How is the construction of national identity navigated through English books and Hindi cinema? And what role does language play in this? Julia Alting provides an in-depth in studying the book Half Girlfriend and its film adaptation.
Julia Alting, Contributor, The Netherlands
‘Would you rather take a sensible student, or someone who speaks a foreign language well?’ Madhav Jha, a young man from rural Bihar, asks the professors of the prestigious St Stephen’s College in Delhi. Madhav wants to study Sociology and is being interviewed as part of the application process. He is struggling with English during the interview and switches to Hindi; when one of the professors informs him that his English is terrible, he retorts with the previously mentioned question. The question is understood to be spoken in Hindi in Chetan Bhagat’s English novel Half Girlfriend (2014) and is actually uttered in Hindi with a Bihari accent* by actor Arjun Kapoor in the 2017 Hindi film adaptation directed by Mohit Suri. This one poignant question serves as a significant starting point from which to explore the relationship between the English language and the construction of Indian national identity. Consider for example how the question itself moves through different layers of language in the move from novel to film – from Hindi written in English to the Bihari-accented Hindi spoken by Kapoor**. As cultural critic Rey Chow argues, languages are not neutral but embedded with relations of dominance: this is exemplified in the hierarchy of languages in the interview scene, yet differs in emphasis when comparing novel to film.
The question of language is one of the most contentious subjects in post-independence India, where English continues to be politically ambivalent (Cowaloosur 92, Bharadwaj vii). While Mahatma Gandhi felt that English represented imperial dominance, and thus ‘by receiving English education, we have enslaved the nation’, other politicians saw the incorporation and appropriation of the colonizer’s language as a potential tool for national unification (Cowaloosur 89). Jawaharlal Nehru, addressing the nation in English with his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech (which marked the nation’s independence in 1947) refused a mono-linguistic nationalism. He favored a diglossic, multilingual nationalism, thereby departing from European norms of nationalism (94).
The social realms associated with Hindi film and the Indian English novel are historically rather distinct: where Hindi cinema is popular with the masses, the English novel connects to the English-speaking cultural elite (Gopal 360). However, Gopal writes that commercial fiction in English together with New Bollywood conjures up a world for ‘Young India’: ‘It is the new Indian fiction’s discovery of the masses as potential readers that creates this hitherto unprecedented synergy between the novel and cinema’ (361). Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat is decidedly targeting a young Indian audience—and his readership is extensive: Half Girlfriend had an initial print run of two million copies (Joshi 315, 311). Joshi argues that the English novels for ‘Young India’ present an undoing of linguistic hierarchies and—therewith—distinctions of class, caste and region (ibid). According to Gopal, English is claimed in these stories as both an Indian language and accessible to the masses. She writes: ‘this diglossic mode – once the province of elites – is now identified by both English fiction and New Bollywood*** cinema as constitutive of Indian identity’ (ibid). However, Bhagat lets his protagonist Madhav Jha in Half Girlfriend mark the English language as decisively foreign in the interview scene at St. Stephen’s College.
In ‘The Old/New Question, cultural critic Rey Chow theorizes the act of comparison with respect to the field of comparative literature. She defines the concept ‘post-European’ as a historically caused condition of perpetual encounter with what is deemed to be culturally superior (298-9). Post-European culture, according to Chow, is caught between the ‘always already’ present of Europe, and its own past histories and traditions (306). The work of comparison of critics whose paradigm she terms ‘post-European cultures and the West’ is therefore already intercultural, and their implications move beyond national boundaries, because non-Western modernity is grounded in comparison (301). Chow writes: ‘An important conceptual link among these post-European comparative studies is that a post-European culture needs to be recognized as always operating biculturally or multiculturally even when it appears predominantly preoccupied with itself’ (301-2). The investigations of postcolonial nation-states, which appear to be monocultural or mononational, are actually ‘bearing testimony to an interlingual, intercultural and international historicity’ (ibid).
Thus, although postcolonial nations appear to be focused on national identity, Chow argues that these debates and explorations are already intercultural processes where the European referent of supremacy is always already present. Additionally, Chow points to the unequal disposition of cultural capital among languages (303). Connecting power with language, she writes: ‘languages and cultures rarely enter the world stage and encounter one another on an equal footing […] languages embed relations of dominance’ (296).
Madhav’s question, from novel to film
Madhav’s question decidedly postulates and marks English as a foreign language, a language that is not a part of Indian identity. In the film adaptation of Half Girlfriend we listen to Madhav speaking in Hindi; in the English novel we understand Madhav to be speaking in Hindi, yet the written language is English. Besides the difference of the mediated language, there are other significant differences in the scene when we compare the novel to its adaptation. These differences are a result of the specific characteristics and possibilities of the different media. When Madhav utters his rhetorical question in the film adaptation, we hear dramatic and triumphant music. Actor Arjun Kapoor speaks with a strong Bihari accent; the professors of St. Stephen’s appear anglicized with strong British accents. These aural aspects enhance the emotional value of the scene, and simultaneously enforce a binary opposition between Madhav and the professors. This imbues the respective languages they are using with meaning and points to their embeddedness in relations of power. For the character Madhav Jha, his inability to adequately express himself in English, his subsequent usage of Hindi and his Bihari accent signal his lower-class, rural Bihari background. The British English spoken by the professors signals their upper-class, elite, urban identity, which connects to the space where the scene takes place: the prestigious college in Delhi.
The Hindi-English relationship as presented in the interview scene illustrates Chow’s concept of the post-European—the perpetual encounter with what is deemed to be culturally superior. Madhav Jha encounters this supposed cultural superiority, personified in the interview scene by the anglicized professors at St. Stephen’s. The English of the professors clearly signifies their power; Madhav’s rhetorical question, supported by the swelling music, actively challenges their postulation of dominance and therewith also the post-European condition. Thus, although the scene takes place in a national context and makes reference to a national linguistic debate, the English of the professors and the meanings it carries points to an interlingual and intercultural historicity of British imperialism.
In spite of Madhav’s insufficient knowledge of English, he does get admitted into the college on a sports quota. The narrative in the book and its film adaptation emphasize Madhav’s sensibility and character as the most important factors for why he succeeds. By pointing to the protagonist’s personality and determination as more important criteria for entering a college than language proficiency, it is clear that Half Girlfriend’s narrative aims to undo biases related to hierarchies of language. This is in line with Joshi’s position on English novels for ‘Young India’, which—according to her—present an undoing of linguistic hierarchies. However, it is interesting that English is decidedly not claimed as an Indian language, as Gopal states is happening in the new synergy between Indian English fiction and New Bollywood.
Although the novel claims to subvert the hierarchy present in the Hindi-English relationship, this does not entail that English is presented as accessible to the masses and no longer the province of elites. English is very clearly associated with the elite in the interview scene. Bhagat writes in English for the masses, and thus claims English as an Indian language – yet writing in that very language he presents it as foreign and elite, and inaccessible to the protagonist. The novel thus conveys a paradoxical message contained in its layers of language. This paradox is not present in the Hindi film adaptation, in which the opposition between Madhav’s Hindi and the professors’ English is articulated more strongly.
The short interview scene in Half Girlfriend displays layers of signification in relation to the position of English within the Indian national context. Its protagonist marks English as ‘foreign’ and the narrative structure tells us English is irrelevant for achieving success. This aspect becomes paradoxical in the novel as Bhagat writes in English for the masses, while in the novel the foreignness of the English language is emphasized as well as its association with the elite. Within the film adaptation of Half Girlfriend a binary opposition between Hindi and English, rural and urban, lower-class and upper-class is enforced through accents, music, and the spoken language. The scene shows how Hindi and English do not encounter each other on an equal footing, but instead embed relations of dominance which are traces of an intercultural and interlingual history. Madhav Jha’s rhetorical question then actively challenges linguistic hierarchies and the presented superiority of English in the interview scene. Although in the film Madhav’s position in the interview scene vaguely echoes Gandhi’s assertion that the English language represents imperial dominance, the novel as a cultural product bears testimony to the way in which English is claimed as an Indian language, in a non-linguistic nationalist vein.
*Actor Arjun Kapoor received a lot of criticism for his Bihari accent in Half Girlfriend. Many Biharis felt that not only his Bihari accent was inaccurate, but that his character also stereotyped Bihari people.
** Half Girlfriend is also translated to Hindi, but it is significant that the original novel is written in English. I am only a starting Hindi learner and therefore have access to the scene in the novel and the film through the English language, which is significant and clearly a limitation in my analysis.
***‘New Bollywood’ is an umbrella term Gopal uses to refer to films that are allied to, yet distinct from, various ‘new waves’ in global cinemas in the last few decades; a catch-all category yet whose films are markedly different from the forms of the previous era.
Bhagat, Chetan. Half Girlfriend. New Delhi: Rupa, 2014. Print.
Bharadwaj, Vasudha. Languages of Nationhood: Political Ideologies and the Place of English in 20th Century India. Dissertation, University of Rochester, 2010. Internet resource.
Chow, Rey. “The Old/new Question of Comparison in Literary Studies: a Post-European Perspective.” Elh. 71.2 (2004): 289-311. Internet resource.
Cowaloosur, Vedita. “The Home and the World”: Representations of English and Bhashas in Contemporary Indian Culture. Dissertation, University of Warwick, 2013. Internet resource.
Gopal, Sangita. ““Coming to a Multiplex Near You”: Indian Fiction in English and New Bollywood Cinema” in Anjaria, Ulka. A History of the Indian Novel in English. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.
Half Girlfriend. Directed by Mohit Suri, performances by Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor, Balaji Motion Pictures NH Studioz, 2017.
Joshi, Priya. “Chetan Bhagat: Remaking the Novel in India” in Anjaria, Ulka. A History of the IndianNovel in English. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.