Hindi Film 101: What English Language Skills Mean in Modern Hindi Cinema

Oh boy! Big BIG topic! This is scary! I’m going to be completely wrong about many things! But hopefully also completely right about many things to make up for it.

Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not a linguist, or a social historian. This is my original interpretation and analysis of the situation based on how it appears to me.

I want to start by dealing with the basic accepted knowledge. First, English language skills are a class marker and a privilege marker in India. In order to succeed in modern India, being able to speak English is a requirement. It is the common language of international corporations where the most desirable jobs are. English language primary schools are the goal for most parents, resulting in children who speak English as adults. The highest level of classes send their children overseas for college, giving them the final touch of fluency. The way the Hindi film industry increasingly requires English is part of the overall switch to “corporate” and “global” and all those other buzzwords. It’s a symptom of them being out of touch with the common audience and common man.

Also, Hindi films using English to the degree they do now is contributing to the death of Hindi. Instead of beautiful poetic Hindi dialogue, now we have awkward Hinglish, or Hindi dialogue that was clearly just translated word for word from English. In the same way, Hindi film figures using English in their public life is contributing to the death of Hindi. Blog posts, twitter, interviews, all in English now, and it’s all bad. Not to mention leading to a massive cultural divide between the English language sources and the non-English language sources and their readers.

Those two points are just accepted and obvious and part of the cultural conversation. I want to deal with something tiny, the way English fluency can have a different meaning on a case by case basis. Stereotyping English speakers in India is a “punching up” situation, so it’s not really that bad, but it can still lead to inaccuracies and I hate inaccuracies.

This is a fun song built around an English language tongue twister. Amitabh invented this tongue twister back in the 70s in one of his movies, it’s nonsense which is the joke, just a bunch of impressive English words that mean nothing. Amitabh could say it back in the 70s and today because his father was a brilliant poet and Professor of English who became a fluent English speaker because of natural ability, and Amitabh was raised by this brilliant man. Abhishek can say it because he was raised by Amitabh, and had the privilege of an American college education thanks to his father’s wealth. Ajay can say it because he tried really hard and learned English in school and on the streets of Bombay in order to advance his career, although his parents could not speak it and he did not come from privilage. Three different things.

When I was in college, I had a friend whose family was originally from Bangladesh, then they lived for a while in North India, then immigrated to America. She described her 3 languages as her “street” language (Hindi), her “home” language (Bengali), and her “school” language (English). I think this is a very useful break down of languages which can be applied to most people who are bi or tri lingual.

My grandfather was raised bilingual until he started school. They lived with his grandparents when he was little, and his grandfather always spoke to him in German. And then he started school, and his family moved out into their own home, and he lost all his German except for an occasional word that will come back to him out of the blue (recent words have included “potato salad” and “wooden head”). “Home” became English, and “street” and “school” already were. I think this is a very common situation as well, I had other desi friends in school who didn’t speak anything but English, but when they went home they could understand what their parents said to them in their family Indian language. “School” and “Street” had beaten the language skills out of them, all that was left of the “home” ability was being able to understand things said to them, without having the ability to repeat them back.

Kal ho naa ho (2003) - IMDb
You know the biggest inaccuracy in this movie? Punjabi Preity and Gujurati Saif speak Hindi to each other. They are American, their “street” language would be English and their home languages would be different from each other. It’s not a big inaccuracy, I could believe they spoke Hindi as a secret code in the White World, but it is a little different from what I usually see in real life.

I have absolutely no skill with languages. I struggle to follow grammar rules, and memorize vocabulary words in classrooms. I’ve watched Hindi films for 15 years, and yet I still haven’t grasped the language through immersion. And yet I would put my ability with English up against almost anyone. I started reading Shakespeare for pleasure at age 8. I can do this because English is all I have ever known. Classrooms, street, popular culture, my family, since babyhood I have heard the rhythm of English language. I got the fluency immediately, and so I could grow on to enjoy the fancy bits, like poetry. Even I, someone with truly dreadful language skills, can be fluent in this one particular language. Because it is all I know, because I didn’t have to learn it in school or on the street but at home, and everywhere else. That is my privilege in the world today, that I was lucky enough to be born into a family who speaks the dominant language of the world and therefore I can speak it fluently with no extra effort. Thank goodness, because if I was born to a non-English speaking family I would never have been able to master it.

Now, let’s talk English in India. English has been important in India since the British arrived. The aristocracy had to speak it in order to move in the circles of power. The civil servants would have a career advantage of they could speak it. The average person might be able to get a better job as a servant, or increase customers for their shop if they could speak it. English was there, in India, since the 1700s. But it wasn’t the dominant language.

I just rattled off all the people who would have an advantage by being able to speak English. But if you combine all those people, it’s still just like 2% of society. The fact of the matter is, even at the height of colonialism, there just weren’t that many British people THERE. In the army, for instance, it wasn’t that the soldiers learned English, it was that the officers learned some bits of the local languages. Just easier that way, so many more non-English speakers than speakers. If you look at all the shopkeepers who struggled to learn English in order to attract British costumers, and compared it with all the shopkeepers who learned a non-English language to attract customers from a different region or ethnicity of South Asia, I am sure it would be far far larger.

Amazon.com: Watch Roja | Prime Video
Remember the tour guide in Roja? He spoke Tamil and Hindi, that was his special skill. English didn’t come up, he learned languages to help people from one region of India talk to another region and it was enough to earn a living.

English schools, English books, English speakers have been around as part of Indian society for hundreds of years. English was an official state language under the British, something that might be spoken in court rooms or used in legal documents. After independence, it remained an official state language. South India pushed for it to be THE official language. India has no one universal language and never has, a commenter here explained to me that the thinking of the South Indian activists was that everyone should be equal, they should all learn together a foreign language (English), rather than some folks being native speakers while others are forced to learn a new tongue.

That was in the past. English was a thing that was around, but it wasn’t the only thing, it wasn’t as important as it has become in the past 20 years. You can see that in movies, since the 1950s Hindi films would have the occasional English dialogue to show that the speaker was rich and educated and global. But only in the past 20 years has “Hinglish”, the mixture of Hindi and English, become the norm for all the rich urban characters all the time.

The funny thing is, in today’s world, what the South Indian activists feared has come true, only with English. After the liberalization of the economy in the 90s opened up the doors to international corporations, English went from something it is useful to know if you are pursuing a particular career, or living in a particular place (for instance, a tourist town), to something that you must know if you want any kind of career advancement. It’s still not universal by any means, there are villages and lower income urban areas where English would be spoken rarely or never. But it is a bit of a golden ticket if you want to get out of those villages and lower income areas.

English is now spoken by 12% of the population of India, making India second only to America in number of English speakers overall. Notice that means 88% of the population still has no English at all. Think about that when you watch a Hindi movie with a lot of English dialogue. It’s aimed at the 12%, not the 88%. The most interesting thing to me is that this 12% includes people who list English as their primary language, their secondary language, or their third language. Only 0.02% list it as their primary language. About 8% list it as a second language, and 4% as their third.

What does this mean? Well, going back to my home/street/school definition, I would guess those who learn English in school and use it on the street (with friends, at work, etc.) are the ones who say it is their second language. Those who use it only in school, with another language at home and a third language on the street, would list it as their third. And probably a large number of people are rounding up (really more fluent in their Street language than their School language, but like to think it is the other way around).

My Name Is Ali - Full Song | Dhoom:2 | Uday Chopra | Bipasha Basu ...
This song, a guy who knows maybe 4 phrases in English but keeps repeating them, that’s about the “third language” group who are sort of faking until they make it.

There are 0.02% people in India who learned English like I did, because it was just around them, the language everyone in their family and friend group spoke. I know a lot of those people, because they tend to immigrate to America. Which, come to think of it, might be what keeps that number down! That 0.02% isn’t multiplying, because their children are going overseas. They don’t speak American English of course, they speak Indian English. Phrases like “do one thing” “I have reached” and so on don’t mean they are bad English speakers, it just means that is the version of English they learned as children. They think in English, and that gives them a fluency like nothing else. New words, new phrases, new jokes and memes and so on, it all just slides right into their knowledge as easy as breathing.

And then there are all the people who learned English painfully. The memorized words, the grammar rules from class, the awkward practice conversations with people more fluent, until you hit your own personal skill level and cannot move forward. I am those people, I am truly terrible at languages. My wall of learning is about 4 feet high. But then there are other people for whom leaping tall buildings is like nothing, languages just come to them.

Let’s look at some Indian film industry folks for comparison. How about, Karan Johar, Shahrukh Khan, and Alia Bhatt. Karan Johar grew up in South Bombay, the most cosmopolitan area of India. He learned English in school, would have had various international English speakers swimming through his orbit, everyone from tourists eating at the sweet shop nearest his home, to English speaking clients of his father’s import-export business. He was a sensitive child, he wasn’t running out on the streets among the Hindi and Marathi speaking folks of Bombay, his world was the adult occasional English speakers around his parents, and eventually the fellow English speaking upperclass college kids he befriended. His parents, like most upper class parents, would have encouraged his English, he was supposed to take over his father’s import-export business and it would be useful to him there. Or really in any other Bombay white collar kind of job he wanted. English wasn’t the primary language of his family, but it was around him in the street as well as at school, and by the time he was in college, English and Hindi flowed in and out between each other in his thinking.

An Unsuitable Boy by Karan Johar
I mean, he wrote a whole book in English! And a bunch of movies in Hindi.

Then there’s Shahrukh Khan. He also grew up in an urban cosmopolitan kind of space. He went to a very good English language school, his parents had both learned English as part of their schooling. It wasn’t the language of the street around him, that was Delhi Hindi/Punjabi. And it wasn’t the language at home, he doesn’t talk about speaking English with his parents. He got English mostly from school, then burnished it up through his English language acting group in college, until he became as fluent as someone for whom it is a primary language. Fluent enough to read complex English language novels for pleasure.

And finally, Alia. English is her primary language. Her mother’s family is British, her father grew up in the international film industry, English is the language of her family and childhood and home. Hindi would be something she learned in school, and uses on the street as needed, and maybe with some friends. Alia is part of that 0.02%. Shahrukh and Karan are technically part of that massive 8% that has English as their second language, but they can pass for the 0.02%.

Why did Alia Bhatt's mother Soni Razdan say she would be happy to ...
There’s also the complicated issue that Alia’s pale skin and English language skills make her seem like a desirable status symbol kind of person. But she isn’t a symbol, she is a person, she looks like that and speaks like that because her mother’s family struggled in a new world, and her mother chose to move to India for love.

It’s that passing for the 0.02% that I think causes the most complications in Indian society. Being part of the 0.02% means you are part of the top of society, like Saif Ali Khan who comes from royalty and intellectual giants. Stereotyping that 0.02% is easy, they are full of power and wealth and privilege, they are British collaborators, everything they have is through luck of birth, etc. etc. etc. But what about the subcategory of the 8% who can pass as the 0.02%? How do you feel about them?

We’ve got 8% of India who learned English in schools, struggled and strained, and now use it in their daily life. But because of a random twist of genetics and luck, some of those people were able to gain English skills to a far higher degree than others, so much that they can now go out in the world as though they are part of that 0.02% and gain all the advantages that comes with it.

That’s angry making, right? When you see Shahrukh Khan on TV casually joking with English interviewers, or Karan Johar speaking English to his kids on instagram, you think “why them and not me? They must be lying about their background, they must be more privileged than they pretend to be”. Or you think, “they are tricking people, I will see through it, I will find the grammar errors and pronunciation errors I memorized at school to prove they are no better than me”. What about Alia? You see her and think “spoiled rich princess” not “daughter of refugees who fled to England, therefore English was her mother’s first language”. English is this amazing powerful thing that you desperately desire and work towards, why should it just be handed to them? And it is clearly handed to them, look how easy it is for them to speak it.

Most people in the Hindi film industry today are fluent English speakers. Not “fluent” like “they can translate a business letter into English”, but “fluent” like “they can make puns and use slang”. This is new, within the past 20 years since liberalization. Before, “Hindustani” was the common language of Hindi film. This is a variation of Hindi with loan words and simplified grammar and so on. It’s the version of Hindi you would hear on the streets of a city, a common language anyone can speak, not the pure Hindi spoken by people for whom it is a primary language. The first generation of Hindi film actors, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, got their starts because they were fluent in Urdu, the old high version of Hindi. They could speak dialogue in a way that expressed every subtle bit of detail, they could have intelligent conversations with the Urdu poet dialogue writers, just kind of basic acting requirements. As English became more and more common in urban spaces in India, it overtook Hindustani as the common language of the film industry. At the same time, as movies were more and more designed to appeal to the urban classes instead of the 88% that don’t speak English, movies began to include English dialogue. Now to be able to speak to their coworkers intelligently, and to say their dialogue well, English was a requirement.

Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar's cricket stint | Hindi Movie News - Times ...
Dilip Kumar was the first person in his family to speak English, but was raised speaking pure Urdu at home, and Hindi on the streets of Bombay. That is why he got his start in film, English was a nice bonus but Bombay Hindi and Urdu were requirements.

There are some other funny little reasons that English has begun to dominate the industry more and more. For example, screenwriting software. Now that the industry is trying to be more global, they aren’t using the old system of story narration, dialogues written or invented on the fly, all this oral patchwork writing system, they are using the same computer software as everyone else. But screenwriting software is designed to be used in English, or at the very least English script. So suddenly scripts are now being primarily conceived in English. There’s also the internet and social media, again English is important if you want to craft a PR campaign there. International media too, you need those BBC interviews and things to get in the diaspora audience. Finally, the international funding. The big studios from Hollywood are coming in, if you want to make nice with the head of Netflix, you better speak English.

The Hindi film industry is unique in Indian film industries for its global reach and awareness, which has also made it the most English dominated film industry. Not because the people in it are wealthier or higher class (which is what English fluency usually means), but because English is a job requirement and you need it to succeed. If you have a natural skill for languages, or if you coincidentally were raised in an English speaking household, you have a leg up at work. But that doesn’t mean you are rich, or privileged necessarily. Especially if you are second generation film. Second generation film means you are second generation Bombay, second generation with a father whose job requires speaking English as needed, if your parents were actors it means you are second generation someone whose gene pool includes an ear for language.

When Ranbir Kapoor revealed he is a 'very possessive' boyfriend ...
Ranbir speaks English fluently, his uncle Shashi had to struggle to learn it as an adult when he joined his wife’s Shakespeare troupe. But then, Ranbir was raised with Shashi, and with his little half-British cousins running around, the cosmopolitanism of the film industry changed him long before the privilege of his birth allowed him to study overseas.

I guess my point is that, ultimately, English in the film world is less meaningful than elsewhere. Illeana D’Cruz speaks it well because her mother worked in housekeeping for a hotel. Amitabh Bachchan speaks it well because his father had a PhD in English from Cambridge. Karan Johar speaks it well because he grew up in South Bombay. If you don’t speak it at all, you will have problems. If you do speak it, no one will bow and scrap before you, or assume you come from a good family, or anything else. It’s equal.

I guess I should deal with that “if you don’t speak it at all” issue too. There’s really no way around that. You have to speak English to succeed in the Hindi film industry. And yes, that is not fair. If you are a brilliant costume designer, you should be allowed to make costumes whether or not you speak English. If you are a brilliant writer, you should be able to write without needing to use an English screenplay software. But on the other hand, the world isn’t fair. In America, librarians have to be computer experts now, and medical professionals need to speak Spanish. Times change, jobs change, new skills are required in addition to the basic qualifications. If you want to do well in the Hindi film industry, you need to do whatever it takes to learn English. Maybe your family didn’t speak it at home, maybe your school didn’t offer good classes in it, now is the time to invest in lessons, start talking to strangers on the street, find a way. And if English is just impossible for you, than this is not the career for you. We can see it in the actors who succeed, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Kangana Ranaut both struggled with English at the start, and slowly got better over the years, just as other actors became better dancers, or got better haircuts.

Only a very small number of people are trying to get into the Hindi film industry, but a vast number of people are observing it. That is the main point of this post. The fluency in English of the Hindi film workers sometimes means they were born rich and privileged like all the other fluent English speakers in India. Sometimes it means that that very ability with language is what got them their job, the ear for language that lets them say dialogue well also lets them quickly gain a fluency in a new tongue. Privileged folks speak English, everyone in Hindi film speaks English, but it does not follow that everyone in Hindi film is privileged, or privileged in the same way.

As I said, a very very small point, but I like to be accurate, so for the sake of accuracy I wanted to make it.

41 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: What English Language Skills Mean in Modern Hindi Cinema

  1. Just to play devil’s advocate, what about Diljit Dosanjh? I’d say he’s relatively successful, but almost every interview I’ve seen of his has been almost exclusively in Hindi or Punjabi, I’m not even sure. Am I missing something about his backstory, or would he be an exception to this?


    • This is a great devil’s advocate question!

      I would say that Diljit’s career has definitely been hampered by his lack of English. He is a big star in the Punjabi market, both as a musician and an actor. But his crossover Hindi films just haven’t hit at that level. It was especially noticable to me in his KWK appearance. It’s a primarily English show, and Karan and his fellow guest had to do some translating on the fly to help Diljit out. He ended up making less of an impression on me than other guests, just because I wasn’t getting the full meaning of his comments. Ayushmann Khurrana, for instance, also started in Delhi but as a TV guy not a movie guy, and he transitioned easily into Hindi cinema. And he speaks English.

      Flip side of this is, Diljit’s Punjabi career is probably far better thanks to Hindi cinema’s English focus. Punjabi cinema has taken off in recent years, I think because it is filling the language gap. If you are one of the 88% who don’t speak English, but are a northerner who speaks Hindi, you can start watching Punjabi cinema instead of struggling to understand Hindi cinema with all the Hinglish in it. And if you are very talented and only speak Punjabi, you are going to stay in the Punjabi cinema arena (unlike Ayushmann who went after the Hindi/English kind of crowd instead).


  2. This is interesting!! I belong to .02% of India who grew up in an English speaking household, went to a good English School, and then came overseas to study. I spoke Hindi with my grandparents, house-help, and on the “street”…plus Hindi was taught in school till Grade 8. Anyway, from my perspective, I want to make two comments –
    1. I disagree with your notion that people look at the 0.02% and the 8% the same way. People can tell the difference. The difference is subtle…but it’s recognizable. From the perspective of the 0.02%, it takes me about 1 minute to know their group….and we definitely treat the two groups differently in terms of status. I can tell that Saif/Abhishek are more fluent than SRK. Sure, the film industry may not care…but the .02% do care about the difference.
    Now, I can’t really speak from the opposite perspective with certainty…can the average Indian see the difference between the two groups? My guess would be that yes…they may not be able to see it in the way we speak English…but it will come through in the way we speak Hindi (or another native language)….this is because people like me (and Ranbir) are terrible at Hindi…when we have to speak it we speak it with an anglicized accent that is a dead giveaway of our privilege…so if I am in the market interacting with a shopkeeper in Hindi…he will immediately guess I belong to the 0.02% and treat me with more reverence…someone like SRK will come across as comfortable with Hindi and treated more like “one of them”.

    2. The second point is that there is also a sort of negative to be in the 0.02%…because we are so bad at native Indian languages…people make fun of our hindi…and snigger when we speak it…this happens to me ALOT..it happened in school, in marketplaces, in offices etc. Not like we care…the 0.02% can live in their English bubble and ignore the rest of India..but the point is that if you want to reach out and connect with the rest of India (be a film star, be a politician, inspire your factory workers) then the 0.02% is at a disadvantage…we will never be like other Indians…and they will treat us like a Britisher…so the sweet spot is really the 8%…the spot of SRK, Amitabh, Dilip Kumar who are comfortable in both worlds…this is probably why Ranbir will never connect with rural India but Ayushman can appeal to Single and Multiplex screens…this is also why Rahul Gandhi has never been able to win any elections…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you! This is the kind of thing I could never know, as an outsider. Everyone sounds the same to me so long as there is a complex grasp of grammar and a large vocabulary. Except for Amitabh, somehow the way he says things in English feels more powerful and structured or something than everyone else.

      I wondered about that with Hindi! I can hear it with Shahrukh especially big time, the way he churns through dialogue so fast you can practically hear his teeth rattle, that’s not something a lot of modern actors can do. I know he also improvises lines a lot, as in, suggests a turn of phrase to use or plays with the structure of the sentence a bit. Again, not something you really hear about other younger actors doing in the heat of the moment as they dash through Hindi.

      I feel like we need to split that 8% 4th category here. Seems like there is the 0.02% who are fluent in English to the extent that all other languages sound odd, there is the unknown percent whose native tongue is an Indian language but are fluent in English to such a degree that a non-Indian English speaker (like me) could not tell them apart from the 0.02%, and then there is the group who are business-letter fluent, they can convey meaning but not higher abstract thoughts. Maybe they didn’t have quite as many conversational English opportunities as the top half of the 8%, or maybe they just don’t have as much of an ear for languages.

      It is ridiculous that so many Hindi actors now can’t actually speak Hindi. I’m fine with English being the shared language of the industry, but you should be at least fluent enough in Hindi to do your lines! I have a friend who speaks Hindi and she pointed out that Alia is really bad with Hindi dialogue, all her words rush together, and now I notice it so much! Great actress, but her line delivery is totally unmemorable because I don’t think she really grasps the words she is saying, is just kind of rushing through the general meaning of it.

      On Thu, Jun 4, 2020 at 6:09 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Thank you shreyansgoenka’s for a fascinating comment and Margaret for this post. So I belong to the community that grew speaking English and Hindi at school, English and Marathi at home, and Hindi on the street when I was in India. I consider all three to be my primary languages in that I think, speak, and dream in all of them. When I came to the U.S. I obviously spoke English at school; Marathi and English at home; and watched Hindi movies, although I did not have a chance to speak hindi much. Now, when I go back to India, especially Mumbai, when I speak Marathi on the street (i.e., in restaurants and stores) no one really thinks twice. When I speak English, they can definitely tell that I am not from India. It is when I speak Hindi that I find the reaction fascinating. Everyone can definitely tell that I am definitely not from Mumbai, mainly due to the lack of slang as I have been told, but I am guessing also maybe because my hindi is anglisized. But other (besides my family) also can’t figure out what is going on – i.e., is she just a foreigner or is she just part of the .02% that doesn’t know how to speak Mumbai hindi.

        This also made me think that maybe this is why I am been fascinated by the Pakistani series. It has been fascinating to hear the way the actors speak noticing the suble differences in accent and words from urban areas vs. rural areas. Yet, the English is miminal.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for bringing up something we have been ignoring! The Hindi industry is based in a city where your “street” or “home” language, may not be Hindi. From stories it sounds like at some points in the past, the crew language on films was Marathi, while the director/composer/star language was Hindi. Now I know the director/writer/star language is English, but I wonder if the crew language is still Marathi?

          There’s two SRKajol stories about language that I know, first that the first time he met her he was terrified because he showed up on set and found her yelling at all the crew members in fluent Marathi, which was scary for him as someone who couldn’t even speak the language. And second that she really struggled with the Delhi Hindi fast dialogue for K3G and he teased her about it since it was his natural tongue. Both of them are just fascinating, aren’t they? That Kajol, as a film industry Bombay brat, struggled with some Hindi dialogue but could rattle off Marathi with the crew. And that Shahrukh, as an imported actor from Delhi, was a master of all dialogue but couldn’t talk to the crew.

          Oh, other thing! Since you mentioned a lot of your Hindi is from films. So far as I know, the Hindi used in films is kind of fake-Hindi. That is, a lot of the slang and dialect is removed to make it a vanilla one size fits all version of the language. Does that fit your experience? And would that fit with you being noticed as not-Bombay as soon as you spoke Hindi?

          On Fri, Jun 5, 2020 at 2:27 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • I agree that Mumbai Hindi is rarely depicted in movies, accurately, whereas the regional Hindi dialects are much more accurate. I am not entirely sure why not, but I think part of it is because it is so hard to pin down. There is the home Hindi, street Hindi, and the affluent Hindi, which each have their own words and slangs. That isn’t to say that one doesn’t know the other, but it is just different in a way that is hard to articulate. The Hindi I or my cousins speak to my family in India is not the same Hindi they speak with their friends. And yet, there is a distinct difference in the “street” Hindi, to me as an outsider” that someone speaks to retailers, or (for a lack of a better word) their househelp.


          • That kind of makes sense. I mean, cities always have levels of languages within them, but Bombay Hindi is maybe even more so since it’s a language everyone kind of learned within the city? With Delhi Hindi, for instance, you should at least be able to trace it back to Punjabi for some of the slang and stuff, right? But Bombay Hindi would have British words and Marathi words and Portuguese words and so on and so forth, all thrown into a mixer.

            On Fri, Jun 5, 2020 at 3:46 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  3. So this will end up strengthening the regional cinemas, right? If Bollywood becomes a niche entertainment that will be bad for Mumbai but good for Chennai, etc.


    • It already is! Punjabi cinema basically did not exist 20 years ago, and now it is challenging Hindi at the American box office. Punjabi is the real winner here, because (don’t tell anyone I said this) it’s really just a dialect of Hindi. So if you speak Hindi and not English, you can watch a Punjabi movie and understand the whole thing instead of a Hindi movie. Plus Punjabi films are more likely to have village settings, and plots about marriage, and all kinds of things that speak more to the 88% that can’t speak English than all the Hinglish urban angst movies.

      On Thu, Jun 4, 2020 at 9:15 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  4. Interesting take!! In Telugu film industry except the younger male lead actors, most older male lead actors do not speak ‘good’ English. Case point is Mohan Babu who interview on a English news channel resulted in a meme, which is still popular. I feel the shift to actors who speak ‘better’ English is just because the film industry is becoming more exclusive. Only those with social or economic capital make it. Earlier say even up to late 1990’s it was more open as who could become an actor. When only those with social or economic capital are becoming actors, I think, it is natural that they at least went to a English medium school if not a foreign university.


    • Thank you! I have no idea what is happening in Telugu industry, so this is new data for me.

      Mohan Babu is about the same age as Hrithik, right? So, in Hindi, Hrithik’s generation and younger are all fluent English speakers. But the Khans, starting in the early/mid-90s and older than that, are more in the “learned it in school, can get by” category.

      Maybe it is just a delay in industry changes? The outside money and multiplexes and diaspora audience started hitting Hindi film hard in the late 90s so by the time Hrithik was launched, the audience and the industry were already “better” and higher class English speakers could be actors. But that shift didn’t start hitting the Telugu industry until about 5-10 years ago. Does that sound possible? I am basing this mostly on being in America and seeing how rare it was for a Telugu film to release here 10 years ago, versus now.


      • Mohan Babu is elder to Chiranjeevi so he is much older than Hrithik Roshan but as I commented below it depends on who it is. Nagarjuna and Venkatesh were born in same decade as above actors but are more fluent because they went to schools where spoken English is a norm. I think the Telugu diaspora in the United States increased first with the IT boom, and then large number of students coming for higher education, so that might reflect in when the movies start being released more widely. But the shift away from anyone making it to only those with connections making it big in the Telugu film industry started late in 1980’s. From then on you can see an increase in the second generation actors being launched and the industry getting concentrated within the film families.


        • Thank you! I got confused and was thinking of Mahesh Babu. Doy. This is why I stay away from Telugu stuff, I just make dumb mistakes.


    • I’ve heard Allu Arjun give interviews in English, where he sounds quite fluent, but in the movies his English words don’t sound fluent at all to my western ears. Are his movies using English more as a sort of street slang that might actually be heard on well, the streets?


      • Actors in his generation are fluent in English especially if they belong to a film family. Nagarjuna and Venkatesh who are at least two generations ahead of Allu Arjun, went studied in the United States. So yes, what is shown in movies does not reflect their ability in real life.


      • I can’t speak to Allu Arjun, but I have noticed with Hindi actors that the really good ones alter their English for their characters. Abhishek does it a lot, he will play with bad Indian English for one role, and then pull out super smooth good English for another. In Bunty Aur Babli especially, his conman character is always changing up his English accent. In JHMS, the few times Shahrukh speaks English, it sounds nothing like what he uses in interviews. A lot more drawn out and smooth instead of rapid fire.


        • It never crossed my mind, when SRK was was acting, that he his language was anything other than his character’s. Whereas with Allu Arjun I did stop, and say wait, he can speak English better than that! I am very fond of Allu Arjun, but no one can really compare to SRK.


  5. Hmm, I didn’t get why people would be angry at Shahrukh, Karan, Alia for their English skills? I mean are there people thinking they successful because they are fluent in English? Sure, Shahrukh gives all these interesting interviews in English, but how does it matter to people loving his films? Karan has his talkshow in English but his films, personality and people-skills are bigger factors for his popularity I’d say. Alia angers people for the whole nepotism thing, and contrary to being in the top %, people perceive her as vapid and dumb in her interviews!


    • I think it is primarily a class privilege anger, which I understand. The idea that the English skills are a sign of being privilaged, and therefore receiving advantages others do not. The very small point of this post is that English skills do not always necessarily indicate privilage.

      The top 0.02% would be no indication of intelligence, just wealth and privilage, so I do think Alia’s English speaking (and poor Hindi as someone else pointed out) is part of folks perceiving her as vapid and dumb and only getting where she is thanks to her connections


  6. What an interesting topic and answers from shreyansgoenka and filmikudhi! This solidifies my belief that home language and literature play major roles. I learnt English at school from childhood, whereas Bengali was at home, on streets. My father used to tell me stories in Bengali since I was a baby, outside of schoolwork I only read Bengali literature at home till I was about 10. Looking back, it’s funny how apprehensive I was at the thought of reading an English book for pleasure, in my head English was something that I learnt at school. I remember my first English storybook had lots of pictures and less text to make it friendlier. After that there was no looking back, all through high school I devoured English and Bengali books and novels. Still spoke Bengali at home and with friends, English at school, Hindi was mostly self-taught with few years in school as a third language. Post high school, I left home, it was still English in college, university, while in the outside world and with friends it was English/Hindi/Bengali depending on where I was and with whom. Now in the US, everything work-related is in English. When I’m in Bengal, it’s all Bengali at home and outside with no struggle. When I lived in North India and Mumbai, it was Hindi outside. I’m sure some people figured it out but many Hindi-speaking friends were initially surprised to know that I wasn’t a native speaker. I feel equally comfortable in all three.
    It saddens me to see actors nowadays struggling with Hindi, but it’s part of a trend in society at large. I knew schoolmates whose parents forced them to speak in English at home, some parents proudly declared their kids struggled with Bengali! It’s really not that difficult to be fluent in English as well as one’s mother tongue if one grows up with the right influences as I can personally vouch. You mentioned Ayushmann, I’ve heard him and Vikrant Massey express how important speaking good Hindi is to them and it shows when they speak. Both have talked about growing up reading Hindi literature.
    Question for you – I’ve read that English and German have high mutual intelligibility, and with you having German lineage, I’m curious what your experience is.


    • Your talking about parents who forced their children to always speak English, and ended up losing their mother tongue, brings me back to that 0.02% question. Is it because it is desirable to be part of the 0.02% and the thinking is if you kill the non-English completely you will get them closer? Versus being part of the 8%?

      Your experience and FilmiKudhi’s sound similar, being easily fluent in at least two languages without any noticable issues, makes me think maybe it is true what you say, being bilingual isn’t that hard. In my own experience in America, I knew plenty of people who were able to talk to their parents in their mother language and English with me with no problems.

      You asked about German, so I can tell you that for my family (as for a lot of Americans) losing the mother tongue was part of becoming American. It was part patriotism and part survival, trying to fit in with the majority. With German in particular, there was a lot of fear because of the two wars with Germany right as my grandfather and great-grandfather were coming of age. Before WWI, my great great grandparents were part of an all German speaking church and a whole social group. The war changed all that, and by the time my grandfather was in high school, he had to learn German in the classroom because it wasn’t spoken at home at all. When WWII started, my great grandparents burned the letters he had gotten from a German penpal set up as part of his high school class. That’s our story, but there are all kinds of variations of it through coming to America and learning that speaking the mother tongue can be actively dangerous for your children, not just a social setback.

      On Fri, Jun 5, 2020 at 6:01 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Have you ever read Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut? He summarizes the history of losing German language and culture in Indianapolis in like three pages in the introduction of the edition I have. Same story.

        As an English speaker with a decent ear for languages I will say I do not find German easy to understand. I’ve never studied it, I used to go there periodically on work trips. When we were just watching Babylon Berlin, it brought back the ten words I learned. There are some words and simple sentences that sound almost the same, but not enough to follow a conversation. I speak Spanish too, and it’s easier for me to understand Italian coming from Spanish than German coming from English.

        Liked by 1 person

        • What I liked about German is that the sentence structure is very similar to English. I could just take each individual word and translate it to German and I was done, no awkwardness in translation. Of course the words themselves were a nightmare with all the feminine versus masculine endings and a really ridiculous number of verb variations.

          On Fri, Jun 5, 2020 at 11:04 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • I had German for 3 years in high school and it was a nightmare. I hated every lesson and now I remember maybe 5 words. I never had Spanish lessons, but I loved the language and the music so I learned it by myself and still, after 20 years I’m able to read and watch telelnovelas without subtitles. It was also very usefull when I first came here in Italy and met my now husband. I didn’t speak Italian but could understand a lot and communicate.


          • You are sewing doubt in me!!!! I always thought I had no skill for language because I took German for 8 years and still didn’t master it. But maybe it’s just German! Maybe if I had taken Spanish instead my whole life would be different! Come to think of it, by my last two years of college I was in the most advanced German classes they offered and all 5 of us in the room were kind of faking it and felt like we didn’t understand what was happening. If all 6 German major/minors in my year were equally confused, maybe it wasn’t us? Maybe it was the language?

            On Sat, Jun 6, 2020 at 7:02 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



        • I’ve seen a similar example. An Italian colleague used to converse with a Mexican colleague in their respective languages and mostly understood each other, I was fascinated!


          • My understanding is that German grammar is complicated but mostly follows rules. English is a hodgepodge of a language (personally I love this about it). It has very simple grammar but it’s all exceptions, few rules. A Spanish friend who had studied both described it as you have to study German for two years before you can properly say hello, but once you get the rules down you can progress more easily, whereas with English, you can muddle along and feel like you’re communicating from a very basic level, but the longer you study the more you realize all the nuances and complexities and different registers you have to master before you can speak like a native.


          • Yep, that makes sense to me. The flipside with German is that you can remember all kinds of vocabulary and things that would be helpful in other languages, but once you forget the subtle grammar rules (which I have), you can’t communicate at all. Give me a word, there is a decent chance I can remember the German version. Ask me to string the words together in a sentence, IMPOSSIBLE!!! Whereas with English, you can kind of just throw words into a salad and the listener can figure it out. Not mistake you for a native, but at least understand what you are asking.

            On Sat, Jun 6, 2020 at 8:50 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  7. Thank you for sharing your story. I had no idea about those aspects!

    About forcing English, wanting to see their kids move up in class is definitely part of it. As Bengali was just one subject in school, all other subjects being in English, it used to get ignored. Parents probably saw that you had more to lose by not having English skills rather than Bengali. As for losing mother tongue, I was referring mostly to reading/writing skills, the implication being they devoted their efforts towards English. We didn’t grow up in a big city, so dealing with the outside world required/still requires one to at least speak the native language. Kids growing up in Mumbai, Delhi maybe had a different experience.


    • Thank you, that’s my own blindness. I forgot that Indian languages have a different script, so being able to speak it is not the same as being able to read or write it. Good moment of checking my European blinders!!!! I doubt I knew anyone second generation in America who could write or read in non-Roman script. In fact, I can remember it being a common sort of fundraiser thing in college, to have someone write out your name in non-Roman script. Like it was a special skill only few people had, and even then it was just spelling names, not writing or reading anything more complicated than that.

      On Fri, Jun 5, 2020 at 8:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

        • Fascinating question! For me, what makes the biggest difference is the rhythm of it. If someone speaks Indian English like it is an Indian language, I can’t follow. Does that make sense? I had a friend from India recently tell me that one of the things they learned in English class was they have to slooooooow doooooown. Which I hadn’t consciously thought about, but I think it’s what makes the biggest difference. If someone speaks Indian English rapidly with the kind of bounce that you use when you speak an Indian language, I can’t make sense of it, even if all the words and grammar are correct. If they speak Indian English with a lot of Hindi words thrown in, but pause after each sentence and have their voice go down at the end of a statement and up at the end of a question and so on, then I can follow.

          On Sat, Jun 6, 2020 at 12:19 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Intersesting, not heard that before! This is probably too much to ask for, but can you remember any examples off the top of your head? I thought we unconsciously adapt to the rhythm of a language, but maybe it requires conscious effort depending on when we learn it!


          • Here’s an easy one, the way Shahrukh says “Punjab Power Lighting Up Your Life”. If I were to say “Punjab Power Lighting Up Your Life”, I would say “Punjab Power [lowering inflection, then pause] Lighting up [lowering inflection, pause] YOUR [emphasis] life (rising inflection)”. Shahrukh says it as “Punjab Power (rising inflection, micropause) lighting up your LIFE (rising inflection, emphasis on “life”, no pause).

            On Sat, Jun 6, 2020 at 9:50 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


            Liked by 1 person

  8. Just watched Dil Dhadakne Do for movie night (success! yay!), which makes me wonder: where do the Akhtars fit in your categories?


    • Javed Saheb is definitely in the 8%, not the 0.02%. Cute story, when he was writing the lyrics for Lagaan he didn’t feel able to do write for the English Love Song, so he handed that off to his kids to do. I first heard that story and pictured a couple of 6 year olds writing “Oh I am in love” and thought “yeah, that sounds right”. And then I realized it was Zoya and Farhan, and they would have been like 20, plus are both super talented. So I have no idea why those lyrics are idiotic.

      Anyhoo, Javed is part of a long proud line of Urdu poets, fabulously freakishly good in Hindi/Urdu, and okay in English. For Zoya and Farhan, I really don’t have a good sense of things. I know Farhan basically invented the cool young upperclass people kind of Hindi in Dil Chahta Hai. But I can’t hear the difference well enough to know if he is in the “English is his first language, he fumbles with Hindi and everyone knows it” category, or in the “His Hindi is great, his English is ever so slightly not perfect” category.

      At least we know they are aware of the issue, Luck By Chance has a lot of great stuff around the Hindi/English divide, written by Zoya and starring Farhan.

      On Fri, Jun 5, 2020 at 11:08 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



        • Speaking of DDD, Ranveer probably has the best English language skills of anyone in Hindi film, except maybe Amitabh. Since he has a degree in creative writing from the 11th best program in America (Indiana University). Which of course he never talks about because he is all wacky funny friendly Ranveer. But I do wonder if someday he will start writing long form posts on social media or something. Surely he has a need to express that side of himself?

          On Sat, Jun 6, 2020 at 8:35 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • So curious to see what Ranveer turns into. Of the younger generation of male actors, he’s the one I find most interesting.


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