Thursday, June 4, 2015

Movies As Teachers For Learning The Urdu Language

I find movies to be fascinating tools for learning languages. Rarely are their dialogues cut from the same starched-stiff cloth as a Wren & Martin dinner jacket (unless the characterization requires it to be so). Far removed from the standard fare served in nearly every Learn-To-Converse-In book ever published movies talk about more interesting subjects like love, hurt, machinations, revenge, stillness, discovery, new experiences et al.  That is why movies are a great way to get a feel for the natural cadence and sounds of the language in question. They also serve as fantastic instructors for the appropriate use of idioms and phrases. Usually, they are also refulgent gateways to the culture of the peoples whose language one intends to learn, making the whole process of learning a language fun, real and memorable. Next to talking to native speakers of a language, this is one of my favourite ways of learning a new tongue.

To be sure, movie dialogues aren't the most kosher way of learning the grammar of a new language; they can be too quick, too softy whispered, too incomplete to always follow immaculately but then they more than make up by providing reference to context, diction and accent stress clues as aids to learning. Needless to say some very rudimentary vocabulary is essential to follow the dialogues but then grammar, especially syntax (word-order), can be picked up through the dialogues. One caveat here, if one's objective is to learn the 'Standard' register of a language (usually spotted in the newspapers, official reports and legal papers), then movies should not be one's primary source. They can at best only serve as an aid and should not be considered a substitute for a grammar compendium and formalized instructions.

Luckily, in this post-YouTube era most of us can easily access news, movies, talk shows, songs, regional language channels and even language instruction videos. Podcasts and internet streamed radio stations are also decent alternatives, though they come sans the visual experience. Another great feature one can make use of is 'subtitles'. While watching the movie online or through a software on your computer, simply turn on the subtitles in your target language for any movie and read the translations on the screen while listening to dialogues in the target language. YouTube even allows for slowing down the speed of the video playback (if this helps you).  However this may only work for those popular languages for which subtitles are commonly available. I often find myself turning on the subtitles in some language to English movies. In my books, this is a very special boon for language learners.

I think I first fell in love with this idea when as a kid, one lazy summer holiday afternoon, the VHS tape* of the Bollywood movie Amar Akbar Anthony I pushed into the VCR player turned out to be dubbed in Arabic.

Note to reader - a VHS tape is a magic device from a long gone era; often passed on with reverentially trembling hands from one generation to the next one, these antediluvian pen drives would be usually traded as if made of 18k gold on the local residential kids' exchanges.

Best Movies To Learn The Urdu Language

While earlier a majority of Bollywood movies had dialogues in the language called Hindustani (a slightly-shifted-towards-Urdu middle ground in the continuum between Urdu and Hindi) nowadays the dialogues are becoming more "street friendly". It is possible that Hindustani itself is changing rapidly and that these new dialogues merely reflect this change. Rather than as a chicken-egg problem, I see Hindustani and the language of Bollywood dialogues as part of a mutually enriching feedback mechanism.

Again, in order to extract the best from these Urdu movies, it is advisable for the learner to have a grasp of rudimentary Urdu/Hindustani vocabulary.

Click on the image for the trailer/song/movie snippet (if available). In no particular order of preference:

In Custody / Muhaafiz (1993)

 A movie by Merchant Ivory, based on a novel by Anita Desai, it is the story of a Hindi language professor's quest to keep alive his greatest love, Urdu, by recording for posterity the works of one of the last great, on his deathbed, poets of the Urdu language. The movie is beautifully shot and rife with visual metaphors of the demise of Urdu language. Brilliant ensemble cast of Shashi Kapoor, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Shushma Seth, Neena Gupta, Parikshit Sahni and Tinnu Anand, not one weak scene in this movie. Almost all of the ashaar featured in the movie are by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and some of the ghazals are by Behzad Lucknavi


This movie by Kamal Amrohi will be in nearly everyone's list of best romantic/tragic movies. Portraying the trials and tribulations of the life of a courtesan (very much on the same lines as Umrao Jaan), the tale ends with a heart wrenching twist of fate. Kamal Amrohi also wrote the dialogues for Mughal-E-Azam and wrote and directed Razai Sultana, two movies acclaimed for their scriptwriting amongst other things. The ghazals from Pakeezah are considered a part of modern Indian culture, especially the celebrated Chalte Chalte which was penned by Kaifi Azmi.


One of my favourite novels and movies. Rekha did an unbelievably masterful job with her Urdu diction for this movie; it was flawless. The second of courtesan stories in our list, the story is set in nearly decrepit Nawabi Awadh of the 1840s-1850s. Deeply touching and so memorable, the ghazals have been penned by Shahryar, a professor of Urdu at Aligarh muslim University. The only marginally light hearted melody in this movie, Zindagi Jab Bhi, which is about separation, gives you a sense of the tone of the rest of ghazals. And yet everyone, including me, loves them because they speak of the ever repeating story of our lives. Check out the novel by Mirza Ruswa, it's written in a very conversational and easy to access style. My English translation of the Urdu ghazal Yeh Kya Jagah Hai Doston from the movie is here. The entire script for the movie is in Nastaliq Urdu is available here.



This much vilified 2006 remake may be weak in terms of acting and song writing but it is absolutely top notch in terms of dialogues. Well researched, it is a must see for those who wish to take a detailed dekko into Luknavi Urdu, Adab and Tehezeb of the 1800s. Interestingly, Shabana Azmi played the role of Khanum Jaan (the brothel madam) in this 2006 version, while her mother, Shauqat Azmi played the same character in the 1981 version.


Satyajit Ray's film adaptation of Munishi Premchand's Urdu translation of Munshi Premchand's Hindi story on the abysmal decay of Indian elite society. Munishi Premchand often did self-translations of his works and he tells the story in very different ways in the two version: Hindi and Urdu, perhaps to give two slightly different messages to two segments of readers. Like Umrao Jaan, Shatranj Ke Khiladi too is set in Mutiny-era Lucknow. The movie follows two chess-mad nawaabs who, oblivious to all the political and personal tragedies around them, are obsessed with playing yet another game of chess. Superb thespian skills on display by Shabana Azmi, Saaed Jaffrey, Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan and a cameo by some Jurassic-era chap called Richard Attenborough who keeps babbling about the Nawaab's Mutaa Wives :D  The entire script is available here in Nastaliq Urdu.



Probably a surprise addition to this list for most people. A nearly scene by scene copy of the 1957 hit, 12 Angry Men, this movie has no courtesans, no Mughal princes, no ghazals, no tehezeeb and no adab. But it does have loads and loads of very cleanly spoken simple Urdu dialogues, from amuman to maaqool shaks and everything in between. The dialogue does sound made up but then this isn't really a movie review. What works in favour of EkRuka Hua Faisla are a known plot, easy to follow dialogues and repeated use of many Urdu words and phrases. Most of the actors are seasoned theatre and film players which translates into good and measured Urdu diction.


I like Bobby Jasoos for its Deccani (Hyderabadi) Urdu. For a considerable time in its early history (fondly referred to as Nash-o-Numa) Urdu developed its own unique image as Rekhta in the courts and bazars of Deccan before taking on the Urdu glean we have come to know and love in Delhi and then in Lucknow. Up until the mid 1800s both the names Rekhta and Urdu were sometimes used interchangeably for the Urdu language; Mirza Ghalib in one of his shers observed رختے کے تم ھی نھیں ھو استاد غالب / کھتیں ھیں کھ اگلے زمانے میں یک میر تھا There is something very endearing and heart warming about Hyderabadi Urdu; I hope to gain a certain level of proficiency in speaking it. Bobby Jasoos is a fun film and makes for great dialogues.


A soul searching statement on the impact of partition on those who chose to stay back in India. Very few such movies have been made on the post-Independence era. The towering figure of Balraj Sahni leads a brilliant caste to deliver some of the most credible performances in India cinema. Kaifi Azmi and the great Ismat Chughtai wrote the screenplay and the story for Garm Hawa, which alone gives this a very high place in my echelon of Urdu movies. Great effort has been made to lend realism through the choice of different registers of Urdu speech (different vocabulary) for different characters based on their region, social class and age. The mesmerizing Sufi song Salim Chisti from Garm Hawa, along with Aaj Rang Hai from Junoon and Khawaja Mere Khawaja from Jodhaa Akbar, is my favourite BollywoodSufi piece.


Other movies which could have been part of this list but didn't make it (entirely due to my excellent skills in lethargy):


Two important points here: First, this is not an exhaustive list by any means. I keep discovering new and brilliant Urdu movies all the time. Second, I have extremely limited access to Pakistani movies and hence, sadly, that entire universe of Pakistani Urdu movies is untouched here. Hopefully, the latter problem will be addressed soon.

I fervently hope that people keep making such beautiful Urdu movies in the years to come.

If you have any doubts about any dialogues from any Urdu movie or want to learn / discuss more feel free to leave a comment and I shall get back to you.

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