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With the highly political milieu, there are a number of things which are changing or are being forced to change for the vested interests and motives of political parties. Out of all the spheres of Indian society, languages and cultures have not been able to remain unaffected. Be it the case of Bengaluru’s discomfort regarding Hindi being used in the common signboards or be it changing the names of railway stations to maintain the status quo.

Amidst all the controversies regarding preserving the regional language in case of  Bengaluru or state’s efforts to maintain Hindi hegemony in North India, many claims that, Urdu1 or Hindustani2, has seen a downfall in Bollywood or ‘Hindi cinema’. This article shall explore the realities of such claims and reasons behind the same.

Urdu has had a very long and deep relationship with Bollywood. This relationship goes back to the era of the 1930s and 1940s when eminent Urdu writers like Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai were associated with Hindi film industry. In fact, a movie based on Manto’s work, Mirza Ghalib (1954) directed by Sohrab Modi., gained much popularity in India but not so much in Pakistan. Hence, it is to be remembered that knowledge surrounding the film industry have been discursively spread through the memoirs and reminiscences of writers like Manto and Chughtai in the documentation of their experiences and associations with the film industry of that time (Bose, 2009). With the themes and ideas exchanged by these writers, Urdu gained its dominance in Hindi film industry. Bombay (now, Mumbai) became a ‘home’ for many Urdu writers who migrated from north-India in that era. Bombay has hence played a crucial role both geographically and linguistically. The polyglot nature of the contemporary Hindi film industry fits into the broader history of filmmaking in Mumbai (Ganti, 2016). It was a place whose output was not dominated by any one specific language, not even the regional one- Marathi and hence, it drew personnel from all over the subcontinent with diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of actors, directors etc. This increased the demand for writers and lyricist who were fluent or had a facility in Urdu, especially because of the Persianized Urdu. Many well-known Hindi/Urdu poets, playwrights, and novelists supported their literary endeavours by working in the Hindi film industry, and scholars have pointed out that after the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, whereby Urdu became the official language of Pakistan, the only site in India where Urdu was kept alive, and even flourished, was the Hindi film industry (Ganti, 2016).

As claimed by veteran actor Shabana Azmi in Jashn-e-Rekhta2017, Urdu is collapsing in Bollywood with more importance being given to English. She also pointed out the absurdity and vulgarity in the songs now being produced.

Her proposition proves to be somewhat true if we reflect upon the linguistic history of the Hindi film industry. Two features stand out: the relative insignificance of fluency in Hindi/Urdu as a pre-requisite for acting, directing, or even writing; and the consistent presence of English as a language of trade discourse, commentary, and professional nomenclature (Ganti, 2016). Hindi/Urdu was necessary for the plot making and consumption of the output by the masses but English gained the status of primary language among the members of this fraternity which itself was quite elitist and supreme in nature.  It was quite evident when the terms like nirdeshak, abhineta were replaced by director and actor. Another instance would be the opening and closing credits for mainstream Hindi films. They have been in English since the 1930s. The Devanagari (Hindi) and Nasta’liq (Urdu) scripts made an appearance quite late but only after the prominent appearance of the title first in Roman script.

But now, there has been an increase in such inclination towards English. While English has served as a lingua franca but it has increased since the mid-2000s. This change has to do with key demographic shifts in the film industry. While earlier industry attracted people from all over the country but, now the kinship networks are intensified; whereby a significant number of leading actors, directors, and producers represent the second, third, or even fourth generation within the industry. A larger number of creative personnel are drawn from urban social elites whose formal schooling has been wholly in English. Since the turn of the millennium, as Hindi filmmaking became more lucrative and rationalized, taking on an aura of professionalism and respectability that it had not traditionally enjoyed, social elites and film industry progeny gravitated toward the film industry as a viable career path (Ganti, 2016).

This leads us to another point about the economic utility of any language. “Language remains alive not just by its aesthetics but by its economic utility”, says Javed Akhtar (Poet and Lyricist) at Jashn-e-Rekhta 2016. This seems to be true when we look at industry not just confined to movies and professionals involved but various forms of journalism, commentary etc., and this has always been in English and rather it is increasing. Anupama Chopra, a noted film critic and television host, stated bluntly “Hindi4 is a secondary language now” and “no one thinks in Hindi here” (Ganti, 2016). And again it is because of the social class of all the recent actors who cannot stick to one language i.e. Hindi/Urdu and prefer to converse in English.

But is it correct or too early to pass the judgment that Urdu is lying in its ruins in Hindi film industry? What we may infer from the above arguments is that the need for a bifurcation between Hindi and Urdu or Hindustani is unnecessary since, when people lament the death of Urdu, they might be referring to the ‘High Urdu’5 which is heavily Persianised. The everyday colloquial Urdu that people speak – which is identical as well as a mixture of Hindi – is indeed flourishing. In fact, far from declining, thanks to Bollywood, High Urdu has never enjoyed greater reach (Daniyal, 2016). High Urdu has been adopted by lyricists just in the form of Ghalib’s poetry to turn them into songs to sell their movies which were sometimes unintelligible to Hindi speakers. The film Ghazal bears some resemblance to the light-classical Ghazal. As in most film music, however, improvisation is minimal or non-existent. It loses its traditional, simple, open-ended strophic structure, acquiring a more closed, climactic 'song'-like character typical of popular and classical music forms (Manuel, 1988).

Javed Akhtar, at Jashn-e-Rekhta 2016, didn’t seem to agree with the proposition about declining usage of Urdu in Hindi movies as there are still many lyricists like Irshad Kamil, Amitabh Bhattacharya who are keeping Urdu alive through their songs. Hence, we can say that even though the usage of Urdu is lessening in dialogues and professional nomenclature but it is still alive through songs; it is acting as a link between Bollywood and Urdu.

Curator of the Afreen- Afreen Urdu fest, Rakshanda Jalil while describing the importance of including other languages and younger audiences in the celebration of Urdu without adhering to strict codes of conducts, scripts, pronunciation making it more viable for those who can’t read Urdu in its script yet are sufficiently interested in the language, says “In the highly contested terrain that is Urdu in modern India, while there are no easy answers to any questions, there is ample evidence to indicate a slow but steady reclaiming of lost ground, an assertion of its identity as an Indian language, and the burgeoning interest in Urdu among the youth unburdened as they are by the baggage of history" (Jalil, 2017).

An overwhelming presence of the youth could be observed in such events, confirming a serious interest holding and promoting the composite culture.  They carry an atmosphere of a mela (fair) where one could buy Hindi and English translation of Urdu poems, pros apart from Urdu itself hence, making it more inclusive.


From the above arguments, the hegemony and increased usage of English language in Bollywood has become quite apparent. But, it'd be too quick to say that Urdu is dying. As Imtiaz Ali (movie director) has said at Jashn-e-Rekhta 2016 that a language cannot be contained in a box and preserved, it is just going through a phase where it is flowing and accommodating other languages, dialects, tones, words with itself in the current Indian scenario and hence now the songs are all about the usage of the catchy new phrases of English along with the subtle words of Urdu making it more present-oriented.

Also, if we go beyond the commercial movies, we would see songs or movies that do justice to Urdu. It becomes evident in the commercialisation of much celebrated Urdu festivals which is quite open to the amalgamation of other languages.

Hence, it is almost about preferring to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty and hoping for a better future of Bollywood.



  1. Urdu, as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has explained, derives from the phrase zabān-e-urdu-e-mu‘alla-e-shāhjahānabād, “language of the exalted city/court at Shahjahanabad,” that is, the Mughal capital, Delhi (Datla, 2013).
  2. Hindustani; is actually not a language in itself because it has no grammar; it has no vocabulary. It is a mere dialect, it is spoken, but not written. (Kumar, 2007). Gandhi understood Hindustani foremost as the language of a large number of India’s people, the spoken language that lay somewhere between literary Hindi and literary Urdu (Datla, 2013).
  3. Jashn-e-Rekhta is an Urdu fest initiated recently in 2015 by Sanjeev Saraf, an Urdu enthusiast.
  4. During regular conversations, people unconsciously use the term Hindi without realising that no one actually speaks pure Hindi or for that matter pure Urdu and it is, in fact, an amalgamation of both. 
  5. Shoaib Daniyal writes- “Christopher King in his book One Language Two Scriptswrites: Language scholars usually designate its (Khari Boli) two major division as Hindi and Urdu, though some argue that these should be considered two different languages on political and cultural – not linguistic – grounds. Aside from unimportant grammatical variations, vocabulary and script constitute the principal difference between the two. The most formal level of Hindi sometimes referred to as “High Hindi”, uses a vocabulary saturated with Sanskrit, while the corresponding level of Urdu, High Urdu, draws heavily of Persian and Arabic. On this level, the two come close to mutual unintelligibility. Other less formal levels of Hindi and Urdu approach complete intelligibility” (Daniyal, 2016)


Bose, R. (2009). Writing 'Realism' in Bombay Cinema: Tracing the Figure of the 'Urdu Writer' through Khoya Khoya Chand. Economic and Political Weekly, 44(47), 61-66. Retrieved on December 18, 2017 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25663813

Daniyal, S. (2017, January 03). The death of Urdu in India is greatly exaggerated – the language is actually thriving. Retrieved December 18, 2017, from https://scroll.in/article/809102/the-death-of-urdu-in-india-is-greatly-exaggerated-the-language-is-actually-thriving

Datla, K. (2013). Locating Urdu: Deccani, Hindustani, and Urdu. In The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial Hyderabad (pp. 106-137). University of Hawai'i Press. Retrieved on December 18, 2017 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqkzp.10

Ganti, T. (2016). “No One Thinks in Hindi Here”: Language Hierarchies in Bollywood. In M. Curtin & K. Sanson (Eds.), Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor (pp. 118-131). University of California Press.

Jalil, R. (2017, February 24). Away from clichéd pop imagination, Urdu is reclaiming its space (sometimes via other languages). Retrieved December 18, 2017, from https://scroll.in/article/830207/away-from-cliched-pop-imagination-urdu-is-reclaiming-its-space-sometimes-via-other-languages

Kumar, K. (2017, April 03). The Politics of Language in up Reflects the Nation's History of Favouring Sanskrit Over Urdu. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from https://thewire.in/120867/the-politics-of-language-in-up-reflects-the-nations-history-of-favouring-sanskrit-over-urdu/

Kumar, K. (2017, December 12). Jashn-e-Rekhta: Celebrating a common heritage. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from http://www.thehindu.com/society/jashn-e-rekhta-celebrating-a-common-heritage/article21462020.ece

Manuel, P. (1988). Popular Music in India: 1901–86. Popular Music, 7(02), 157-175. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/853534

Rekhta, J. E. (2016, April 12). Urdu in Films I Javed Akhtar I Imtiaz Ali I Tigmanshu Dhulia I Javed Siddiqui I Jashn-e-Rekhta 2016. Retrieved December 19, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dwg2q9CIgE

Salfi, U., Network, S. N., & Firdausi, M. S. (2017, December 13). Jashn-e-Rekhta: a celebration of Urdu by country's younger generation. Retrieved December 17, 2017, from https://theshahab.com/2017/12/13/jashn-e-rekhta-celebration-urdu-countrys-younger-generation/

Picture source- Google Images


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Written By Sana Alam

MA in Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi)

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