'Hinglish' Films: Translating India For U.S. Audiences

'Monsoon Wedding' i i

In Mira Nair's 2001 film Monsoon Wedding, a large Indian family gathers for a wedding — and deals with problems not often addressed in Bollywood's fantasy world. hide caption

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'Monsoon Wedding'

In Mira Nair's 2001 film Monsoon Wedding, a large Indian family gathers for a wedding — and deals with problems not often addressed in Bollywood's fantasy world.

'Loins of Punjab' i i

American Idol meets Bollywood in Loins of Punjab Presents, Manish Acharya's new film featuring Ajay Naidu (left) and Kory Bassett. hide caption

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'Loins of Punjab'

American Idol meets Bollywood in Loins of Punjab Presents, Manish Acharya's new film featuring Ajay Naidu (left) and Kory Bassett.

From 'Loins of Punjab'

'Slumdog Millionaire' i i

Slumdog Millionaire, by British director Danny Boyle, was filmed in Mumbai and features Bollywood stars Dev Patel (left) and Freida Pinto. hide caption

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'Slumdog Millionaire'

Slumdog Millionaire, by British director Danny Boyle, was filmed in Mumbai and features Bollywood stars Dev Patel (left) and Freida Pinto.

"Hinglish," a term used to describe the seamless blend of Hindi and English spoken in modern India, is no longer just the hybrid language of the nation's urban centers — it also represents a new movement in cinema about India.

A growing tide of filmmakers within India and the Indian diaspora are trying to push the boundaries of Bollywood, the Mumbai-based film industry that churns out hundreds of melodramatic musicals each year.

Though Danny Boyle's gritty previous films (including Trainspotting and 28 Days Later) couldn't be less like Bollywood's exuberant musicals, the British director's newest effort, Slumdog Millionaire, hints at what a hybrid Indian film could look like.

The film, about a group of Indian children growing up in the slums of Mumbai, features two leading Bollywood stars and a sweeping soundtrack written by Bollywood's leading composer, A.R. Rahman. Film critic Aseem Chhabra says he had an immediate realization when he watched the movie:

"I kept saying to myself, 'My god, this is just like watching a Hindi film,' " says Chhabra. "Most people in modern India speak English and Hindi. They mix up the languages, and that's how we speak, and that's how these films are being presented."

Sabrina Dhawan, the screenwriter for the 2001 film Monsoon Wedding, agrees:

"If you want to make a film now, which is authentic and truthful to the way urban Indians speak, it has to in some extent be in Hinglish," says Dhawan.

But it's not just language that distinguishes these films; Chhabra says that Hinglish films also mix the emotions from Bollywood with the sensibilities of Western films.

Monsoon Wedding, which chronicled a sprawling, dispersed family as it gathered in Delhi for a wedding, touched on themes like poverty and sexual abuse, which are never addressed in the fantasy world of Bollywood.

Another hit film that drew on both Indian film traditions and its Western roots was Bend It Like Beckham.

"That was a very accessible film also, because it's about soccer and young girls and the fact that they can do it," says Chhabra. "But we had Sikh characters in it. They break into Bhangra, they break into Indian pop music."

Loins of Punjab Presents, which opens in the U.S. this month, is set in an Indian immigrant community in New Jersey and features a ragtag mix of South Asian immigrants trying out for an American Idol-style singing contest. The catch: They're all singing Bollywood songs.

Director Manish Acharya recognizes that his film may have limited appeal in both India and the U.S., since it belongs in neither.

"My co-writer and I, when we wrote it, we thought to ourselves, 'How many people would there be in this world who would like Woody Allen and like Hindi film songs?' " says Acharya, "And we thought, 'OK, there are probably seven of us in the world, so there might be five people who come and see it.'"

But as the dialogue between both traditions continues to grow, these films are finding an audience. Dhawan says what's important about Slumdog Millionaire in particular is that it's a Hinglish film directed by a Western director.

"It's not just about the Indian filmmaker or the Indian actor who wants to come to America to become successful. But that there's reciprocity, and there are filmmakers from the West who want to make films in India and about Indians," says Dhawan.

And if that back-and-forth process yields a hit, you can expect there will be more Hinglish films coming soon to a theater near you.

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