As the camera trails a foreign tourist in the by-lanes of Old Delhi’s Kinari Bazaar — a bustling retail market popular for bridal shopping — we meet Imran Khan. He is a rickshaw driver who doubles as a tourist guide. In his slightly accented and pidgin English, picked up by observing foreigners in the markets, Khan explains, “English is my job.” This scene encapsulates the essence of English India, a new documentary film that explores how English in India — inherited from our colonial past — is “a language of necessity”.
Directed by Spandan Banerjee, English India, is scheduled to premiere on April 28 and 29 in the ‘Made in India’ programme of Hotdocs, a documentary film festival to be held in Toronto. The film, written by Rupleena Bose and shot by Mrinal Desai, travels to heritage sites in Delhi and Agra, capturing tourist guides at work and trying to understand their motivations behind learning English. Towards the end of the film, it shows how the community, an important part of India’s tourism business, faces the threat of becoming redundant with the arrival of audio-guide apps. As the camera takes viewers around the Taj Mahal, the app’s crisp English commentary accompanies the images.
Through the tales of guides, Banerjee explores the implications of class divide defined by the ability to speak English. However, according to him, the film is not about a particular community but about disparate characters bound by a language in a country of many languages, tongues, and dialects. “It is about people who use English for their immediate livelihood yet they are intimidated by the language,” he says.
This observation applies as much to the urban working class as to the guides. English India is the first installment of a three-part series. In the next two documentaries, he will delve into the lives of call-centre employees and people in language schools.
The self-reflexive nature of English India makes the film a deeply personal experience. The Delhi-based filmmaker is a Bengali who thinks in his mother-tongue and translates the thoughts into English before saying them aloud. That, in many ways, makes him similar to the people he features in his film. The film begins with scenes from Banerjee’s school, where the visual of children entering its gates are juxtaposed with the sound of students collectively greeting the teacher in English. “School is about learning and livelihood and at some point, all of us have been told that learning English is deeply connected to our success,” he says.
The intangibility of the subject makes English India an exciting film with a rich tapestry of sights and sounds. Banerjee compiles vignettes from different facets of life — from a Kolkata-based English teacher’s observations of the new generation’s use of the language to a private party at a Kerala hotel where Malayalis and Bengalis jam over an English song. There is also a chapter dedicated to Amitabh Bachchan and his iconic English dialogues from Namak Halal and Amar Akbar Anthony. “English is the language of power in India. I wanted to find a visual or cinematic mode of representing the language and its journey,” says Banerjee.