Ria Banerjee

Bengalis and English: Conversations during a Movie Screening 

The last thing my grandfather ever said to me was, “Buri, I miss you.” His voice was weak over the long distance connection and I did not know I would not see him again but it was not hard to predict. I remember feeling very well prepared for the call because I had a brand new phone card with many minutes on it; I had spent a lot of time fussing with international calling cards and found a good deal online. At the same time, I had that sinking pit in my stomach you get before exams. We were not a family who speaks our feelings, we are still people who love privately. I had lots of minutes on my card, but once I calculated the correct time difference from New York, dialed my aunt’s phone in Calcutta, said hi, asked for my granddad, and was given over to him – what should I say? I had not thought it through. I started off in Bengali as usual asking how he was, feeling pretty stupid for such an inanity. He was in hospital with pneumonia after an extended session of chemo for mouth and throat cancer. He mumbled something, then gathering strength, said more clearly into the phone, in English, I miss you. I said back weakly, I miss you too. My aunt retrieved her phone soon after.

I find it almost impossible to explain the role of English in Bengali life to my students or even my closest friends here. Perhaps it is most precise to say that for a swathe of middle class urban educated Bengalis, English is not only the language of bureaucracy (though many of us are the post-colonial descendants of historical bureaucrats) but also the language which enhances our mother tongue, slipping into our most intimate conversations to give us words that feel right in a way than formal, Sanskritised Bengali does not. In art cinema of the kind that I most frequently teach, people express themselves in Bengali seamlessly woven in with English without distinguishing between local and foreign, ours and theirs. In Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960) by Ritwik Ghatak, the focus is on two siblings, a brother and a sister, but I cannot forget that their old father is a teacher of English literature who loves Wordsworth and escapes from poverty and helplessness into poetry in a tongue that has never been alien to him. The father is a weak figure, a frustrated man who watches his family slip deeper into debt and his children lose themselves in the struggle to make a living. And yet, the father is not a villain and neither is Wordsworth. We can understand the devotion to English poetry as a colonial hangover, but it is something more than that, too.

My students and I are watching another well-known movie, Nayak (The Hero, 1966), which might have been better translated as Superstar, about the inner life of a conflicted movie star. It is set on an overnight train journey from Calcutta to Delhi where the movie star is headed for an awards ceremony. Made by our most famous filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, Nayak reflects that colloquial familiarity with English that I readily recognize. In a pivotal scene the main character insists: “I will go to the top, the top, the top.” Arindam Mukherjee, played by the real life Bengali screen idol Uttam Kumar, drops Bengali for the hard syllables of the Anglo epiphora in an iconic movie moment. This scene waylays my students and me. In the same movie, another character explains to his journalist friend that she might have to do some favors to get an interview she wants with Arindam: “All you have to do is be a little nice to him,” he says, also in English. His everyday Bengali cannot accommodate gross manipulation. Even now, my Bengali cannot express ick or sex, and my parents switch into English to discuss hard truths about life. But English is not only the language of public ambition, middle class mores, or sexual harassment. When my mother says, People are so nice, she means it more profoundly than all the times she says the same thing in Bengali. When my grandfather rallied his energy and shouted into the phone that he missed me, it hit with an uncanny force because he had never used English with me before.

This specific attitude to English is not commonly shared across other Indian languages, as far as I am aware, or in other hybrid and diaspora cultures. My students, who bring to class their own polyglot backgrounds from Miami, Italy, and Brazil, to name a few, understand the actor’s determination in Nayak as a moment of film parody or irony. I can’t really explain how English sits in my mouth next to my mother tongue. Someone writes in our slack channel that she took the use of English to mean that the character was mouthing lines picked up elsewhere, like a parrot that curses without knowing what the words mean. We begin talking about languages instead of cinematography. Another student adds, “We say polite things in English and curse or make ‘unsavory’ comments in Italian.” Laughing, we are all distracted from Nayak now. More people jump into our normally quiet slack channel: “As kids, we used Spanish with our parents so English was for when we didn’t want them to catch on as quickly.” There are so many byways within and through languages, and we are pleased by our travels.

But English for the subset of Bengalis that Ray shows on film, the type of Bengali that I also am for better and worse, is not just the language of naughtiness, either, though it often is that for me and my friends too. Nayak’s Arindam is an excellent actor, a thoughtful person dedicated to his career and frustrated by the limits of indie theatre when he declares with absolute conviction, I will go to the top. His craving for fame and money loses him friends, his previous politics and principles, and destroys his chances at human intimacy. But, the tragedy of Arindam is precisely that he is not a parrot or an empty emotive face. His friends and even the manipulative reporter expect a hack but they find someone different, a self-aware character whose limits both constrain and define him. He has awful nightmares about his choices but he is not a flat Faust subject to decisions he did not anticipate.

Through Arindam and his determinations, Nayak is an extended meditation on the multilingual media ecology in post-Independence India, where the Hindi film industry already dominated national attention and awards while regional language film industries and auteurs like Ray self-consciously eschewed ticket sales for international recognition as “serious” filmmakers. Still, the division between “art” and “popular” cinema and media is not stable or even meaningful after a certain point. Arindam is surrounded by people who make clear and rigid distinctions between good and bad art, snobbing his success for their ideals of artistic purity. But by focusing so sympathetically on Arindam as a formerly broke Bengali theatre actor who chooses to go national, Ray’s movie resists the impulse towards purity politics. It shows through Arindam’s career that Parallel Cinema is not really parallel to Bollywood but conjoined to it in complicated ways. This is a movie about hubris and also about industry. Arindam really did mean to go to the top. No irony, no layered jokes; the phrase in English is the expression of Arindam’s complete dedication to his personal vision of success at the beginning of his career. We might insist on feeling sorry for him but he does not really need our pity. 

My grandfather never seemed quite convinced about my leaving home to study and work abroad. He seemed to think that I could have learnt just as well, or better, if I stayed where I was. Maybe a reason Arindam’s soul cry reminds me of my granddad is because he viewed my move with some of the same suspicion with which my students see Arindam – why try so hard? Why want so openly, nakedly? (And certainly I am laughing a little at the idea that being an academic might have anything in common with the life of a movie star.) But like Arindam, so many young people leave home each year chasing success in languages other than our mother tongues. Like him, we are formed by those acts of leaving which are simultaneously expansive and limiting.

We are still a family that mainly speaks Bengali to each other. Maybe my grandfather’s last miss you, the only full sentence in English that he ever said to me, means that he changed his mind about my going off and not being there in the hospital. My reply to him is also the only full sentence in English that I have yet spoken to my immediate family.


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