IT’S NOT “REGIONAL”, DAMMIT, IT’S “INDIAN”!
Next time you say the words “regional cinema”, remember the many political insinuations, the propaganda, lies and myths built into this loaded term
By Anna MM Vetticad
I hate the term “regional cinema”. There was a time when I only mildly disliked it, but as time passes I find myself unable to ignore the implications of those two seemingly innocuous words.
For a start, “regional cinema” suggests that there is such a thing as a “national cinema” of India, just as the term “regional language” used for languages other than Hindi suggests that Hindi is our “national language” though it is not.
I was reminded of the impact of these constant insinuations in the oddest way by the reader reaction to this column a few months back. Well, actually, it is not as odd as it is telling. I devoted a recent instalment of Film Fatale to the manner in which Hollywood has, for years now, been tapping multiple markets across this country by dubbing their films in various Indian languages or subtitling them, while a majority of Indian film producers still do not make an effort to target audiences outside their home states.
Although the immediate news pegs for the write-up were the release of the National Award-winning Tamil film Visaaranai and the Marathi blockbuster Sairat this year, I clearly stated that the points being raised “apply equally to Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and India’s smaller industries”. Yet, curiously enough (or perhaps, unsurprisingly?) almost every response from readers I received on the social media assumed that my discussion was about the need for subtitling films in languages other than Hindi – what they described as “regional cinema” – to take them beyond their domestic audience.
The inference is clear. The assumption that Hindi is spoken and understood in every corner of India has been so drilled into our heads, that we often miss a contrarian point even when it is spelt out for us in black and white. It is equally unthinkingly assumed that Hindi cinema is the primary choice of cinema for people in all Indian states, with films in their own mother tongues coming in second. Neither claim is true.
This column then is an examination of that loaded term “regional cinema”, the political propaganda, myths and lies built into it.
Myth 1: That Hindi is India’s national language. It is not.
Contrary to popular belief, Hindi is not India’s national language. No language has been given that status by the Indian Constitution. It was decided early on by the authors of the Constitution not to impose a single language on the entire country as a “national language” with all the political and patriotic connotations intrinsic to that label, until such time as the country was willing to accept one. Instead, under Article 343, Hindi and English were anointed the official languages of the Union – read: the languages in which all Central Government work would be done – while leaving each state to choose its own official language in which state government business would be conducted.
(Note: The Constitution does not use the term “national language”, it does however use the term “regional languages” to denote the official languages of all states including Hindi.)
How then has the “Hindi is our national language” fiction been circulated so effectively? The answer lies in a mixture of propaganda, political games, media ignorance, casualness towards facts and on the positive front, the soft diplomacy of the Hindi film industry.
The Constitution enjoined the Centre to make efforts to popularise Hindi. Independent of this instruction, Bollywood has beautifully and non-aggressively generated goodwill for the language outside the Hindi belt, quietly managing to popularise it among populations that do not consider it their mother tongue. This alone would have been perfectly acceptable, but other insidious efforts have been and continue to be made in favour of Hindi through deliberate misinformation campaigns and political aggression that have vitiated the language debate.
For instance, in classrooms across this country it is not uncommon for Hindi teachers to tell young students that Hindi is India’s national language. Politicians too routinely repeat this falsehood, as I recall BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra doing last year on a TV show where we were fellow panelists. From his silence when I corrected him, I gathered he was aware of the truth but chose to speak an untruth on a public platform anyway.
As it happens, the news media further spreads this lie, either due to their own poor research or because there are propagandists within its (our) ranks too. In 2009, for example, when Samajwadi Party MLA Abu Azmi was assaulted by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena hooligans in the Assembly because he insisted on taking his oath in Hindi, not Marathi, some newspersons spoke of an attack on the “national language”.
This fib has been repeated so often in the 69 years since Independence that it has now become a Goebbelsian truth for large swathes of the population. In a 2005 interview, film star Aishwarya Rai famously misinformed US talk show host David Letterman that Hindi is India’s “national language” and fuzzily implied that all Indian cinema is Bollywood.
Myth 2: That most Indians are Hindi bhashis. They are not.
What is the big deal, you ask? You mean apart from the importance of facts? The big deal is that politics and egos have blinded us to our amazing diversity. It is not Hindi but an imposition of Hindi that raises hackles in a country where Census figures have shown that 59 per cent of the population lists Constitutionally recognised languages other than Hindi as their mother tongue. For the record, Hindi has become an umbrella term for many languages dismissed as “dialects”, which makes even this figure misleading.
Since India is trotting along fine without a designated “national language”, why alter a harmless status quo?
The term “regional cinema” emerges from this context. India is the world’s largest producer of films. Unlike its closest competitors in terms of volume, the United States and Nigeria, India is also unique in that it is home to multiple thriving film industries in different languages that have survived the cash-rich American film industry i.e. Hollywood’s marketing muscle. This is a massive achievement and should be a matter of pride for Indians, yet the so-called ‘national’ media usually ignores all our cinema other than Hindi i.e. Bollywood.
I say “national media” for the English media, since English is the only language not specific to any Indian region. This media is primarily headquartered in Delhi and Mumbai. Hindi is a language of Delhi, Mumbai is the centre of Bollywood. Combine the convenience of proximity with biases, and you may see why most of them behave as if Bollywood is India’s largest (or only) film industry.
This media largely recruits professionals specialising in Hindi cinema, firstly because many of these organisations tend to have a north India bias, and second, since Hindi film specialists are more easily available in Delhi and Mumbai than those who write prolifically on other Indian industries.
Unfortunately, many Hindi cinema experts imply through their words that Indian cinema is primarily or entirely Hindi. Using the terms “Indian cinema” and “Hindi cinema” / “Bollywood” synonymously is also standard practice. Then there are those labouring under the misconception that Hindi is India’s “national language”, who believe it is okay to ignore what they consider secondary film industries. Other industries are thus relegated to the status of “regional cinema”.
To be fair, Hindi films do have a wider, pan-India reach and the Hindi industry has marketed itself better than its compatriots. The other side of that coin, though, is that even if a non-Hindi industry wishes to market itself, the ‘national’ media is rarely interested. The primacy of Hindi cinema is now a self-perpetuating myth. As the media ignores other cinema, it plays a role in expanding Hindi’s audience, an audience size it then uses to defend further ignoring other Indian cinema.
The only non-Hindi film to get as much coverage as Hindi films in recent years has been 2015’s Telugu blockbuster Bahubali – not so much because of its mega scale that was unprecedented in India, but because the iconic Bollywood producer-director Karan Johar backed the Hindi dubbed version. Since 2007, when the ‘national’ media suddenly discovered during Sivaji’s promotional period that Rajinikanth was perhaps India’s highest-paid star, this Tamil film legend too has been extensively covered – but again with a certain them-and-us attitude, often with a condescension directed at “the other” because of his trademark fantastical stunts on screen and bizarre levels of fan adulation off screen. The ‘national’ media usually covers Rajini as they would a display in an old curiosity shop, rarely with any degree of seriousness.
Myth 3: That the Hindi film industry is India’s largest film industry. It is not.
The selective coverage of Indian cinema by the ‘national’ media cannot be explained away by volumes. According to the Central Board of Film Certification’s annual report for 2014-15, the language in which the maximum number of films was certified for the given year was Tamil, followed closely by Hindi and then Telugu. This was not unusual at all. For years, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu have been neck-and-neck in terms of number of films produced.
In a country that makes 2,000-plus feature films each year, an individual film journalist cannot possibly devote equal attention to all film industries. Hopefully, open-minded editors reading this column will see it not as an indictment but as a call for organisations to hire specialists. Just as BJP, Congress, Left and so on are separate beats in political journalism so also Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi and so on should be separate beats for the news media in the country that is the world’s largest producer of films.
At the very least, media platforms should hire separate critics for each of our three largest industries. Until that happens, the least that we as individual film journalists can do is to not imply through our writings that the Hindi film industry is India’s only or largest or most significant industry.
A good start would be to flush that awful term “regional cinema” down a bottomless drain.
(A shorter version of this article was published in The Hindu Businessline’s BLink on September 10, 2016.)
Link to the shorter version of this column published in The Hindu Businessline:
Previous instalment of Film Fatale: Bollywood and the Art of Avoiding Facts
Related Link: Film Fatale: It’s Not Just Bollywood, Stupid!
Photo captions: Stills/posters from (1) Kabali (2) Bahubali