philhaal is guftagu se thak gaye hain hum.

She simply raises an eyebrow, twirls a finger, twinkles her eyes — and the screen goes ablaze. I wanted to join the front-benchers screaming with delight when, pre-interval, she naughtily murmurs, philhaal is guftagu se thak gaye hain hum.

We went to watch Kalank starring Alia Bhat and Varun Dhawan last night. I don’t have much to add to the film reviews, who’ve done a pretty fine job in pointing out both the strengths and the weaknesses.

Karan Johar and his runaway success straddles both new and old Bollywood. One of the reviews chimed in perfectly with what I felt; that Karan is all about “more is more.”

It detracts from the essence of the film and Bollywood is now the inverse of  Pakistani dramas. Pakistani dramas convey exceptionally powerful stories on shoestring budgets (Hum Safar was shot on 5,000 USD and it, along with Dastan, revitalised the Pakistani Drama industry).

One of Vidhi’s podcast suggestions is asking why Bollywood doesn’t garner the same level of international respect as Persian Cinema. We’re iA going to explore it in a future podcast but the splintering of a Unified India’s High Culture, where Pakistan got the Mughal bits and India the rest, has had some lasting damage.

Kalank also descends into a farce because it’s as realistic about Hira Mandi and pre-Partition Punjab as Aladdin is about “Arabia.” I enjoyed the performances all around but they lacked that raw intensity of the Khans.

Madhuri Dixit stole the show but even she had to navigate the difficult corners of the script. One reviewer touched on various influences on the film (Pakeezah, Raazi) but what came to mind is that this was supposed to be the Desi Titanic.

Partition is a painful and difficult subject; the cumulative and untold trauma can spin a thousand romances and tragedies. Like most psychic wounds it can be mined for great art but if KJo wants to pioneer Urdu cinema (Ae Dil Eh Mushkil) he has to first learn that the language of love is spoken with the heart.

It’s what powers the great Pakistani plays and initially I was surprised that the screen play was by Abhishek Varman, the language used was so elegaic and chaste (I thought more Urdufied than Urdu but that is to quibble over little details) but then I heard in one of the reviews that the writer was a Muslim.

In the end though I appreciated the nod towards Urdu culture though I found one line rather offensive, which roughly translated, “her face was Irani but her dress was Indian.” Self-respect starts at home.

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42 Replies to “philhaal is guftagu se thak gaye hain hum.”

  1. Zach, I like you, but a few points:

    “why Bollywood doesn’t garner the same level of international respect as Persian Cinema.”

    I have literally never heard anyone mention Persian (or Pakistani) cinema before today, let alone praise it. I have occasionally heard people talk about Bollywood films, usually positively (though they grant the films free points just because they’re Indian in provenance).

    Your statement may well be true, I don’t really watch Indian/Pakistani/Persian cinema. But I’m just saying that I haven’t heard the statement before.

    “splintering of a Unified India’s High Culture, where Pakistan got the Mughal bits and India the rest”

    Tbh this sounds like overfitting. I think it’s more parsimonious that Bollywood has simply been “proletarianized” to a far greater degree than its Persian or Pakistani counterparts.

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    1. Persian cinema is well-known and well-respected widely, and has won a lot more awards and admiration than Bollywood (vastly larger in size) ever has. That you haven’t heard anyone mention it may only serve to illustrate that you associate exclusively with philistines.

      From Wikipedia: “Some critics now rank Iran as the world’s most important national cinema, artistically, with a significance that invites comparison to Italian neorealism and similar movements in past decades….Many film critics from around the world, have praised Iranian cinema as one of the world’s most important artistic cinemas.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinema_of_Iran

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  2. “In the end though I appreciated the nod towards Urdu culture though I found one line rather offensive, which roughly translated, “her face was Irani but her dress was Indian.” Self-respect starts at home.”

    Urdu/Mughal culture etc is something “exotic” for Bollywood directors. You would not find the same level of authenticity which you would find in Pakistani drama like Humsafar and all. Specially if it’s helmed by a Hindu director (which Kalank is). Its something which we “think” Urdu is or Mughal or pre partition Punjab is, not lived experience unlike its in Pakistan. Thats’ why “Kalank also descends into a farce because it’s as realistic about Hira Mandi and pre-Partition Punjab as Aladdin is about “Arabia.” Its similar to how Disney is making Alladin and trying to imagine “Arabia”.

    Also for muslim writers/ artists/ song writers who collaborate on this projects you have to understand that they live in overwhelmingly Secular or Hindu surroundings. The supposed authenticity they are provided to bring is a heavy burden , considering they themselves dont live like the way they are caricatured (saying “Janab” after each sentence as if its a semi-colon). They can actually write, potray “Hindu” things better than muslim (case in point Amazon’s Made in Heaven directed by Zoya Akthar).

    That’s why the Urdu of India will always be polished,exotic,caricatured and “oriental-ized” because deep down we know its doesn’t “belong” to us.

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    1. Saurav, I wonder if the hindi film industry were based in hindustan proper, rather than bombay, would it still do the ersatz mughal thing. The konkan coast, on which the city is situated, can’t give expression to the gangetic soul.

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    2. Authentic ‘Indian’ Urdu is the Awadhi influenced Urdu spoken by Javed Akhtar, Jaun Elia or even Amitabh Bachchan. You’d hear it if you travel from Lucknow to Allahabad.

      But I don’t think Zac will consider that high culture.

      A few years ago, there was this movie starring Ali Zafar called ‘Mere Brother ki Dulhan’ where he tries to portray himself as a UP wala and fails miserably.

      I feel that the Urdu that Pakistanis speak is in fact the more ‘polished,exotic,caricatured and “oriental-ized”’
      That way the film might have done a fair job representing what Indians think of Pakistani Urdu.
      (I haven’t seen the movie and mostly likely won’t)

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      1. “I feel that the Urdu that Pakistanis speak is in fact the more ‘polished,exotic,caricatured and “oriental-ized”’
        That way the film might have done a fair job representing what Indians think of Pakistani Urdu.”

        I can usually pick up most of Urdu, it does occasionally have some unfamiliar words (though my Hindi itself is not that good hahaha). From this vantage point, I never really considered it “polished” or “exotic,” just about as similar or different with Hindi as Mexican vs. Cuban vs. Castillian Spanish (I have more experience with this.)

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        1. ” From this vantage point, I never really considered it “polished” or “exotic.””

          You havent met than our Indian upper class – arts-loving- NGO wallas yet. Am pretty sure half of the positive impression which Pakistani have in these circles is because of Urdu only 😛

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  3. Girmit

    Its better that a movie industry , which is trying (atleast) to represent the whole of India, rather than a region, it should be situated in a cosmopolitan place like Mumbai (which still has better ethnic/community representation than any other part of India).

    Yes Bollywood in Mumbai gets a lot of things wrong, but the alternatives are far far worse.

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    1. By all means, wasn’t suggesting anything ought to change. As multicultural as bombay might be, its basal cultural-geographic milieu is not a blank canvas. If one seeks authentic hindustani culture, best go to the source. There are many hindu men educated at AMU and from awadh and such who probably have a deeper acquaintance with high urdu culture, with granddads lettered in persian and all, than the lahori gentry.

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      1. Authenticity is not very important to sell movies. Most of Bollywood’s market is anyway outside the Gangetic belt in metros and states like Gujarat and Punjab.

        People from UP usually have to struggle in Bollywood because they don’t look the part. Ravi Kishen is a case in point.

        In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, Ravi Kishen (original surname Shukla), a Brahmin plays a Dalit while the role of the Brahmin antagonist was played by a Jat Sikh Jimmy Shergill (albeit one brought up in UP). And Kashyap is known for deploying relatively ugly looking actors!

        People from the UP have a weird self-conception. You can obviously watch Bhojpuri movies if you want authenticity, as the proles are not as encumbered by this self-concpetion.

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  4. Bollywood is not trying to represent anything. It is about making money in an open society. It caters to its market.

    Pakistani drama/Persian cinema may be great but the cynic in me wonders if they would be as great if they operated in a society with no censorship (in the case of Iran) or fewer taboos (in the case of Pakistan).

    It is good to be artistic but given the choice, most people would prefer to make money.

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    1. Bollywood makes aspirational movies for a country where everyone wants to look like an affluent upper caste Hindu Khatri. There are only a limited number of authentic stories you can tell that way.

      Hindi films will start getting critical acclaim when they start starring more short dark skinned skinny-fat diabetic people.

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        1. Not saying anyone needs to care. Just that there’s a simple trick to game the critics, should one chooses to do so.

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  5. The comparison with persian cinema is a bit unfair. Iranian cinema gets brownie points for arty movies that arty farty people really really love, but that have no mass market (not even in Iran AFAIK). Bollywood is mass market cinema. They are not the same thing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinema_of_Iran#Commercial_cinema_in_Iran

    The fairer comparison would be Indian “art cinema” vs Iranian art cinema. I think Iranians may have more recent rave reviews, but over a longer period, Indian art cinema has as many awards and plaudits (e.g. Satyajit Ray)..

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    1. Second Omar Bhai.

      Iranian cinema is fetishised a little more than normal in the West precisely because much of it is produced against a backdrop of extreme censorship in an Islamic Republic. Also there is an element of adaptation at work, wherein intelligent directors have become good at using metaphor (or even metaphor of metaphors) to convey messages that the regime may not want aired.

      OTOH Indian cinema >> Bollywood. There is an entire art genre that Omar refers to. And then there are many regional cinemas – in Bangla, Tamil, Punjabi etc, which have their own art versions. Satyajit Ray being the auteur of Bangla art cinema. So the comparison is terribly flawed.

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  6. Bollywood (in Mumbai) for all its excess and issues is STILL better at representation than any regional cinema. It still tries (and fails miserably sometimes) to tell the story of the Bihari (Gangs of Wasseypur) or the UP wala(Muqabaz). Its arguably greatest star is a UP walla. And its biggest stars currently is Sindhi whose own state is not in India and a Kanadiga who was not born in the country !

    Can it do better, yes, but put this industry in any other region and you will get only the stories of that region. Bollywood in any other region will caricature FAR more the people of other regions than it does now. Yeah the brahmin plays the dalit but it STILL tries to tell the story of the dalit, in other industry you will be hard pressed to find the dalit.

    Let us have some perspective (never thought i would have to defend Bollywood 😛 )

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    1. “Bollywood (in Mumbai) for all its excess and issues is STILL better at representation than any regional cinema.”

      Spoken like a true North Indian who thinks regional cinema is only Bhojpuri or Punjabi. Tamizh and Malayali films routinely blow Hindi cinema out of the water in terms of cosmopolitanism or universal appeal. Increasingly Hindi movies are remakes of Malayali and Telugu movies. There is no equivalent of a Kamalahaasan or Mani Ratnam in Hindi cinema.

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  7. The makers of Hindi cinema (actors, directors, producers, musicians, writers) refer to it as the ‘industry’. As such, it can only really be compared to America’s Hollywood. Such industries only come up in the great commercial centers of free societies.

    The middle-Eastern, Arabic based civilization to which Iran and Pakistan belong currently lacks a free and vibrant metropolis.

    The main weakness of Indian cinema stems from our poor literary output. All the good movies we have made in the last 10 years are either based on foreign novels (Badlapur, Lootera) or real life stories (Dangal).

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    1. Pakistan belongs to a “middle-eastern Arabic-based civilization”? We are Muslim-majority but we are very much a South Asian country.

      Pakistan used to make good films, such as those starring Madam Noor Jehan. According to Wiki, during the 1970s, Pakistan was the fourth largest producer of feature films. Like many other things, cinema was destroyed by General Zia ul Haq’s Islamization. The ban on Indian films also had a negative effect on the industry.

      It is certainly possible that the fact that Bollywood is so culturally accessible to Pakistanis means that people are less attracted to local films which tend to be poorer in quality than Indian films. Many of our films also tended to be derivative of Bollywood, though now efforts are being made to revive the local industry.

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      1. Hollywood movies, American TV shows and Harry Potter are culturally accessible to a large segment of urban India. Doesnt mean they think of themselves as westerners.

        Also, there is little output from Pakistan’s kindred Middle-Eastern countries. Where there is output, for example Mera Sultan from Turkey, they are widely watched. You wouldnt see the same kind of response for a show on Ashoka or Chandragupta.

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        1. You’d be surprised how popular Hindi soap operas were.

          This insistence on placing Pakistan in the Middle East despite all geographical logic is hilarious.

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          1. Geography is not very relevant here. Israel is smack in the middle of the middle east, but considered a Western country.

            The insistence on being “South Asian” (if there is any such category) is merely a tactical ploy, in the anticipation of the demographic balance changing and a signal to the compliant populations within India that Pakistanis are ready to play the long game.

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          2. Just because we are a Muslim-majority country doesn’t make us Middle Eastern. We are ethnically and culturally North Indian. Many of us actually have ancestors from what is today India.

            I have no idea what kind of conspiracy theory you’re talking about regarding “demographic balance” but you’re most welcome to it.

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    2. Vikram, Cairo has a vibrant film industry that doesn’t seem oppressively censored. All this under the single party regimes.

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      1. Yes, I was about to mention Cairo, but then I saw that Egypt currently does not feature even in the top 15 movie producing countries.

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  8. This is an English Blog and English is the medium of conversation. Probably most of the reading public do not know Hindi/Urdu and have no intention of learning Hindi/Urdu.

    Write in English or provide translation of what you have written.

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    1. @Shafiq R

      It is a little oddly written Urdu sentence literally meaning: right-now this with-conversation tired have-gone are we, i.e. “right now we are tired of this conversation”.

      Not sure why /ph/ in “philhal” when fi al-hal is an Arabic phrase borrowed as-is in Urdu (quelle surprise!) and literally means “in the circumstance/condition”. Arabic has no aspirate /ph/.

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      1. The ph phoneme in philhaal is meant to be pronounced as the ph in, well phoneme. 😉

        Sounds PHony? but then this is not a post on linguistics 🙂

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  9. There is a simple way to establish how limited Hindi cinema’s cultural intelligibility is to ordinary Pakistanis. Here are some well know lines from Hindi songs,

    “Tu kaun hai, tera naam hai kya. Sita bhi yahan, badnaam hui.”

    “Jai jai Shiv Shankar, kata lage na kankad.”

    “Haye Ram, kudiyon ko daale daana.”

    “Chalka re, kalse ka paani”

    “Lene hoga janam, kai kai, baar”

    What proportion of Pakistanis would understand what they mean, or even be willing to hum them ?

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    1. Vikram, be careful. Without knowing you are making Kabir’s case here. 🙂

      I haven’t been to Pakistan but have a shrewd suspicion most of your allusions/expressions are familiar to many Pakistanis. That they wouldn’t be as comprehensible to folks further West actually reinforces what Kabir is saying.

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      1. Not sure what you mean, but Kabir and Zachary’s silence on this matter is revealing. They see Hindi cinema (Islamicate colonizers like Zach will cringe even at this name) as an extension of Arabo-Persian/Islamicate culture, and anything that doesnt fit this paradigm is confounding.

        Such colonizer attitudes, racial and cultural superiority underlie Paki attempts to appropriate Hindi cinema.

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    2. Many people are quite familiar with Bollywood songs. I don’t know why you think Pakistanis would find a line like “Deedi tera dewar deewana/ Haye Ram, kudiyon ko daale daana” so difficult. Similarly, people know who Sita is.

      You have some ideological reasons for denying the commonalities between Pakistani and North Indian cultures. Of course, you’re entitled to your ideology but it doesn’t match the ground reality. 70 years of separation is not enough to turn Pakistan from a South Asian into a Middle Eastern country, however much some people may desire this.

      I have no desire to “appropriate” Hindi cinema for Pakistan. But it is a fact that Bollywood movies used to be based on a syncretic Hindustani culture. Perhaps that is changing now with a new generation of filmmakers who are not as familiar with Urdu and/or who have different ideological leanings.

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  10. LOL, now have we come down to lyrics of hindi songs. Forget Pakistani, am not sure how many “Indians” outside the North would “understand what they mean, or even be willing to hum them ?”

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  11. Kabir writes…

    “Just because we are a Muslim-majority country doesn’t make us Middle Eastern. We are ethnically and culturally North Indian. Many of us actually have ancestors from what is today India.”

    I actually have heard liberal Pakistanis express these sentiments (sincerely), but I’ve also heard more conservative ones who take the opposite view, they disdain India and look to the Middle East culturally…as Razib put it on his podcast, “they think they’re Persian.”

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    1. “Pakistanis think they are Middle-Eastern” is a meme put forward by people who don’t (and possibly aren’t able) to understand the role Islam plays not just in the Pakistani psyche, but the global Muslim psyche, and thus misattribute fetishization of Islam with fetishization of the Arab/Persian.

      This is actually a fairly common insult lobbed at Iranians by right-wing non-Muslims and Iranian-atheists. That Muslim Iranians are pretending to be Arab due to the faith they follow, script they use, names they take, and causes they champion.

      This is ignorance of culture that is not your own, basically. Similar to one who would say Muslims don’t worship God, but the black-cube called “Kaabah”, because they’ve observed them praying toward it.

      I actually think this topic deserves its own post or podcast, and I won’t get into it here. There are real pathologies that underlie Pakistan’s identity issues, but, “they think they are Arabs/Persians” is not it.

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    2. People are free to identify with whatever cultures they wish but that doesn’t change the reality that most of the ancestry of Pakistanis is from the subcontinent.

      There is a tendency among some Pakistanis to emphasize their foreign origins (or make up foreign origins). This is part of the identity of the country as the “not India”. It suits people to believe that their families were always Muslim and came over to Sindh with Muhammad Bin Qasim. However deeply held this belief may be, it is certainly not factually true in most cases.

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  12. My personal experience has been that pakistanis in their own manner have been the ones to promote bonhomie among south asians in the diaspora. What is “desi” if not a term to accommodate where “indian” for political sensitivities doesn’t? Personal friendships aside, I find that they are the ones to see the familiar south asian visage and acknowledge some kind of sameness and break out in hindustani. This happens on all social levels, from the street to formal professional settings. Some of it may be less about pakistaniness and perhaps a punjabi extroversion, I can’t say for sure.
    Also, the metropolitan indian has embraced english to such a degree that I don’t know how that doesn’t count as cultural dilution or misplaced identification, in comparison to the current youth of pakistan who seem more proficient in their urdu and punjabi and folk literary context (as evidenced by the popular music culture) . If there are south asian muslims who are distinctly arabophilic i’ve sensed it is the mercantile castes of western seaboard. From karachi and bombay to colombo and chennai there is a real historic connection that continues into the present with them being mediators of a certain class of trade. It in fact extends to non-muslims as well and bombay and southern indian cities are full of gulf returned kids who are a very identifiable type.

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    1. Regarding the role of English, I think this is deeper than mere urban location. Quite simply, English media and literature is the product of a society and economy much more advanced than India’s. If you look back into our recent poetry and literature, there is not a whole lot to relate to for young urban folks.

      ‘Year of the Cat’ easily resonates with both young Anglos and others who understand English, ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’ doesnt have quite the same staying power.

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  13. >What is “desi” if not a term to accommodate where “indian” for political sensitivities doesn’t?

    ‘Desi’ is the least geeky word you use for ‘Indian’ (or Pakistani, I am guessing) when you are trying to speak in public in the US without being understood by the non-desi folks around. I dont believe it is primarily an attempt to be more inclusive.

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