Among the other obvious things usually discussed the moment a trailer of an upcoming Salman Khan film debuts, the talk surrounding his Haryanvi accent in Sultan (2016) made for an interesting side note. Although the experience of the actor sounding the part might not have been as fulfilling as the trailer would have you believe, it was nonetheless a welcome digression for it’s not every day that something like the accent of a character played by Khan makes news.
Interestingly enough in the last few years, accents have come to be seen as the one box that needs to be checked to guarantee authenticity. The manner in which Ranveer Singh got Peshwa Baji Rao’s Maharashtrian enunciation or Kangana Ranaut nailed the Haryanvi diction with her Kusum Sangwan or ‘Datto’ show that an affected accent when it comes to special characters can ruin the viewer experience.
Popular Hindi cinema has had some important milestones where actors’ accents have changed the way the film worked for an audience. Take for instance Dilip Kumar and Vyjayantimala’s Bhojpuri in Ganga Jamuna (1961). The accent set it apart from every other dacoit film and created a new aural quality in popular Hindi cinema. Later it would be perhaps impossible to imagine a film about such characters without the twang, be it Sagina (1974), Sholay (1975) or Adalat (1976). In the mid-1970s the emergence of parallel cinema saw actors like Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah and others lay great emphasis on accents. The ones that truly stood out include Azmi’s Deccani in Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975) and her mix of Hyderabadi-Kolhapuri in Mandi (1984), Shah and Anupam Kher’s Parsi accent in Pestonji (1988) to name a few. In addition to the production design, the costumes, and make-up it was the actors’ accent that infused life into these films in the truest sense.
By the 1980s Bollywood had come to be known as the one-man industry and things like accents didn’t matter. In fact, almost every single thing that could bestow some kind of authenticity to characters was traded for the presence of a star in popular Hindi cinema. Barring a smattering in Ghulami (1985), Dacait (1987) and Batwara (1989) one would rarely hear any accents when it came to leading characters. Even if little gems like Saeed Jaffery’s Dilli 6 paan wala in Chashme Buddoor (1981) or Hyderabadi in Hero Hiralal (1988) made viewing a pleasure, popular Hindi cinema didn’t care. Although it wasn’t impossible to put in a little suggestion of a character’s background like Anil Kapoor’s UP and Naseeruddin Shah’s Hyderabadi in Karma (1986), this kind of detailing had become perfunctory.
In the 1990s the one film that stood out thanks to the accents of the characters was Bandit Queen (1994) where Ranjit Kapoor’s dialogues laced with Bundel khandi dialect transported the viewers into the badlands. The 2000s saw Lagaan (2002) incorporate Khadi boli and Awadhi dialects for characters, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara (2006) had a bit of Haryanvi dialect in dialogues and Awadhi for songs and Paan Singh Tomar (2012) once again used Bundel khandi for the dacoits in ravines of Chambal.
Hindi cinema’s music has had great presence of Punjabi and for years there hasn’t been any distinction between Hindi and Punjabi when it comes to songs. The question that one needs to ask is just how important is a thing like an accent when it comes to stars? If one can accept casting choices such as Priyanka Chopra as the lead in Mary Kom (2014), should one really worry about accent beyond a point? The answer is both yes and no; yes because such a thing can set the stage for authenticity in the simplest possible manner. The moment Ranveer Singh opens his mouth in Bajirao Mastani (2015) you know that this is going to be more than just a big ticket extravaganza. Even though Singh falters at many places in the film, his accent makes viewing Bajirao Mastani an entirely different experience. Similarly, Kangana’s Haryanvi in Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) awards impeccable authenticity to not only her character but also the film and helps it rise about the trappings.
There are times when the whole ‘accent issue’ can be consciously circumvented. In Valkyrie (2008), a film based on historical events where a group of high-ranking German officers decided to assassinate Hitler during the Second World War, writers Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander along with director Bryan Singer chose to have actors talk in an American accent. Even with great detailing and historical accuracy Valkyrie avoided German accents for leading man Tom Cruise and others for the simple reason that it didn’t matter. McQuarrie believes that in such films accent is the biggest issue and says, “It’s the thing that everybody who hasn't seen the movie finds the most annoying about the movie.” The film might be about Germans and an event in Germany but it’s in English and therefore both McQuarrie and Singer felt watching actors converse in English with heightened German accents would appear absurd.
Unlike any other cinema, Bollywood also has its own language to contend with when it comes to using accents for characters. The presence of a vibrant lingua franca allows top stars such as Salman Khan to not worry about the need for authentic sounding characters. Yet with Sultan, the star has shown that popular films, too, will not shy away from trying to sound organic. For them, it might just another way of getting the same to look different but for the audience, even this slight nuance makes watching a film a more gratifying experience.