Angrezi Medium is the big release this week, marking Irrfaan Khan’s triumphant comeback to the big screen after his health scare. I have yet to see the film, but the trailer shows Irrfan making a speech in broken English – his confidence affirming, like in Gauri Shinde’s excellent English Vinglish, that fluency in English or any language is simply just that, it’s not the definitive sign of intelligence or competence.
It made me mull over my own sometimes-enlightening and often-funny conversations over the years with sundry film industry folk in the queen’s Angrezi.
In his famous monologue from Namak Halal, Amitabh Bachchan says, “English is a funny language.” But in real life, Amitabh’s English is far from funny. The bilingual actor’s English is as impeccable as his Hindi (the latter is his most dazzling skill on Kaun Banega Crorepati).
In fact, in our very first conversation together, I noticed he was that rare person back in those days who pronounced colleague with the first syllable rhyming with ball. His well-worded foreword to my first book, 100 Luminaries Of Hindi Cinema, is a testimonial of his command over the language.
Most of today’s stars are of course fluent in Americanese, but only a few know how to mine the music in language. Shah Rukh is an excellent orator like Amitabh, and he speaks English extremely well too. The cherry on the topping is his characteristic wit and wisdom.
I find his interview answers like Manoj Kumar films -- lengthy material from which you can edit and retain the best. Sometimes, editing his copy becomes difficult because he makes a lot of sense. Among the actresses, my favourite emcee is Priyanka Chopra. She can think on her feet, summon up words at will, and her repartee is riveting.
When I started off in journalism, contemporaneous actors like Jackie Shroff (he could swing from South Mumbai swagger to bhidduisms within seconds), Anil Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Sunny Deol all spoke reasonably well.
Dimple Kapadia may have dropped out of school to work with showman Raj Kapoor in Bobby but she is an avid book reader and her English is on point. Her sister Simple and she would communicate largely in English both with me and with each other. Dimple will now undergo a litmus test when she speaks English in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film, Tenet.
Meenakshi Seshadri is a unique kettle of fish. Her English is formal and cutely quaint...rather like her. When she met me after emerging sleepily from her make-up room once, she explained she was grabbing some “shuteye.”
And one Diwali day, she phoned me and perkily declared, “Season’s greetings!” Sridevi spoke precisely. But she went blank when a colleague of mine asked, “What do you think of the changing face of Mumbai?” Sridevi’s contention was: How could Mumbai, a city, have a face?
At one of the first film functions I covered, Dharmendra launched into a long speech in English much to Hema Malini’s embarrassment. She muttered: “Why doesn’t he speak in Hindi?” But what I liked about Dharmendra was his supreme confidence. The same holds true for Subhash Ghai. On one occasion he used the word haywise instead of haywire and drew a few stifled laughs. But to his credit, he has only improved over the years.
The older generation may not have been glib Ivy school grads but they were quick learners. The late veteran actress Sadhana was taught by her mother at home. She joined school from the fifth standard and told me, “I could write well in English but I hesitated to speak the language. So I was a shy girl.” However, watching English films at the Regal or the Strand was her favourite pastime.
In our many conversations she spoke with felicity in English and kept up with the current slang too! Once when I broached the topic of her directors, she said, “Most of them were good at the job, but there were some nerds and turds too.”
Nandita Puri narrated an interesting anecdote to me recently. While arguing with her famous husband Om Puri once, she used the word zilch. The powerhouse thespian angrily responded with, “Don’t use foul language.”
Nandita corrected him, “Zilch means zero. It is not an abuse.”
Apparently, Om narrated this story to loads of people. A few years later, Nandita was introduced to Zohra Sehgal, and Zohra, who had worked with Om, declared, “Accha, the zilch waali.”