By treating accent hierarchies with disdain, ‘Queen’ mirrors a new social contract.
Among the many bases for social stratification that Indians have devised, the callous derision of the minority “native” English speakers for the majority “non-native” English speakers (derogatorily referred to as “vernaculars”) is perhaps the most insidious.
It is this unstated but well-established basis for creating social distance that Kangana Ranaut blows to pieces most effectively in her dignified portrayal of Rani in the recently released Hindi film, Queen.
While the movie is winning acclaim for its richly crafted, woman-centric, female-empowerment narrative, this is not the only pathbreaking aspect of its appeal. By treating the accent-based caste system imposed by India’s Westernised, convent-educated lot with the disdain it deserves, by recognising that to even dignify it with acknowledgement is unnecessary, the movie offers a refreshing new paradigm.
The movie features Ranaut as the female protagonist whose accent, dress sense and conservative values would typically elicit taunts (such as “behenji”) and ridicule from her more Westernised peers in India. Yet, without any fuss, Ranaut makes a sharp statement of pride in her own identity, simply by being herself — plain speaking, forthright and unaffected by anyone else’s perception of her. No apologies, no diffidence, no self-consciousness, no desire to please anyone.
Recent films such as English Vinglish and Cocktail have addressed somewhat similar themes, but not before subjecting the non-Westernised character to some ridicule early on, highlighting her insecurity, anxiety and lack of confidence, and attributing them to her discomfort with English and a Westernised lifestyle.
Unlike these movies, where the need was felt to explain the characters’ backgrounds, paint them in a sorry light and only then showcase their transformation, the makers of Queen felt no need to justify the protagonist’s circumstances or perceived shortcomings, other than to set up an opening conflict for the plot — the bride who gets jilted at the altar.
Across the world, accents have always served as signifiers of social class. Working-class Cockney accents are significantly different from the upper-class cadences produced by England’s elite public schools. New York City’s unique dialect, one that has its roots in an era when industrial workers were a dominant cultural presence, is shunned by the city’s upper classes in favour of a more standard American rhotic pronunciation (think “water” with an emphasis on the “r”, as opposed to the more working class “waduh”).
The difference with India lies in the pride with which working-class British and American accents are retained by their speakers, as markers of identity and authenticity and, more importantly, the delinking of accent from access to opportunity (especially now, as American demographics move, slowly but inexorably, towards a non-white majority).
In India, unfortunately, where the aspiration for English-medium education spirals unrelentingly upwards, continued…