When Jamal Malik took the hot seat and destiny led the slumdog to the millionaire mark, the one thing that stood out like a sore thumb in this desi Bildungsroman, was his accent. It was an assault to the ears, for a chaiwala from the slums of Dharavi suddenly started speaking like Dev Patel. That was in the original English version of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The one where Anil Kapoor spoke with a flair that was not only unnecessary but also sounded way too rehearsed.
The Hindi dubbed version was worse. Everyday verbal exchanges in an Indian scenario were imagined in English and then translated to Hindi and ended up sounding as foolish as Pitradev Sanrakshanam. That’s Expecto Patronum if you didn’t understand.
And thus is the depiction of India in Hollywood. We speak in ornate Indian English that still suffers from a Mind Your Language hangover. And no matter how out of place or plain unreal it sounds, it sells, because it makes us exotic to the foreign ear.
That, until Anthony Maras undid it with Hotel Mumbai.
This time, Dev’s Arjun doesn’t speak in an accent. He delivers short, deliberated sentences, which helps mask Dev Patel, the actor’s lack of Hindi fluency, as well as give a sense of how Arjun, the character, must have striven to learn English in order to land a job at the Taj. Anupam Kher’s Hemant Oberoi speaks in prompt English but that’s only because he’s the head chef at the Taj. At no point does he let out an Americanised chaiwala-what-a-playyaaa flair like Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire.
The 10 terrorists speak in authentic Punjabi, the most widely spoken language in Pakistan, among each other. They cannot speak English; they need their master on the phone to communicate even the simplest of instructions to their hostages. The hapless cops, running around like headless chickens in a hostage situation of this magnitude, speak Marathi. The hotel waiter and a cabbie on the road fight in Hindi spiced with a slight Marathi twang, so typical of Mumbai. This, apart from English in the various accents: Russian-laced, the Queen’s and American.
To untrained ears, this is chaos. Quite like the mellowed spices of the Indian curry served at restaurants at the Big Apple, Hollywood has always presented a dulled version of India. Even as the colours remained intact, unnecessarily brightened at times, the sounds – languages – have always been oversimplified.
In Hotel Mumbai, Maras creates music with this chaos. When four disparate languages wreak havoc on your auditory senses, you feel the confusion created by simple miscommunications. Add to that Maras’s brave detachment from background score, relying on sounds of gunshots and shrieks, and you have a little over two hours of compact disturbance that drills a hole into your brain. Exactly what a film on this subject needed to be.
Hotel Mumbai does what Slumdog Millionaire and Life Of Pi failed to do, despite their neverending list of Oscars. Because ‘Indian’ is not a language.