Bollywood – Convergence of Sanskrut, Persian and English

While many countries have benefited from the influences and traditions of one or two of History’s globally dominant languages (see previous article), India is the only country that has seamlessly integrated all three dominant languages in to its ethos.

Sanskrut language and culture rose to greatness in India.  As Jawaharlal Nehru has said “If I was asked  what is the greatest treasure which India possesses and what is her finest heritage, I would answer unhesitatingly that it is the Sanskrut language and literature and all that it contains. ….. so long as it endures and influences the life of our people, so long will the genius of India continue.”

Persian or “Farsi” was brought in to India by invasion and immigration.

  • In fact, the name “Hindu” was given to Indians by Persia.  The real name for the Indus river is “Sindhu”.  Apparently, Persians of that era could not pronounce the “S” sound. So they called it the “Hindu” river and began to call the inhabitants of the Indus lands as Hindus.
  • Persian influence in India was at its apogee around the Mughal period. Yet amazingly, by that time, Persian had been integrated in to Indian culture to such an extent that “Indian Persian” had begun to be considered as superior to Iranian Persian.
  • The great Persian scholar, musician and poet, Amir Khusrau (of the court of Allahuddin Khilji) identified his Persian as Hindvi. He boasted: “Since I am an Indian parrot, to tell you the truth, ask in Hindvi, that I may respond to you with elegance”.
  • Around the Mughal period, Iran, under the Safavids, had turned to an orthodox form of Shiism, in a very narrow sense of the term. This resulted in a large migration of nonconformist and dissident Iranian scholars in to India, a society in which people of different beliefs and social practices had learned to live together.
  • The Iranian poet Salim Tehrani wrote about India ” The means of acquiring perfection do not exist in Iran, Henna did not acquire color till it came to India”.

The deep influence of Farsi/Persian resides in India today in the form of Urdu, the exquisite language of Bollywood romance.

The global success of Indians today is due mainly to the ease and the speed with which English was accepted and mastered by the Indian educated class. The first English text composed by an Indian author, Din Muhammad, was published in Cork, Ireland in 1794.

Today, English is, in every way, an Indian language. As we wrote in an earlier article, in a mere dozen years from today, the global Indian community will be the world’s largest English speaking population with major ramifications for the English language.

Bollywood & Hollywood

This brings us to Bollywood and its structural advantage over Hollywood. 

  • Bollywood is truly global in its outlook, ethos and foundation. It embodies the seamless integration and convergence of English, Urdu/Farsi and Sanskrut influences & traditions.
  • The old Sanskrut couplet says “the world is my family”. In the same spirit, Bollywood tends to view the entire world as its own domain. This is why Bollywood films are shot all over the world. The actors and characters blend in naturally just as the global Indian diaspora has blended in to each country.
  • The blockbuster hit Dhoom 2 begins in Namibia, moves to Mumbai and the second half takes place in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil with its conclusion in Tahiti.
  • Life in Manhattan has been picturized more sensitively and dramatically by Bollywood than by Hollywood (a topic of a future article).

Hollywood, in contrast, seems unable to break away from European America. The stories are predominantly European Christian in spirit and almost always take place in America or Europe unless the story involves an action adventure in non-European locales.

Over 20% of Americans speak Spanish but Hollywood has been unable to integrate Spanish in to its ethos, let alone other global languages.

Bollywood has been able to integrate and accept actors stars from many religions and ethnicities.

  • The romantic hero for the past few years has been John Abraham (see our articles Witness & Paap, Saaya);
  • Many of Bollywood’s greatest stars have been Muslim – from Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan) of old to Shah Rukh Khan of today.
  • Muslim and Christian male stars have been able to romance Hindu female stars and conversely;
  • Traditional Hindu roles have been perfected by Muslim women like Meena Kumari and Mumtaz;
  • Traditional Muslim roles have been perfected by Hindu actors like Prithviraj Kapoor, Pradeep Kumar and Rajendra Kumar.

In contrast, Hollywood has not been able to integrate other religions or races. Denzel Washington, an absolute A-grade Hollywood star, has publicly bemoaned that he cannot get romantic roles because of the color of his face. Despite the power wielded by Jewish producers and directors, it is hard to point to a single “stud” Jewish actor who plays the leading man to Christian female stars.

The diversity and seamless integration of multiple cultures, languages and religions are huge structural advantages for Bollywood. As the Middle East, Asia, Africa grow in stature and market share, Hollywood w
ill finds itself in a progressively weaker position.

This is especially true if Bollywood, via deals like Reliance-Dreamworks, is able to master the technical skills of Hollywood.

Hollywood’s Problem NOT America’s

While Hollywood seems to draw only from European America, American progress and development is not restricted by Hollywood.

The America of today is the place where amazing progress is being made in different languages and cultures.  In our next release, we will describe one project in America that can be compared to a massive project undertaken by the Tang Dynasty in 5th century China.  This is not an English project, it is not an European Culture” project and it is not a Christian project. But, it is truly a great American project. More on this next week.

But, Hollywood seems tone deaf to this regeneration taking place in America. That is Hollywood’s fault and loss, not America’s.

Editor’s Note: The source of our material on Persian and English in India is the pathbreaking work “Literary Cultures in History” – Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by the eminent Scholar Sheldon Pollock, William B. Ransford Professor of Sanskrut and Indian Studies; Chair, Department of Middle East and Asian Languages Languages and Cultures, Columbia University

Send your feedback to [email protected]