Taapsee Pannu's statement at IFFI shows she's a pan-India star in the age of linguistic imperialism
At IFFI, Taapsee Pannu told a gentleman, who insisted on her speaking in Hindi, she is as much a Hindi film actress as she is a Telugu and Tamil actress.
It was meant to be an exuberant talk at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa when Taapsee Pannu walked up on stage to address an audience who had gathered for the ‘Women In Lead’ session. Earlier this month, the actress had proved, yet again, that she is indeed a crowd puller, thanks to the success of Saand Ki Aankh, which held its fort at the box office despite a lot of competition. And then, her first ever stand-up comedy act for Amazon Prime Video India too was well-received. With Taapsee at the helm, there is always going to be something new.
But little did anyone expect that her spontaneous remark, when she was asked to speak in Hindi because she acts in Hindi films, at the IFFI session would snowball into a heated debate about language, identity, and sense of belonging.
It all started when a person interrupted Taapsee, who was addressing the audience in English, and asked her to switch to Hindi. However, the actress posed the question to the audience asking, “Does everyone here understand Hindi?," and a large number of people wanted her to continue talking in English. However, when the person persisted that she talk in Hindi since she is a Bollywood actress, Taapsee retorted spontaneously, “I’m also an actress in Telugu and Tamil films. Shall I speak to you in Tamil?” The audience applauded her for taking this stand, and the video of this interaction went viral on the internet. Moments later, Taapsee found herself defending her stand against several people who found fault with her, and also, thanking those who had come out in support of her.
Later in the conversation at the IFFI session, Taapsee also stated she would continue to act in South Indian films because that is where she began her journey as an actor. “I have gratitude for the South industry. At no point I wanted it to look like I used it as a stepping stone for Bollywood. They taught me what basics is like — camera and acting. Now, I have learnt the language too. It will be really stupid of me to give up the market. I would continue to work in the South.”
Her affinity towards South Indian cinema, where she began her career, is worth noting. As she continues to straddle between Hindi and South Indian film industries, including Tamil and Telugu, she has quickly evolved into a pan-Indian actor.
But what does it mean to be a pan-Indian actor in the wake of linguistic imperialism, where one’s language becomes one's identity? And is it possible to belong everywhere in this time and era where people’s notions, about who we are and our sense of belonging to a region, are fast evolving with continuous migration of ideas and people? And what does it take to find a common ground where everyone can navigate without clashing over language, customs, and culture?
In the context of widespread homogenisation, especially in terms of political inclination and ideologies, language is still seen as an impenetrable fort. A case in point being the backlash to imposition of Hindi, especially in Southern states. Earlier this year, this idea of making Hindi as the primary language raked up such a big storm that the forces that be had to give up the fight. Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to turn all government schools into English-medium has kicked up a political storm in the state. Then there is the issue of slow and steady decline of several dialects across the length and breadth of the country, which have all been sidelined in favour of another language, which accentuates the ease of doing business or simplifies communication between people.
In the midst of a globalised era, which is hinged on to the free movement of people, ideas, and skills, film industry reflects the changing face of the country, where multi-crore business empires are built on the foundation of migration of people and resources. Almost every major production these days draws talent and technicians from Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil industries in some capacity or the other. On a movie set, there is a flurry of activity with multiple languages used as a medium of communication with people from different backgrounds. At the end of the day, all of them work together to make a film happen. That is where the magic lies, irrespective of the language spoken by the actors on screen.
Moreover, with the success of big budget films like Baahubali, 2.0, and KGF: Chapter One, there has been a lot more collaboration of actors (Ajay Devgan and Alia Bhatt are part of SS Rajamouli’s RRR cast, whereas Sanjay Dutt and Raveen Tandon are part of KGF: Chapter 2). Slowly, the barriers for trade, especially when it comes to releasing dubbed films, are diminishing all over the country. On the other hand, actors like Nagarjuna, Samantha, and Nithya Menen will soon be seen in Brahmastra, The Family Man Season 2, and Breathe Season 2 respectively. On the other hand, Kangana Ranaut is set to play the titular role in Thalaivi, a biopic of former actress and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. The likes of Taapsee, Tamannaah, and Kajal Aggarwal have been straddling between multiple industries for a long time in their careers. The recent entrants to this list are Dulquer Salmaan (The Zoya Factor), Parvathy (Qarib Qarib Singlle), Nivin Pauly (Moothon), and Sobhita Dhulipala (Goodachari, Bard of Blood, Made In Heaven, and Moothon). It is truly the age of pan-Indian cinema, and slowly, pan-Indian actors too are making their voice heard across various industries and languages.
Taapsee’s remarks at IFFI, as unassuming as they might have been, have irked purists who prefer Hindi as the official language of communication. At the same time, she has been praised for standing up to Hindi chauvinism. Taapsee has proved with her demeanour and succes she can speak to people in not just Hindi or English but also appeal to the sensibilities of a new generation of audience. She belongs to places wherever her work takes her, and she wears her identity up her sleeve: that of a strong-willed woman who speaks her mind. And no matter what language she speaks in, a few things do not change, the most important of them all being her grit to stand out and tackle issues head on.
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