English hangover

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s teachers at the National School of Drama routinely ignored his Hindi answers to questions accepting the same response when offered by someone else in English. Over the few interactions I have had with Siddiqui, we have spoken in Hindi. When I asked him if he found the lack of command over English to be a drawback, Siddiqui smiled. He said that whenever he went overseas he found that English-speaking people understood what he said and vice versa. What he did not say; that it was an issue only in India. He’s over any insecurities about not knowing the language when he says that “English is just a language, not a measure of intelligence.”

English is an aspirational language for most Indians. Notice how many parents use English with their kids from day one, negating completely the mother tongue or state language. Representation pic/Thinkstock
English is an aspirational language for most Indians. Notice how many parents use English with their kids from day one, negating completely the mother tongue or state language. Representation pic/Thinkstock

Or of acting prowess for that matter. Over the last few years Siddiqui has become the hottest talent on the Indian cinema circuit, winning over both critics and mass audiences with performances that stood out in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) or Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (2010), among others. His films such as Prashant Bhargava’s Patang (2012), Ashim Ahluwalia’s Ms Lovely (2012) among others have been screened at major film festivals. He is now acknowledged as one of the most talented actors India has produced by critics and cinema writers within and outside of India.

Siddiqui is among the thousands of talented people who got their due after a hard struggle — which included one against the perception that English counts more than other things.

The R100,000-crore Indian media and entertainment industry is full of dozens of examples of people, newspapers, TV channels, films that face the same prejudice in different ways. Newspaper chains such as Dainik Jagran (which owns this paper) or Dainik Bhaskar have spent decades battling the perception that papers with Hindi audiences are less important as ad vehicles than those with English audiences. It is a story repeated across Malayalam, Marathi, Bangla and other languages. While the gap has narrowed significantly, the top Indian language brands still charge about one-third the ad rate of an English language publication.

In news television, the same situation as newspapers applies.

On entertainment television, the biggest part of the business, the price paid for reaching audiences in Hindi or other languages is higher than English. This is because Hindi or Tamil audience numbers are way higher than English television and therefore advertisers pay to reach them.

This is not to take away from the contribution of English as the link language that binds India and connects it to the world in a way that Chinese or Japanese never can.

There are, arguably, two reasons for this skew. One is the sheer cussedness, insularity and metro-centric attitude of hundreds of media buyers and planners who make the decisions on where and how to advertise.
Even when small-town markets and language media were growing more than English, their refusal to acknowledge or understand the phenomenon meant a lag between the growth and its fruits coming to Indian language media. Over the years I (along with many others) have been on dozens of consultations, have done white papers and discussions on what could change this. Also as the epicentre of India’s economic growth started shifting to small towns and rural India, marketers shifted, bypassing their agencies at times. That is when media buyers started shifting too. There is an understanding now that the world does not exist only in English-speaking Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai homes.

Two, English is an aspirational language for most Indians. But sometimes they can take it too far. Notice how many parents use English with their kids from day one, negating completely the mother tongue or state language. When we had a son six years ago, we agonised over what language we would start speaking to the child in. We are a Marathi-speaking home which works in English. However, we decided on Hindi because we live in Delhi and wanted him to know the language everybody around him knows — the help, the shopkeepers, the fruit seller, vegetable vendor and us. Without knowing the language of the place he was growing up in, he could never connect with it. Also since he would go to an English medium school there was no insecurity that he wouldn’t learn English. At three, when he was completely comfortable in Hindi, we started speaking to him in English as well. Now, he alternates, not always comfortably, between the two languages.

And that is the truth of Indian audiences — we consume our entertainment in local languages, work in English. We are multilingual — knowing 2-3 languages at least. For the Indian media market to truly monetise the potential of this market, this is one lesson that needs to be learnt for good.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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