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.
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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, and the value of well-spoken, “appropriately-accented” English as an opportunity magnet and a sign of progress is unambiguous, the social distance created by accents is no minor issue.
Rani’s strong sense of pride in her identity, one that is rooted in a middle class, halwai-shop-owing, Punjabi family, is more consistent with the working-class pride seen in the West. Her innate sense of security also allows her to navigate alien European cities without any of the usual baggage that Indian film characters in foreign lands are saddled with. She projects an unwavering comfort in her own skin, a confidence in her English accent and conservative values that we rarely see in today’s Hindi cinema. This is in sharp contrast to the nonsensical caricatures of Indians travelling abroad that Bollywood routinely subjects us to. What we have instead is a straight shooting girl from Rajouri Garden, who fumbles through culture shocks and alien environs with a deep confidence that she is not supposed to have.
This is not a story of “new India” making a break from the inferiority complexes of the past. It is instead a gentle and tangential introduction to an emerging social contract that is redefining how non-native English speaking Bharat and Westernised India engage with each other. Lisa Haydon’s free-spirited person of Indian origin character in the movie is never allowed to patronise Ranaut — their relationship is strictly a coming together of equals. Bharat is telling India that it doesn’t care much for the opinion of the upper classes, for their accents and pretensions. Bharat is calmly denying India its self-appointed right to judge.
In a film that appears to have been written with her in mind, Ranaut brings to the screen her own lived experience of having fought vicious bias. As a small-town, non-native English speaker making her way up in the Hindi film industry (still run by a largely Westernised establishment), she has had to fight prejudice every step of the way. That she pulls off a tricky role, one that could easily have been taken over-the-top, with such dignity and grace, makes it all the more commendable. More power to her.
The writer is a consumer researcher and part of the Junoon Theatre team