdu in India today and its relationship with the country’s Muslims.
In a riotously funny scene from recently released comic thriller Dedh Ishqiya, Jaan Mohammad (played by Vijay Raaz) aggressively threatens a very drunk Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) to leave town so that he can win the hand of the beautiful Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit). In a twist typical of the film, fist fights and gun brandishing suddenly give way to poetry, as Khalujaan picks up the word “wādā” (promise) used by Jaan and starts taunting him using a sher. A gangster by profession and somewhat removed from the world of poetry, Jaan retorts as best he can by racking his brains and coming up with the only sher he knows on “wādā. This change of playing field from violence to poetry, though, can only end badly for Jaan. His verse induces derisive laughter from Khalujaan who then points out that Jaan’s original sher spoke of “bādā” (wine) and not “wādā” at all. Jaan just confused the two rhyming words.
It is credit to the competence of director Abhishek Chaubey that the Bombay theatre I was in, found the wordplay funny and laughed along with Khalu, in spite of the fact that very few would have been able to point out Jaan’s mistake themselves. Anupama Chopra, movie critic for the Hindustan Times, though, might have empathised more with Jaan and his struggles with High Urdu. While generally praising the film, she did end her review with one small regret: “I also struggled with the Urdu,” she said. “It was melodious but I wish I understood more of it.”
This frank admission, and the fact that Dedh Ishqiya is the only Bollywood film I’ve ever seen with English subtitles, contains within it some stark irony for an industry which, it could be said, was born into Urdu. As Mukul Kesavan has pointed out, Bollywood with its fantasy, musicals and location (Bombay) was an almost direct successor to Parsi theatre. And like the theatre, the new film industry adopted Urdu, given that it was the only language at the time which had any sort of pan-national appeal. To churn out words for this new industry, were recruited large numbers of Urdu writers and poets from North India. Bollywood’s Golden Age from the 40s to the 60s was studded with Urdudāns such as Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni and, most relevant to this movie, Ismat Chughtai. Lihāf (Quilt), Chughtai’s story of lesbian love between a begum and her maid, forms one of the principal subplots within Dedh Ishqiya. The movie itself has a subtle hat tip to this source in the scene where Khalujaan and Babban have been tied up by Para and Muniya (Huma Qureshi). As the shadows of the two woman making love flit across the screen—in itself a symbol from Lihāf—Khalujaan remarks impishly to Babban, “thand lag rahī hai? Lihāf māng le!” (Feeling cold? Ask for a quilt).
To grant Chopra her limited point, the language of Dedh Ishqiya is particularly “high” for the average film of today. But go back just 50 years, and you would find a very similar linguistic standard prevalent in the industry, especially in the music. Wonder how a film reviewer reconciles her job as a critic when a film of just 50 years back would be inaccessible to her. But then in an industry where Katrina Kaif, a person who plays all her roles with a thick British accent, is the dominant star maybe Chopra is doing all right. And of course, there is the point that Chopra would hardly be alone. Whatever be the origins of Bollywood, the fact is that a very large majority of Indians would be unable to understand the sort of High Urdu that the movie uses—it’s not for nothing that the film carried English subtitles.
In a mark of the intelligence of the film though, one of the themes of Dedh Ishqiya is this very hollowness of Urdu in India today.
Urdu started life as a standardised register of the local language of Delhi. As SR Faruqi points out in his book Early Urdu Literary Culture and History, “Urdu” itself is a metonym for the city of Delhi. The name “Urdu”, though, is very recent and the language has variously been called Hindvi/Gujri/Rekhta/Dakhani and even Hindi; as late as the early 20th century, the words “Hindi” and “Urdu” were being used interchangeably.
The development of Urdu as an elite language though was a rather late development in the history of North India. Throughout the medieval period, Persian had been the region’s lingua franca and official language. In fact it was so ingrained in India that when the British proposed to do away with Persian in 1839, 500 citizens from Dhaka, split almost equally amongst Hindu and Muslim, vigorously petitioned the government to desist from such a move. In spite of this, the British did replace Persian and, in North India, introduced Urdu in its place as an official language. Unfortunately, the legacy of Farsi was less easy to shake off. The Urdu that took root in the offices of the Raj was corpulently Persianised. This was maybe a deliberate tactic by the clerks—mostly upper class Muslims, Kayasths, Kashmiri Brahmins and Khatris—who controlled the language and profited from the fact that the general populace was totally dependent on them for something as simple as comprehension. In many ways, this attitude was not dissimilar to that of the current Anglophone class which break out into paroxysms every time anyone so much as talks of replacing English with the local languages of each state.
As a reaction, the rural classes—who were mostly Hindu—championed the cause of Nagari using organisation such as the Nagari Pracharini Sabha (of Banaras) and the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan (of Allahabad), both founded at the turn of the century. In this way, the origins of modern Hindi were utilitarian and commonsensical—it aimed to simplify Urdu. Unfortunately, this straightforward matter of language, as we all know, got violently communalised and to top it all, the end result was a register which was de-Persianised, as promised, but also corpulently Sanskritised, leading us all back to square one as far as ease of comprehension goes. Alok Rai calls this new register “school Hindi” and wryly remarks that this leads to children across the length and breadth of North India to valiantly struggle to learn a language which is supposed to be their mother tongue. It is no wonder that all popular culture in India, such as Bollywood, steers clear of either extreme and sticks to the spoken speech of Hindustan. In 1947 though, the sharp politicisation of the Hindi-Urdu issue meant that this “School Hindi” was adopted as India’s official language. Suddenly, in places like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, the birthplace of Urdu, Urdu stopped being taught and used in government. This lack of patronage had little effect on the everyday Urdu (or Hindustani) of spoken speech, a large portion of the language which was shared in common with Shudh Hindi. It did however have the effect of severely curtailing the sphere of influence of High Urdu. A high or literary register without patronage is, by definition, not going to get very far and that is what happened. Post-1947, Urdu atrophied dramatically.
Normally, if this was any other country, High Urdu would have a dignified death much as Ottoman Turkish did when Ataturk changed the official language of Turkey to Modern Turkish. Indeed, since Urdu offers almost no economic benefits, the only people who study it today as a primary language are people who get this education free at madrasas and are too poor to pay for anything else. In India, though, the communal history of Hindi-Urdu, made Urdu one of various meaningless markers of Muslim identity that can be taken out and flogged whenever necessary. As an example, when AAP want to reach out to Muslims in Delhi, it releases an Urdu pamphlet. This is unneeded because firstly, a large number of Delhi Muslims would be unable to read the Urdu script in the first place and secondly, even those that do, will almost certainly read the Devanagri script better or, at least, just as well. If all AAP wanted to do was to communicate with Muslims, a Hindi pamphlet would have done a much better job. And of course, this was just a minor example. Governments have, for decades, used the “Muslim” symbolism of Urdu—a sort of internal Orientalism if you will—to great effect employing it as a diversionary tactic to get away with non-performance on rather more pressing issues such as health or sanitation.
Given that a majority of its characters are Muslims, Dedh Ishqiya might be classified as a modern “Muslim social”. True to its genre, the film does explore the stereotypical elements of elite Indo-Islamic culture. Dedh Ishqiya has havelīs, nawābs and begums, flowing sherwanīs and, of course, stars High Urdu. Unlike a traditional Muslim Social such as Umrao Jaan or Pakeezah (which would have High Urdu through and through), the movie functions on multiple planes of language. At the almost surrealistic mushairā-cum-swayamwar that Begum Para holds to choose a suitor for herself, the most mellifluous Urdu is spoken and, indeed, Chaubey and Bhardwaj take advantage of the register to produce some crackling repartee and wit. Things though start unravelling in the character of Jaan Mohammed, a local gangster looking to gentrify himself by marrying a begum. Respectability though needs to be earned and before he gets to become a nawāb he’ll have to get the language right. Jaan’s battles with Urdu lead to some curious results. Throughout the movie he uses some high vocabulary (“shamsheer” for “talwār” and “gauhar” for ”hīre-motī”/) but slips up on the simplest of Urdu words, mispronouncing “Ishq” as “Issak” or “shart” as “sart”. And not only Jaan, for all the other characters, this High Urdu is just a mask put on to impress. Khalujaan, who is otherwise a talented poet, talks to his closest friend Babban in their common earthy register of Bhopali Urdu. The one time he does put on airs as a fake nawāb, Babban tells him rather plainly that “tumhārī sārī nawābīyat hai nā, picchwāde main ghusaid doongā” (I’ll stuff you airs up your ass). And when right towards the end of the movie, Jaan Mohammad despotically orders Para and Khalujaan to dance for him, one of his flunkies pipes up to complain, “Yeh itne dinon se ghazlein-wazlein sun ke nā badhazmī sī ho ga’ī hai, sāli. Inse item number karwāte hain. ” (I’m tired of all this high-falutin’ poetry. Let’s get them to do some item numbers).
This sort of linguistic meta-commentary is rare in Bollywood (Chupke Chupke is one exception which comes to mind), which is odd given how integral language is to the art of cinema. But Dedh Ishqiya does take a shot at it and skilfully uses the nuances of language to explore different shades of the story as well as make a larger point about the state of Urdu in India today. And that is