Southern Lights: Tamil Cinema, English Thoughts, Film Companion

I interviewed two authors at this year’s edition of the The Hindu’s Lit for Life. One of them was a writer in the old-fashioned, books sense of the word: Shamya Dasgupta, who’s authored Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers.  The other “writer” was Karan Johar, and the quotation marks aren’t so much to exclude the filmmaker from the literary community as to acknowledge the fact that he isn’t primarily a writer. He’s more of a screenwriter, a column writer, and now, a co-author (with Poonam Saxena) of his memoir, An Unsuitable Boy.

The point I wish to discuss in this column is that both are books about the Hindi film industry, and both books are in English. And the point that makes me want to discuss this is the comments section under my YouTube videos (and, sometimes, on Facebook and Twitter), whenever I conduct an interview with a Tamil-film personality in English. These comments are usually a variation on this sentiment: “This is somebody from the Tamil film industry. Why don’t you talk in Tamil?” (The sentiment isn’t always expressed this politely, but this is the gist.)

So here are some thoughts – and though I use the example of Tamil cinema, I really mean all non-Hindi cinema (and not just from south India) that is confined, largely, to the pockets of people that speak the language.

  1. Whether we like it or not, English is the language that cuts through urban India. Doesn’t it make sense, then, to write/speak in English in order to spread the word about the Tamil film industry?
  2. One of the reasons the market for the Hindi film industry spans the length and breadth of the country is that there’s so much information about the industry that’s disseminated through the English-language media. Isn’t that something we want for Tamil cinema?
  3. Or take books. There’s a huge gap in the number of books about Hindi cinema written in English, versus the books on Tamil cinema. One reason, of course, is that Hindi films (and the people who work in them) are more known across the country, so publishers think there’s more chance of selling these books. (One reason my proposed book of interviews with K Balachander was rejected was that “there aren’t enough people who’d read about him in English – as opposed to a Mani Ratnam, who has made films in Hindi, and is therefore known in the north as well.” I said, “But if you include the Tamil diaspora, surely we’ll get numbers?” But sadly, the book never happened.)
  4. For perspective (and without judgement), the Ramsay brothers are loosely the equivalent of a Ramanarayanan – and we have a book about them from a major publishing house. Think about that! Imagine a situation where even the lesser lights of non-Hindi cinema are visible on a national platform!
  5. If a global publication – say, Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – writes about, say, Vetri Maaran’s Visaaranai, don’t we feel proud? Don’t we celebrate? These reports/reviews are in English, and we don’t seem to raise the “talk in Tamil” flag then.
  6. This isn’t about replacing Tamil conversation about cinema with talks and writing in English. I’m just saying: Several newspapers, magazines and videos do talk about Tamil cinema in Tamil. Should there not be something in English too, as a complement?
  7. Ideally, there’d be both. My book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam, was first published in English, and then translated into Tamil. But a book is a slow-moving organism. You can take all the time you want over it. On the Internet, articles and interviews – press or video – need to be put out instantly. There’s usually no time to translate or add subtitles. Given this, why not let Tamil and English co-exist. Without judgement!
  8. I’m not saying this co-existence doesn’t exist. But there’s a suspicion when it comes to those who write/make videos about Tamil cinema in English. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I think it comes from a Tamil parochialism that valourises the language above all else. But should great languages be confined in a ghetto, populated only by those who speak that language?
  9. Yes, as a country, we are so diverse (like Europe) that most of us are only interested in (or perhaps have time to consume information from) our own little ghettos, in our own languages. But there are those (not from south India) who say things to me like “I watch more south Indian cinema since I started reading you.” Why not cater to them as well, spread the word? Again to take the example of European cinema, the likes of Bergman (who made films in Swedish) and Fellini (Italian) became world famous because the English-language media wrote about them.
  10. I do realise that there are many sites/press outlets that write about Tamil cinema in English – but the real numbers (the clicks, the views) come from those who want content in the local language. So do we make our peace with this and continue to do things our respective ways?

I don’t know if there are easy answers, but my question is just why we aren’t seeing more writing in English about non-Hindi films. I’d love to be at a national-level literary conclave tomorrow and see a huge turnout for a Tamil-film personality who’s written a book in English (or a book that’s been translated into English) and become a countrywide bestseller.

Subscribe now to our newsletter