Multilingualism in Contemporary Bollywood Cinema

International Colloquium at Eötvös Loránd University Budapest

9th March 2019

The colloquium at Budapest was organised as part of the research project Multilingual Euro-Bollywood: an ‘imaginative language’ workshop funded by the AHRCs research programme of Creative Multilingualism.

The morning session included two panels of presentations, one on different aspects of dubbing and subtitling of Hindi films and their effects on the reception of films, the other on the use of different languages and its cultural implications in contemporary Bollywood cinema.

Bernhard Fuchs’s presentation on the ‘Germanification’ of Bollywood contrasted cases synchronising the voice through the original images, and synchronising gesture with original language (Lip-sync), discussing the problem of body adapting to the voice. Monia Acciari talked about dubbing and its socio-linguistic implications raising the question if dubbing can be discussed as a process where in some cases meanings are lost, but in other cases they are substituted. A quote from a text published in 1955 reflecting on Indian sound films of 1931-1951 emphasised that the question of the complexities of cultural transfer and “mode of expression” was already raised in the 1950s.  Dorottya Jancsó examined the different strategies of subtitling religious songs into English in various contemporary Bollywood products and how they provide or transmit cultural information. She framed her approach by looking at both cultural codes and poetic codes.

In the second panel I discussed how the use of different European languages has changed in Bollywood cinema recently and that in present-day films languages function as a marker of national or cultural identity. I further presented on how code mixing and code switching can fulfil various functions in the process of interpersonal communication. Péter Sági outlined a map of regionalism and localism in Bollywood. He examined which regions of India are present and absent in the imagery of Hindi cinema, and how are these represented and what kind of visual, linguistic and/or socio-linguistic “models” and stereotypes they provide. Júlia Szivák talked about the local-global hybridization processes of Punjabi music and rap party songs incorporated in Hindi language popular films. Her presentation revealed that market orientation, cultural and economic strategies, sponsoring of brands have an effect on the hybridization of linguistic and cultural codes.    

In the afternoon the screening of the film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara took place, followed by a discussion with students of Eötvös Loránd University, and the discussion highlighted the following:

  1. Use of English in the film (differentiation between “every-day” English or Hinglish and English spoken by specific social classes, and English as a parody). Differences in the use of English depending on the context – the characters used English differently to express their identity and intimate feelings (depending on the language “that is close to the heart”).
  2. Function of languages as social boundaries and to include or exclude others from communication: parody of the teacher, use of Japanese, Imran uses bad English to provoke Natasha, Arjun and Leila speak Spanish that no one else can understand, etc.
  3. Switching of languages: in the case of the song Senorita several viewers did not identify the switch between Hindi and Spanish in spite of the lyrics calling attention to the impossibility of linguistic communication.  
  4. Communication across multiple languages: communication where the characters seem to understand each other in spite of the lack of linguistic competence. Also references to the films Queen and English Vinglish were also made as part of the discussion.
  5. Religious signs – can they be misunderstood? The cross sign before the bull race, the ring exchange at the engagement and the wedding in English style at the end of the film raised questions and led to ambiguous interpretations. Within the context of the discussion about religions, some of the names were read and understood differently according to the provenance of the person commenting, such as Leila and Arjun, Imran and Kabir.
  6. The figure of Natasha: what kind of language does she speak? Her dialogues include multiple languages, which is a confusing element in the film rendered even more problematic by the skin complex – in the combination of signifiers visual elements are interfering with the linguistic elements. The connotations of the name brought forth various interpretations: a student of Lebanese origin mentioned that Natasha in Arabic means “to take something without permission”, for the Indian students it functioned as a joke about somebody behaving posh (supported by her behaviour, like singing the song Rock-chic girl), while in Ukrainian it refers to beautiful girls. These connotations enforce her identity as a liminal character.    

The discussion following the film proved that such qualitative research based on personal experiences of reception can reveal unexpected factors and can open up new directions in the examination of cultural and linguistic understanding. A similar survey of the audience’s understanding of the use of different languages in Bollywood films is planned for the colloquium taking place in Vienna in May 2019.

(Written by Györgyi Vajdovich)