In the lost lanes of Urdu


Magnificent havelis, scintillating fountains, men in shervanis, women decked in ornate jewellery, music and poetry flowing like honey with umpteen shers and shayris belted out as repartees at every turn, energising qawwalis, which was the musical battlefield of the cultured; the gentle gesture of the palm being lifted to the forehead as the characters uttered “Aadab” in salutation and every couplet being appreciated with a “Subhan Allah”. Muslim socials in Bombay cinema evokes these images of romance, which like a gentle breeze of spring, brushed past us in the 1950s and 60s. Along with it flourished Urdu, the knowledge of which was a perquisite to excel in most of the major fields of movie-making.

The dominance of Urdu has a lot to do with the origins of the film industry in Bombay. There were roughly two major influences in its early phases. The first influence was from Bengal. Movies made under The New Theatre seemed more like Bengali movies with Hindi dialogues. The second and the one with a long lasting influence was of the Parsi theatre. The likes of Ardeshir Irani, Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor brought the traditions of theatre into cinema. It is noteworthy that the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara, was a Muslim social with completely Urdu dialogues. Later, Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939) laid the foundation of a Parsi-theatre based historical in Hindi cinema. The Muslim socials played an instrumental role in the popularisation of Urdu.


The influence of Parsi theatre went beyond the use of Urdu. The song-and-dance formula owes its popularity to the Parsi theatre to a great extent. When the Bombay film industry grew, Urdu, by default, became the language of cinema. Moreover, the sophisticated diction and intonation that came with Urdu lent the dialogues a class which was difficult to be produced in other dialects.
Urdu also had an impact on the direction, songs and dialogues that came with any story. This is what the scholars have called the Islamiyat of cinema. Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa or Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam were not Muslim socials; but they carried the air of a Muslim social, which spread across movies in that era.
The movies made through the 50s, 60s and the 70s are indicative of the graph of Muslim socials and the associated use of Urdu in cinema. The fifties and sixties saw the growth of Muslim socials with the likes of Anarkali, Barsaat ki Raat and Chaudvin ka chand. The genre peaked with K.Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-azam (1960), which set unattainable standards in cinema. Close to its heels came Mere Mehboob. For the first time, a Muslim social was celebrated for three hours in full blown Technicolor. The colour of the screen matched the colour of the language. It was now trendy to express the choicest emotions of the heart in Urdu.
But the decadence had set in. The trends were changing. The writers, directors and the above all, the dynamics of the society were changing. Unemployment and poverty were no more seen through the lens of idealism, for which Urdu poetry seemed best. The angry young man had set foot and the language of the street took over. This change is exemplified by Kamal Amrohi’s masterpiece Pakeezah (1972), the last pitch of a connoisseur of Awadh to hold on its glory of yore. The movie, probably set in pre-independent India, personified the vanishing culture through the character of Meena Kumari. Mehboob ki Mehendi by H.S.Rawail, whose Mere Mehboob set cash registers ringing, turned out to be a damp squib. M.S.Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973) shattered all romantic notions of the contemporary Islamic society, forcing film-makers to come out of the dream world. Muzzafar Ali’s Umrao Jaan came for a change in 1983. But the genre was dead, as was visible with the disastrous performance of Razia Sultan. Muslim socials had finally sloughed away into obscurity and by the nineties, Urdu was a matter of past. It was not possible to continue to portray something which was no longer there. Globalisation made new amendments in the use of language. Hindi morphed into Hinglish and survived the onslaught. Urdu remained unamenable and petered away. Moreover, the problems post 80s that came up in the Muslim society changed the portrayal of its characters forever in cinema.
But it would be inappropriate to ascribe the use of Urdu entirely to Muslim socials. The major reason why Urdu virtually became the lingua franca of the Bombay film industry was the heavy presence of artists and writers of the Progressive Movement. These left leaning writers, like K.A.Abbas, Zia Sarhadi, Rajender Singh Bedi, Abrar Alvi, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Jan Nisar Akhtar, wrote predominantly in Urdu, making it the medium of expression even in dramas with Hindu characters. The foray of artists from IPTA made Urdu the language of the performing artists. This was a perfect example of the secular ethos of cinema. In the seventies, their hold and role began to wane with the entry of a new breed of writers. The new class of directors and singers were not familiar with the Persian script. Urdu slowly slid into the horizons of incomprehension. The sole success in recent times was Jodha Akbar. Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum and Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand were lamentations of a splendid past.


Mahatma Gandhi advocated the use of Hindustani, a blend of Hindi and Urdu. But the wounds of partition made certain irreversible changes. Hindi, was perceived as a language of the Hindus, as distinct from Urdu, which with its Persian script which was labelled as a Muslim language. Many scholars opine that had the Progressive writers taken to the Devanagiri script instead of the Persian, perhaps Urdu would have survived the ravages of politics, bias and ignorance. Today, the line between Urdu and Hindi in daily use is hardly visible. Making changes to the refined forms of both the languages, they have blended to become what Gandhi called Hindustani.
Today, when one walks through Daryaganj in Old Delhi, famous for its Urdu books, one can gauge the dwindling popularity of the language. The on-screen change, by all means, reflects the changes that have taken place in the realms of politics, culture and academics. When NRI romances and peppy love stories rule the roost, it’s better to say ‘Keh do na You’re my Sonia’ rather than come out with the silken tresses of ‘Chaudvin ka Chand’. Urdu is now relegated to theatre and the pages of literature. It is a loss, not just of some words, songs or dialogues, but of an entire culture. As for cinema, the famed havelis, shervanis, shers and shayris represent an era gone with the wind.
(This article was published in the Sunday Magazine of The New Indian Express)

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