When writer-filmmaker Tanuja Chandra was making her first film, she approached veteran lyricist Anand Bakshi to narrate the script in order to pen a few songs. She was so anxious to meet a stalwart of his stature that she ended up cancelling the first two meetings with him and lied that she was ill. When she finally met him, he brought a huge tray of medicines in front of her and asked what was keeping her sick all this while, and that he’d give her the medicine she needed. Later, when she asked him to write a song for her, he not only wrote 15 variations of stanzas for her, but also gave her due respect of being a filmmaker despite being a debutante in the business.
Amidst the countless mesmerising anecdotes, in the two day virtual celebration at Jashn-E-Rekhta UK, Tanuja discussed the contribution of Urdu to the world of cinema and television. In an interview with Asian Voice, she further tried to talk about the impetus of one of the most beautiful and sophisticated languages of the world.
Tanuja said that she thinks in English, yet she has a flair for Hindi and Urdu. When asked how she developed taste in these languages and what attracted her to Urdu, she said, “My parents both converse in exquisite Hindi and they along with my extended family from U.P., have always had a vibrant, colourful, humorous and affectionate way of speaking. They've loved stories as well (which is what made me want to record these down in my book of short stories, 'Bijnis Woman') because of which I have a huge love for both Urdu and Hindi. I have to add that sadly though, my Urdu is not as good as it should be, and the attempt is to keep developing it. Undoubtedly, it's a beautiful, beautiful language; our film song lyrics have always had a mix of Hindi and Urdu, even in our daily, spoken language, so often unknown to us, our loveliest expressions are in Urdu. Not only is Urdu expression heartachingly lovely, its sounds and cadences are gorgeous as well. So often, one may not understand a line of Urdu poetry, but it will sound beautiful to the ears.”
In a time when Hinglish is the new language of the youth and older urban generations, we asked Tanuja about where and how one can then find some inspiration to learn Urdu. She said, “I think it's more important than ever before to bring the allure of Urdu back into our lives. We must listen to it more, we must speak in it increasingly, we must read more books on its influence on our culture, we must, wherever the subject demands it, have films and web series infused with it. This can only add to our expression, it'll never take away from it. Words too often fall woefully short when trying to explain what we feel and with the increased usage of Urdu, we'll only come closer to describing the almost indescribable feelings that emanate from us, the longings that explode within the human heart. Is this not reason enough for more Urdu in the world!”
Yet, why is Urdu still an underused or underrated language? Sharing her perspective, Tanuja said, “Sadly, it's not as big a part of popular culture as it should be. The more it proliferates and spreads, the more it'll be loved and conversed in. It's not an easy language to master, yet what a joy it must be when one does master it. I doubt that both love and anguish can be better expressed in any other language. My hope is that young people will become more and more attracted toward it, because then it'll percolate into daily conversation, which will truly make it grow.”
Talking about the evolution in the language of female characters in over 100 years of cinema, she said, “Language is a dynamic thing - always changing. And that's how it should be. I'm personally ever excited when a language becomes inclusive, when it starts to include quirks of other languages, when it starts to absorb oddities of sound and of changing social landscapes. In that sense, I'm not a purist. I think in the world today it's not possible to remain isolated or removed from cultures, from societies, from nationalities. We all affect one another. And we all necessarily must be more a melting pot than ever before; only then will we be able to create understanding and empathy.”
“Hindi cinema isn't as representative of the changes that are sweeping the world, and our own world, as it should be. Hindi cinema must reflect the reality of our lives today, of our truths, but it's lagging behind in this regard. Hindi cinema must stand more and more for equality and for justice, and this of course includes female characters. When I began independent direction over twenty years ago, there were very few stories about women, and even fewer female directors. Today the numbers have increased but they're still very, very low. It's a long road ahead, one that I'm devoted to. We have to bring the female experience much more to our screens, stories about all kinds of women, their longings, their dreams, their fears and their miseries, and also their joys. The female genre has to experience a great, big renaissance, and toward this end, men must feel as responsible as women,” she added.
During her session at Jashn-E-Rekhta, she spoke about “Storytelling as a tool to protest”. We asked her about the kind of topics or issues she thinks can be successfully addressed via films and what would be the challenges, keeping in mind that there’s less censorship on OTT platforms than the silver screen. Tanuja thinks that the biggest, primary challenge is the one to negotiate within our own minds, to cross our own limitations. “Everything is political in a story, even the absence of politics. When we as filmmakers, decide that 'neutrality' is legitimate, that's when the downfall begins. There is so much to be fought for, to be spoken up for - the minute we narrate a simple plot, we've already begun speaking about some wrong that needs to be corrected, some ill that needs to be denounced. We must not shy away from this. I am pained when violence against women is glorified in movies, when the patriarchy is not made accountable. I think our cinema can examine our history, recent as well as ancient, and point out where we've gone wrong. Our films can create empathy even as they entertain. This to me, is cinematic realism. When we depict fearlessly, the truth of our lives, our prejudices, our moral degradation, to my mind, we only show the depth of our love for the ideals we should aim for. After all, isn't a just society something each of us should hold in the highest regard?” she signed off.