Friday, May 13, 2016

In defence of dialogue-baazi (notes from a session at the language festival)

At a recent festival hosted by Oxford Bookstore in Delhi, I participated in a panel discussion titled “Bollywood ki Bhasha: Devdas se Dev D Tak” – a somewhat misleading tag since the talk had nothing to do with Devdas. It was about the changing language of Hindi cinema – including the shift from florid dialogue (or “dialogue-baazi”, as we often call it) to more naturalistic speech – and the cynosure of most eyes was Jaideep Sahni, screenwriter of such fine films as Khosla ka Ghosla, Chak De! India and the sadly under-watched Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year.

Sahni was in great form, both before and during the talk, poker-facedly relating humorous anecdotes about his experiences as a writer in the film industry: such as the one during a location shoot when a production assistant – a very efficient fellow who didn’t know much English – told him despairingly that he had been unable to find beans after looking all night. It turned out the man had read a little aside in the script, about a character “spilling the beans”. A funny story, to be sure, but also a reminder of the inevitable language barriers and miscommunications in an industry made up of people from vastly different backgrounds. At times, looking at the crew list in the credits, you might wonder how a halfway coherent movie was even made.

There were two moments during the public conversation that I'd like to address here. At one point our moderator, the writer-journalist Yasser Usman, mentioned that the scriptwriter Salim Khan had been dismissive in an interview about some of his fondly remembered collaborations with Javed Akhtar in the 1970s. Referring to an iconic moment in Sholay, Salim-saab said, “Look at the line ‘Holi kab hai. Kab hai holi? Kab?’ It’s so banal, what is special about it?”

The little boy in me, who had been enthralled by the audio cassette of Sholay’s dialogues, clasped hands with his future self, the glib film critic, and dove in. Those seven words may not seem special on paper, I pointed out, but you can’t distill the different elements of a scene and judge them in isolation. When I think of Gabbar Singh saying “Holi kab hai?”, the memory is inseparable from Amjad Khan’s great performance and from the context: a villain, who has just executed three of his own men, has learnt of new defiance from the village he has been terrorising. Like a primordial monster rising from the seabed, he is preparing to unleash his full wrath on the community, and if we are engaged with the film and its characters at this point, we feel the dread of what is to come. The buildup, the menacing background music and the actor’s delivery combine to ensure that these “banal” words will acquire a mythic quality.

Shortly afterwards, an audience member mentioned his love for instantly quotable lines such as the Holi one, and said these were small takeaways that viewers like him sought from a film – “lines that we can repeat while talking with friends”. Is there a formula to write such “taali maar” dialogues, our moderator asked, and Sahni, for the first time, got a little testy. “If you are a writer, sure, you can do this,” he said, “You can tell yourself, saamne duffer baithay huye hain aur main chaar linon ko hit karvaa doon (there are duffers sitting here and I should write four lines to please them). But ultimately it depends on your neeyat (intention).” Writing to thrill a mass audience was a cheap trick, he implied, and the question a serious writer must ask himself is: do I want to communicate or simply broadcast?

Despite Sahni’s use of words like “duffers” and “cheapie harkat”, I don’t think he was sweepingly dismissing all “dialogue-baazi”; his response partly owed to his frustrating experiences as a writer constantly told by big-money producers to be “filmi” rather than follow his own strengths and instincts. Even so, “communicate vs broadcast” is a false binary: good commercial films do communicate too, in their own distinct ways. There is a widespread idea that big-budget, visually exciting movies mustn’t be taken seriously as art; that this status must be conferred only to the interior work, the grounded, psychologically realistic narrative – because the former is a thrilling but superficial experience, while the latter is sensitizing. But if bare realism (or authenticity) is one mode of expression, the narrative that draws on myth or allegory – and uses larger-than-life situations to arrive at emotional truths about human behaviour – is another. And when a film fully involves you in its world, then regardless of the mode used, it does make you think about its characters and situations, even if this is not being done at an overt, cerebral level.

Also, the notion that any writer can easily create lines that will draw applause and produce a hit film is as odd as saying that any literary novelist can easily write a book that will sell millions of copies, if he simply “chooses” to. It doesn’t work that way. If it did, every commercial film ever made would be a Sholay-level success, or at least a Bajrangi Bhaijaan-level success. The truly enduring “taali-maar” or “seeti-bajaao” lines
the ones that stick with us for decades are catchy enough to strike a chord with a large audience while also playing a specific role within a film’s framework and adding to its overall effect.


[Related thoughts in this piece about Hindi-film families]


  1. Nice read. I agree that good dialogue is not just about a writer's skill, it is also about happenstance, and a responsive audience, and various other factors outside of a writer's perceived skill and experience. Just because Salim Khan wrote some memorable dialogue in one or a few films in the 70s, while it does attest to his skill, does not automatically mean whatever and whenever he chooses to write, his dialogue will be worthwhile although it might get a lot of praise solely, and a tad unfairly, because of his past laurels, especially in BWood where his son rules. I have replaced my Indian movie watching with watching Pakistani dramas for some time now, and the one thing that strikes me about even some of my most dismal viewing experiences is the presence of very evocative dialogue. For example, I remember one character talking, in a rather off-hand way, to his beautiful albeit flirtatious fiancee about the perils of vanity and how it will trap her in a bubble of self-delusion and distance her from the ones she loves and the loveable parts of her own personality. The dialogue was so memorable and succinct, as was the moment. The director didn't dwell on it the way they do in most hindi movies, and the outcome was compelling enough to jolt me out of my stupor. And I don't think all memorable dialogues in these shows are the product of a single writer, which reminds me of what Tina Fey said in her memoir about writers learning to accept that they will, regardless of their perceived ability and laurels, write sub-par material, and the memorable bits of their writing will emerge, few and far between, on occasion, quite unexpectedly. She advises writers to enjoy those moments on seemingly divine inspiration and move on.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. “any literary novelist can easily write a book that will sell millions of copies” - Chetan Bhagat comes pretty close to defying this general principle, no?

  4. Kaushik: how is that quoted bit a general principle? It's completely false, in my view.
    And the point was that some literary/highbrow novelists are under the impression that if they simply decided to, they could sell in CB-like numbers. Which is self-deluding. Just as self-deluding as CB proclaiming that he "chose" to write for the masses, implying that he could have written very highbrow things if he had decided otherwise.