Upon a friend’s suggestion, I checked out the new Indian supernatural Netflix series, Typewriter. I was so horrified that I had to stop watching.
The show was in Hindi.
What’s strange about a web programme from India being in the national language, you might ask? Well, Typewriter takes place in Goa, its lead character named Jenny Fernandes. The series’ use of Hindi is perplexing, given its ostensible location in Goa where Konkani and Marathi are linguistically regional. This follows a common trend in which Bollywood movies tell Goan stories, as in Trikal (1985) and My Brother… Nikhil (2005), but do so to the near exclusion of local languages (and talent, it might be added).
Such films centre characters meant to be Goan while relying on facts from Goan history. Trikal unfolds in the aftermath of the end of Portuguese colonialism in Goa, while My Brother… Nikhil is based on the life of Goan activist Dominic D’Souza, the first person in India to be diagnosed with HIV. The use of Hindi to tell such stories is jarring. It is reminiscent of Kimiko Akita’s observation of the strangeness of the film Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), where its traditional Japanese women are heard to be “speak[ing] English fluently” (Global Media Journal, Fall 2006).
Bollywood’s language colonialism via Hindi not only undermines regional languages and cultures in the telling of stories not situated in the Indian hinterland, but also subsumes diversity by imposing the ubiquity of a national language upon the peripheries of the country. More importantly, it also accepts unquestioningly that Hindi is a national language.
Writing for The Week (14 September 2019), former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju emphatically states, “The truth is that Hindi is an artificially created language, and is not the common man's language, even in the so-called Hindi-speaking belt of India. The [commonly used] language in … [this region] … is not Hindi but Hindustani or Khadiboli…” Katju further explains that the rise of nationalism posited Hindi as an Indian language versus Urdu, a cleavage drawn between the two similar tongues to “divide … Hindus and Muslims…”
In a country that produces more films than any other globally, it is easy to recognize the role cinema can play in inculcating language and cultural normativity by seeming to unite a nation through monotonous linguistic storytelling.
Conversely, a truly national cinema should aim to support diversity by encouraging the making of films in local cultural and language contexts. Here, IFFI 2019 is exciting for the range of cinematic heritages covered, though still more needs to be done towards the inclusivity of lesser represented regions, Goa among them. At the festival, new films like In the Land of Poison Women in Pangchenpa, Jallikettu in Malayalam, Kenjira in Paniya, and Amori in Konkani provide refreshing alternatives to Hindi and North Indian cinema.
As Aswin Punathambekar finds in his book Bombay to Bollywood (2013), it is not through cinema halls alone that a national film industry accumulates and exercises cultural power. Rather, it also relies upon other forms of media; these include the radio, television and, now, digital platforms, like Netflix.
For there to be a true change in propagating diverse film cultures across India, cable television, web programming, and other sources of nationally available media need to make room for filmic voices that are not solely in Hindi.
Wouldn’t it be stimulating to be in Delhi and switch on the telly at 9PM to catch a film about the South in Telugu? Now that would really show what cinema can do.
From The Peacock.