For the love of Urdu and Movies

An attempt to understand and analyze how Urdu has influenced Hindi Cinema


“Cinema is the best way to popularize a language”- Mrinal Sen, Indian Film Director

Language has a strong influence on people. It acts as a lens into people’s thought process. India is a multilingual country; as many as 121 mother-tongues are spoken by Indians. In a land with such linguistic diversity, no doubt Urdu has successfully sustained its own distinctive identity. The language continues to find its space in popular mediums such as cinema, television, theatre and media and so on. The medium of communication in these art forms is either Urdu or Hindustani (a blend of Hindi and Urdu). Speaking about cinema, Urdu has played a consistent role in the Hindi Film Industry over the years, from movie titles to entire screenplay being inspired from the writings of prominent Urdu writers, some of them being- Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Premchand and many others.

The following is an attempt to understand and analyze how Urdu has influenced Hindi cinema by looking at- a brief history of both, how Urdu poetry found its way on screen, how specific filmmakers use the language as a recurring motif in their films.

Urdu Poetry on Screen

The reach of Hindi Film Industry is just not limited to the Hindi speaking belt or just to India or South Asian countries but it’s very much popular in Central Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe. It plays a leading role, especially through its songs and dialogues in reaching to newer audiences and indeed popularizing the given language. Talking about songs, lyrics and dialogues it’s very much evident that it’s Urdu that binds them all. The dynamic between Urdu poetry and songs/dialogues is not a thing of present it dates back to the evolution of talkies in India.

Poster of Movie 'Awara'

Released in 1931, Alam Ara was the first talkie film. Owing to its Persian terminology, Urdu was the most appropriate language for the depiction of dramatic events, making it one of the most important languages of the talkies. Consequently, as many as 20 films released during the same period or sometime later had a strong influence of Urdu; all these movies had titles which were Urdu words- Alam Ara, Mughal-e-Azam, Khamoshi, Awara, Shirin Farhad, Ayodhya Ka Raja, Jalti Nishaani and Radha Rani. Interestingly not only titles but dialogues, name of the characters, songs too manifest the effect of Urdu. It uses Urdu words such as shaheed, watan, qurbaani, fida and numerous others.

Kesavan, a literary scholar points out-

“The titles, lyrics and dialogues in Hindi films are shot through with words like these, and they are irreplaceable because their equivalents in literary Hindi don’t resound in the same way.”

Urdu poetry was an integral part of cinema. Two of the earliest lyrical poets in the Hindi Cinema were- Kidar Sharma who wrote lyrics for cult classics such as Devdas, Chitralekha, Dil Hi Toh Hai, Hamari Yaad Aayegi and others and Dina Nath Madok who was a poet by profession, wrote lyric for films such as Tansen. They were followed by superstar poets such as Sahir Ludhainvi, Kaifi Azmi, and Shakeel Badayuni and as a result, the songs written by these mega poets became classics and are still very relevant.

To name a few- Aage Bhi Jaane na Tu, Kisi pathar ki Murat se and Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam.

Mega Singers such as Lata Mangeshkar, Mohd Rafi, introduced the correct pronunciation of the language to the audiences at large. The former whose mother tongue is neither Hindi nor Urdu but Marathi, still, she had the right “talafuz” easily pronouncing tough-sounding words like /kh/, /gh/, /z/ and /q/.

The emergence of parallel cinema in the 70s and 80s introduced strong independent voices such as Gulzar, Shyam Benegal, Saeed Mirza, the famous Urdu poet Majrooh Sultanpuri and other poets. They were joined by other independent singers, lyricists like Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh and Salma Agha.

Lately, a lot of scholars claim that with the advent of globalisation, western music paved its way into the Hindi cinema with Urdu Shayari losing its significance. No doubt this argument holds some value but with stalwarts like Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Piyush Mishra around, they continue to render their service to language, writing compositions that are not very far from what was written in the 70s but also at the same time resonating it with the current generation. There is also a bunch of new talented lyricist and singers- Irshad Kamil, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Swanand Kirkire ensuring that Urdu poetry doesn’t lose its audience in these times of remixes and remakes.

Filmmakers and their love for Urdu

Filmmakers more often than not have turned towards literature in search of great stories whether it was Satyajit Ray back then or Vishal Bhardwaj now; they have effortlessly adapted layered stories into effective cinematic experiences. These are also the filmmakers who are deeply into love with the language; their work is a testament of the same. Bhardwaj who is very close to Gulzar, his films have a strong influence of Urdu hanging on them. In Haider, which was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he skilfully adapted Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ghazal Gulon Mein Rang Bhare, introducing the great revolutionary poet to the cine-goers.

Every song in Bhardwaj’s movies has strong, catchy Urdu words, from the peppy dance numbers to soothing romantic tracks. For instance, Darling from 7 Khoon Maaf has melodious words such as Gairat, Hairat, Zehmat and many others. Words such as Dohrata, Zehar, Mehfil, Gul are used so beautifully in the track Bismil that one might just be grateful to Bhardwaj and Gulzar for using the language so remarkably.

A still from the movie 'Dedh Ishiqiya'

More recently Bhardwaj produced Dedh Ishiqiya, which is nothing but the most revered ode to the language. Based on Ismat Chugati’s Lihaaf, was arguably an “Urdu film” (after Mughal-e-Azam) in all sense, every single dialogue was in Urdu. Sumit Paul observed- “I'll be immensely happy if Dedh Ishiqiya can resuscitate this dying language and evoke true admiration for it in the hearts of the people, especially today's youngsters who speak gutter language that insults the refined sensibilities of urbane people.”

Another filmmaker whose films pour love for Urdu Shayari is Yash Chopra. Songs and dialogues films Kabhie Kabhie, Silsila, Chandni, Kala Pathar, Darr and Veer Zara plays like an ode to Urdu Shayari. No doubt he was a great lover of poetry and is supposed to be the owner of Sahir Ludhainvi’s longest work of poetry Parchhaiyan. His last film Jab Tak hai Jaan has an opening scene where the protagonist recites a romantic Urdu poem for his unfound love, the writer of the poem is Chopra’s son Aditya Chopra.

Even Yash Chopra’s elder brother, B.R Chopra known for films such as Naya Duar, Kanoon and Humraz, indeed was also a great lover of the language. He often collaborated with poet Rahi Masoom Raza, who used to write his film scripts in Urdu. One of their most successful collaboration was the T.V series Mahabharat.

A still from the movie 'Jab Tak Hai Jaan'

Interestingly the romantic poem in Jab Tak Hai Jaan very much sums up the relation between the Urdu and Hindi cinema. As long as there are Hindi movies, there is Urdu Contrary to many scholars who think that Urdu is now nowhere to be found on screen, I strongly believe that Urdu is not going anywhere; it is here to stay till posterity.

Works Consulted

1. Urdu in Bollywood by Rizwan Ahmed.

The Impact of Urdu poetry on Bollywood by Sripriya & Avichal Chaturvedi.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.


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