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Medium Term: Why are we content to think in English but be entertained in Hindi?

Indians have a funny relationship with the English language.

Once upon a time we saw it as the language of the colonial oppressors and spent a long time arguing for its abolition from Indian discourse.

For instance, A.B. Vajpayee made his parliamentary reputation in the 60s by railing against the use of English and arguing for the imposition of Hindi all over India. (At around the same time the DMK launched a counter-campaign against Hindi.)


   By the dawn of the 21st century, however, the primitive anti-English position was dead. Even Vajpayee had long since abandoned it. And we took the line that English was our ace in the hole. It was India’s competitive advantage in the globalised world economy. More specifically, it was our advantage over such rivals as China.


   Today, the old anti-English agitations are relics of the past. English remains the language of the elite and as more and more people enter the middle class, they teach their children to speak English. In contrast, no non-native Hindi speaker makes any effort to force his children to learn Hindi on the grounds that a mastery of the language is the key to success in the modern world.


   Which brings us to TV and movies. For as long as I can remember, the English language press has always punched above its weight. Even when its readership was restricted to a tiny, middle-class elite, it was the English press that set the agenda. Today, when the middle-class is much larger, that ability to set the agenda is shared by television.


   Market researchers will tell you that English language news television has pathetically low ratings compared to Hindi news TV, let alone Hindi entertainment channels. Take the viewership of all the English news channels on a given evening and contrast it with the readership of the Times of India or the Hindustan Times the next morning. The newspapers will always have the edge.


   But, because of the power of the media, TV has a disproportionate influence on how we think. And so, decision makers will allow their opinions to be swayed by what they see and hear on the English news channels.


   I have no problem with any of this. Nor am I surprised that the language of the Internet is also English. Let’s just accept that for better or for worse, the Indian middle class thinks in English. And so, English is an Indian language on par with Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali or Hindi. There is no shame in admitting this. America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and so many other countries are not embarrassed to treat the national language of England as their own. The Belgians are not embarrassed to speak French. The Brazilians are happy to speak Portuguese. The Mexicans are content to speak Spanish. And so on.


"What explains this contradiction? Why are we content to think in English but be entertained in Hindi? Why must real life be conducted in English but fiction must always be in Hindi?"

   But here’s my question: If English is the language of indigenous middle-class discourse then why isn’t it the language of indigenous middle-class entertainment?


   Think about it. Even those of us who watch news on NDTV or lifestyle programming on Good Times will not be interested in a serial set in India but filmed in English. We will have only limited interest in English-language movies made by Indians about India. We may go to the odd concert by bands that sing in English but the big hits will always be songs in Indian languages.


   In the 90s, during the early days of television, a serial called A Mouthful of Sky made some impact. But by the time TV had come into its own, the entertainment programming was all in Hindi. Rare is the English language serial these days. For example, Star World, AXN, and Zee Cafe will show imported English-language fictional content. But when it comes to their Indian shows, they will all be non-fiction. While these shows will often be expensively made, channels will be unwilling to spend the same kind of money on an English language serial or TV drama.


   Consider the film industry. These days, the bright young directors and actors tend to be people who are more comfortable in English than in Hindi. See some of them on Hindi news shows and you will wonder how they manage to speak Hindi in their movies. Most are incapable of stringing together more than three sentences in correct Hindi.


   And yet, even these super-hip dudes will try not to make movies in the language they know best. The overwhelming majority of Indian films will continue to be made in Indian languages.


   What explains this contradiction? Why are we content to think in English but be entertained in Hindi? Why must real life be conducted in English but fiction must always be in Hindi?


   I’m not sure I have any answers. Do you?




  • Gayetri 20 Dec 2011

    Yes, it is because Indians cannot identify with "English" culture. English shows are very much based on a non-Indian culture. Also, Indians don't really think in English, they think in their own language and then translate.

  • Dhairys 17 Dec 2011

    Though people are comfortable talking in english; it is mostly the second language for the middle class; primarily people use hindi or their mother tongue for communicating with each other ; people read, write, in english; but english is not the language often used when people speak with each other; and largely because entertainment involves listening to someone talk people will prefer hindi

  • Sabarish Bothra 16 Dec 2011

    Perhaps you also might want to ponder on why 90+% of our Hindi film industry is made up of Punjabis? Be it TV or films they have cracked it and dominate it. (though not so much in Music)

    Besides being entrepreneurial and daring, perhaps they were comfortable with the lingo, and produced healthy entertainment that connected with the mass. English though, is a much more urban middle class movement dont you think. When you visit smallertowns they seem comfortable in their vernies not English.

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