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‘Jiski zubaan Urdu ki tarah’: Bollywood’s role in reviving Urdu

By Kouser Fathima

Urdu has been an integral part of Bollywood. Song lyrics enriched with Urdu words have won the hearts of millions. Many movies in the genre of Muslim socials, depicting the lives of North Indian Muslims from the upper echelons, feature dialogues in Urdu and Urdu ghazals.

Chaudvi ka Chand, Mughal E Azam, Pakeezah, Mere Mehboob, Taj Mahal, Umrao Jaan, Nikaah, and Bazaar had soulful music with rich Urdu lyrics, which still continue to win the hearts of Urdu and music lovers. These films featured some of the renowned Urdu lyricists such as Shakeel Badayuni, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Qamar Jallalabadi, and Hasrat Jaipuri.

With time the genre of Muslim socials declined but Urdu still continued to be employed by lyricists such as Gulzar and Javed Akhtar. Gulzar’s lyrics in Masoom, Ijazat, and Maachis were richly layered. The end of the last century and the beginning of this century flooded Bollywood with raunchy numbers and sexually suggestive lyrics. Urdu started fading into the background until few Urdu lovers and film makers again went back to Urdu lyrics.

The credit for reviving Urdu in mainstream Bollywood films goes to the trio of Gulzar, A R Rahman, and Mani Ratnam. The promos of Dil Se (1998) had SRK and Malaika Arora Khan dancing on a train top to the captivating tune of ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’. Apart from the eye-catching choreography, the song was peppered with exquisite Urdu words, which are rarely ordinarily used. Even an Urdu speaker like me had to search for the meaning of many of the words in the song. Take, for example:

Yaar misaale ous dhale
Paaon ke tale firdous chale
Kabhi daal daal kabhi paat paat
Main hava pe dhoondhoon uske nishaan.

Many listeners would imagine a song with such lyrics to be a ghazal or romantic number. But AR Rahman transformed these exotic words with his soulful music into a dance number, which had a contemporary feel. Interestingly both AR Rahman and Mani Ratnam are South Indians, who did a tremendous job without knowing the language. This song went on to become a huge hit (though the movie didn’t do well commercially). The success of this song inspired many other music directors and film makers to transform Urdu poetry into foot tapping dance numbers.

Another heavily Urdu-peppered song which turned out to be a huge hit was ‘Kajra re kajra re’ from the movie Bunty Aur Babli. This song was again penned by Gulzar, the music was composed by Shankar Mahadevan, and sung by Alisha Chenoy/Javeed Ali. The song was choreographed as a raunchy UP style item number, a rather risky idea. However, the song received a tremendous response. The song featured Aishwarya as the dancer, being wooed by both the Bachchans – Amitabh and Abhishek:

Surmain se likhe tere wade aankho ki jabani aate hain
mere rumaalo pe lab tere bandh ke nishani jaate hain
ho teri baato me kimaam ki khusbu hain
ho tera aana bhi garmiyo ki lu hain
ho teri baato me kimaam ki khusbu hain
ho tera aana bhi garmiyo ki lu hain.

The success of these two Urdu songs helped the language gain considerable traction in commercial Bollywood films.

The latest ode to Urdu in Bollywood is the movie, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Though the movie had a weak storyline, its dialogues were a treat to Urdu lovers:

Guftgoo bezaar logo ki aadat hai….
dare hue log aksar, alfwazo ke peeche chupte hain…
Tumhara ishq itna kambakht tha ki mera kam pad gaya…
Mohabbat Karna Humare Bas Main Nahi Hain,
Uss Mahobbat Se Dur Chale Jana, Woh Humare Bus Main Hain.
Pyaar Mein Junoon Hai, Par Dosti Mein Sukun Hai.
Main Kabhi Nahi Chahti Ki Hum Dono Ke Beech Jo Sukun Hai Woh Chala Jaae. 

In contemporary times, when Urdu, a language that originated in India, is treated as a foreign language and some even have categorised it as a Muslim language, the movie tries to bridge the gap between the Urdu lovers and the critics of the language. While some languages might be connected with the evolution of a particular religion – for example, Hebrew with Jews, Sanskrit with Hindus, and Arabic with Muslims – language as such has no religion. It is a means of expression. To promote a language, one needn’t pull down another language.

Bollywood films down the years have contributed hugely for keeping Urdu alive. When Urdu speakers themselves were turning their back on the language in the last few decades, credit must be given to Bollywood Urdu patrons for reviving the language and making it cool enough for the millenials to love it.

Dr. Kouser Fathima is a Bangalore-based dentist who writes on issues concerning women, especially Muslim women. Email: Twitter: @ksrd18.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘India at 70: The Many Partitions’, edited by Bhaswati Ghosh, author & translator, Canada.


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