Amongst the hoarse and predominantly local criticism Slumdog Millionaire has garnered – which has only grown shriller after the movie received all those awards and gave Anil Kapoor serious value for money from his tux purchase – the one issue for which I will completely take up arms is that of the stilted and unnatural accents dubiously employed for the majority of the film.
It goes without saying that the movie was scripted in English to access a global-sized audience and global-scaled profits. To wit, City of God, a far more accomplished piece of poverty porn, which portrays hard living and hardier hope in the slums of Brazil, but which is conducted entirely in realistic and lyrical Portuguese, earned only $7.5 million at the global box office, compared to Slumdog’s running tally of $200 million – a bonanza expected to get to at least $250 million.
But whereas Slumdog closely mirrors City of God’s attempt to mesh hyperrealism and fantasy, unlike the Brazilian masterpiece it is sanitized into the realm of patronizing pap, populism and cut-paste affectation via the cast’s use (severally) of Harrow highlights, Indian High-Commission haughtiness and Prithvi Theatre-received pronunciation standing in for anything resembling an authentic Dharavi brogue.
This makes it closer in experience to awkward solecisms like The Hunt for Red October (featuring a Scottish accent on a Russian sub commander), The Legend of Zorro (British actors faking terrible Spanish accents and Spanish actors faking British ones) and, most recently, Valkyrie (a Nazi film filled with an international convention of accents, very few of them German).
There is a good analysis of the dialect dilemma here which concludes that, if you wish to join all humanity in appreciation of the blockbuster you must capitulate to Hollywood’s cultural hegemony and submit to suspension of disbelief – i.e. the good guys will speak American, the bad German, Russian or British and the dopey ones will sound Indian. Sure enough, my Slumdog irritation is shared by only a few mainland Indians. The foreigners I’ve asked didn’t even notice the sanitization of the accents (potty scenes notwithstanding) .
Goodness Gracious Us
But what is it about the Indian accent that renders it unmarketable in global mainstream cinema? India’s voices and characters are, by their uniqueness, squarely defined in the global mindset. After briefly toying with the racist and facileidea of Indians as exotic, mysterious and dark savages, Hollywood quickly discovered a useful staple in the comic stereotype of the well-intentioned, bumbling, un-worldly and indeed gawky-accented Indian villager. Even today, apart from the odd appearance of a super-intelligent news commentator or a high profile techie, the Indian character still remains a heuristic for derisive comedy. The only progress we’ve made is from snakes, elephants and rishis to geeky, uncool, virginal programmers and, as in Slumdog‘s case, callow BPO drones.
There are some signs of hope. While online chatter about the Slumdog phenomenon includes this honest appraisal about how Freida Pinto’s Cindarella story in Hollywood might be limited to Bond and Bourne roles on account of her accent, it also features this (misguided) conversation about how the Indian accent (which didn’t actually feature in the movie at all) is the new Aussie – as in exotic, cool, sexy even. Dev Patel was delivered to Danny Boyle by the director’s teenage daughter, who had seen Patel in a flattering role in Skins, a trendy British TV serial (admittedly, Britain’s media is much more generous, honest and profound in its representation of its Asian population). Purely by dint of their surging numbers, our own youth stand set to insinuate their attitude and energy into the world’s cultural operating system. Local directors in India are creating hip and authentic cinema which could register in international markets and move us out of the all-encompassing and regressive shadow of Satyajit Ray retrospectives. We’re all holding our collective breath to see if the Reliance BIG -Dreamworks merger flies further than the release of this year’s Kites. And, while he does use an inaccurate accent, Dev Patel’s Slumdog character represents a genuine homegrown hero, who beats the odds thanks to his can-do attitude and Indian-sized brain.
Vee are like this only
Ultimately, it is our own prejudice which holds us back. Although a well-defined class system of accents does exist across the world, we certainly do ourselves no favours by underselling our mastery over the English language (which made us BPO ‘millinaires’ in the first place) – accents be damned. Back in Bharat, we’re quite pleased to perpetuate the myth of ‘foreign’ being ‘fancy’. We capitulate in front of a British accent – no matter if it comes from a plumber or a prince.
As an emperical exercise, I’ve put together a quick survey of accents used in English programming on Indian TV – picked up while flipping through the non-vernacular channels. Indian English – in its pure, lilting, honest tones is nowhere to be found.
EXHIBIT A. NDTV GOOD TIMES
The king of vapid programming (it even has a show called ‘Vanity, No Apologies‘!) gets my vote for TV Channel Most in Need of Domicile Reassignment. In one hour of viewing, I had to struggle through:
‘The Making of the Kingfisher Calendar‘ – 3 major accent infractions, viz.
1. Host Tamara Moss – who, despite her Indian parentage, sounds like Ivana Trump on laughing gas 2. A narrator who sounds like the Donald Trump of Haryana, and 3.Mumbaikar-to-the-core Mahesh Shirodkar (who, as ‘oiler of the models’, definitely has the best job in the universe) affecting various Thai phrases which just couldn’t be good for our bilateral relations
‘The Big Fat Indian Wedding‘ – 1 major and countless minor accent infractions, viz.
1. A host with an extremely laboured, upper class Delhi brogue, made all the more painful by the fact that she sounds like she is constantly on the verge of narcolepsy 2-∞. Various NRIs trying their embarrassing best to be ‘hart’ boys and ‘desi’ girrls
Amongst various promos for other ersatz exotic shows – including a lady who tours Europe looking for ‘Italian Khana‘, sounding cheesily like the mother of that flummoxing ‘Italian’ girl in the Milano Cookies ad – all punctuated by frequent repetitions of inhouse ads reminding us how to correctly pronounce the anthem of good times (to remind you – the accent in “oh-lala-la-la-layo” is more french than Indian – which would be more of the “lay ho!” variety).
EXHIBIT B. SONY PIX
This brave attempt to recycle Sony Pictures’ library of lesser-known films is anchored by a no-less-sturdy accented voiceover artist, who employs a Terminator-like bass when introducing the brassy “Chixahwnflix” or the often-not-so “GrateahtEighuht” lineup.
EXHIBIT C. ZEE CAFE
The lady announcing the promo bumpers is never more irritating than when she deliriously and archingly intones, with the volume boosted 200% by the channel, that the program you were so peacefully enjoying was “brot to you baiie!’ some hapless sponsor.
EXHIBIT D. CARTOON NETWORK
Our kids aren’t spared the confusion of discerning alien tongues either, with various animated shows (e.g. Krishna) inexpertly dubbed into English by voice artists whose accents are so forced, they might as well be speaking formal Swedish.
EXHIBIT BEEB. BBC ENTERTAINMENT
Yes, even the venerable purveyor of the Queen’s English is a victim of our media fantasists. A local announcer has been inserted to hold forth on the exclusively imported content (is this part of some indigenisation scam?) gleefully informing us that “Footballer’s Vives” will be on soon.
That last instance reminds me of the Grand Cru Accent Slip of All Time – which was committed in disarming fashion by our very own Queen of Cute herself when she offered – “Hi. I’m Asha Bhonsle. And you are Vatching Channel We”.
(*The lemur in question – King Julian of Madagascar – while not technically an Indian hunk, has definitely been conceived with our country in mind. His accent could best be described as Tom Jones channeling Ali Nadeem from Mind Your Language)