There was a time when very little English was used by Bollywood. What little was in the form of expletives – Dharemendra flaring his nostrils and casting blazing looks at the bad guys as he rasped “you bloody bastard”, or the heroine giving drop dead looks to the hero as she screeched “you idiot, you stupid” at him. There was the occasional “I love you” especially if the film was about young urban love birds. And, there were the comedy pieces aimed at poking gentle fun at the galleries and their penchant for speaking in a foreign tongue. The most famous, of course, was Amitabh Bachchan in this masterful scene in Namak Halal
English was, even twenty five years ago, a very formal language used by the elite for conducting their lives. Schools that had the mother tongue as the medium of instruction were still popular, and in many cities – elite schools (for example Bal Mohan Vidya Mandir and Parle Tilak Vidyalaya were both not just elite Marathi schools in Mumbai but elite schools).
Bollywood reflected society, which may have been comfortable using English for business or transactional purposes – but by and large used the mother tongue at home or for conversation amongst friends. But, the post liberalization years saw a sea change in the rate at which English was absorbed. Parents, who saw their economic status rise with the new liberalized economy also wanted social mobility, and they saw English as a way to achieve it. English medium schools bloomed and blossomed across the length and breadth of India. And continue to do so. Schools that have the mother tongue as the medium of instruction have seen declining enrollments. Elite schools that taught in the mother tongue are no longer the top choice for parents, to survive many have started an English medium wing. Today’s Bollywood, as well are regional film industries are very happy using English in dialogues, and in songs. They are sure it is not just the elite who will understand it, but a large chunk of the masses. Just go back and hear the Tamil song Kolaveri to see how Tamlish (Tamil + English) works.
The focus on English has led to dividends of a different nature. Social mobility of a different sort. Where ever you go on the outskirts of the big cities – with giant buildings that house the outsourcing industry – you will see young men and women hanging out, speaking to each other in foreign accented English. In food courts in malls, you will see middle aged women having involved conversations in English with a smattering of Hindi or their mother tongue. As India – especially Indian cities become more multi lingual, English is becoming the link language across social classes.
The language spoken in India has little to do with the Queen or the Empire, rather English has become a uniquely Indian language with our own nuances and quirks built into it. We very happily prepone meetings, slam opponents, get rapped on our knuckles (like school kids) by the judiciary, go to our native place, respectfully beseech someone for an appointment, and remain their ever obliging servant. We also hangout with bros, find our peer group of both sexes to be dudes, and are very comfortable high fiving when we are happy. We touch base, sckedule our meetings (as opposed to schedule), negotiate in the ball park of a few crores, and try to become a part of the big league. The language is a mixture of Victorian, American street talk, and baseball terms – with a smattering of Hindi.
To think of English as a foreign language is living with your head buried deep in the sand. English, is now officially Indian – more Inglish than English. They came, they conquered, they left – and we have taken their language as compensation – and made it our own. Macauly will probably roll in his grave, if he saw what we did to his language. And, there can be no better revenge than that.
The thing to do, to make English more popular is do what the British have done. Burn Wren and Martin. Free up the language from those dreadful rules of construction that makes it humorless, starched alien tongue from a different era. Let the high level entropy of India flow through the language. After all, there will be no purists, who have political ambitions, who can beat you up for making the language more popular, more fun and more relevant.
With almost 255 million Indians speaking English (Just under a quarter of the population), about 6.5 crore people speak it as their primary (or first language), we do so not because of linguistic pride or force – but because of the belief (of those who educated us) that it will bring a better tomorrow. It is a language that is spawning its own unique pop culture within India – in terms of books, music, movies, expressions and more. It is no longer a big city, elite family phenomenon. Everyone wants to learn English.
It is no longer politically expedient to be anti English in campaigns or threaten to shut down English schools. Voters react badly when they see their ‘better’ future being threatened, and English is seen as a part of the better future. It is a language that has no basis in India, not a part of caste and class. Everyone learns to speak it in the same way, and in many ways it is an equalizer.
So, let us not wail about Macauly and the cry that we are colonized because we are communicating in English, rather let us celebrate our assimilation of one more culture and making it uniquely our own.