English-speaking films in the Indian competition By Matthieu Darras
Among the 15 films of the Indian competition screened at the 7th Mumbai Film Festival, 5 of them were primarily shot in English -if not to take into account the majority being infiltrated with plenty of English dialogue. One third! This percentage is quite revealing if one is just reminded that there are eighteen languages recognised by the Indian Constitution. By comparing this figure with the ones provided by Amit Khanna in the Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema (Britannica, New Delhi, 2003) concerning Indian cinema production for the period 1990-2000, there is room for even more astonishment. An average number of 6 English-speaking films produced a year over the period, against for example 180 films in Hindi, 150 in Tamil, 140 in Telugu, 85 in Kannada, 80 in Malayalam or 45 in Bengali. Thus, approximately 1% only of the all production of Indian cinema is currently shot in English, with however a slight increase during the recent past years.
Certainly, the number of entries received by the Mumbai Film Festival and artistic choices operated by the selection committee members have resulted in this presence en masse of English films and certainly put aside a large number of mainstream Indian productions shot in local languages. Indeed, if you take a closer look at the five English films in competition, none of them really used the new “lingua franca” in order to make it to the box-office, or really on the margins of art-house cinema.
For In Othello (Roysten Abel), a -doomed- attempt to represent a multicultural theatre company in New Delhi staging its production of Shakespeare’s play, English is at the core of the intrigue. In fact, the leading -inexperienced small town- actor cannot play his part in English, jeopardising the play.
On the other hand, Bow Barracks Forever (Anjan Dutt) successfully portrays a community of Anglo-Indians living in the neighbourhood of “Bow Barracks” in Calcutta. For these strangers in their own country without any link whatsoever with the British Crown, only the use of the English language can demonstrate their past and unique identity.
As for the young Amu (FIPRESCI Award), she is an Indian American woman returning to India to visit her family and place of birth. No wonder then that she expresses herself in American most of the time. More interesting in this language issue is the fact that the director, Shonali Bose, is also an overseas Indian woman, living in Los Angeles. For that matter, if one considers the few recent Indian directors known on the international scene, most of them -for instance Deepa Mehta or Mira Nair- live abroad. A tragic situation for Indian cinema? At least, overseas Indian directors, unlike their counterparts from Hong Kong , mostly tackle issues of Indian relevance.
That is the case of Chicago-based director, Anup Kurien, who won the Best Film Award at the Festival with Mansarovar. This very fresh and original love story between thirty-something people is set in Pune, Maharashtra (State of Mumbai). Why then choosing to shoot in English rather than in Maharati? For the director, ” English is the true language of India. Many Indian people speak it daily. Why not represent this reality? ” Late in the conversation, he finally admits that ” such a simple and very-low budget film (20 000 dollars) will mostly please overseas Indian communities, and was targeted at them for that matter. ” Will Indian cinema in the future always be at its best in English due to the growing audience of Indians -including directors- living abroad? Hopefully not. For not providing support to its upcoming talents, it might be that the Indian State shares a part of responsibility of the current and possible future situations.