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Whose accent is it anyway

Published : Oct 18, 2016, 10:52 pm IST
Updated : Oct 18, 2016, 10:52 pm IST

With Deepika Padukone’s ‘normal’ accent in the xXx trailer garnering attention, we look at why accents can be more complex than they seem.

 Deepika Padukone and Vin Diesel
  Deepika Padukone and Vin Diesel

With Deepika Padukone’s ‘normal’ accent in the xXx trailer garnering attention, we look at why accents can be more complex than they seem.

From Peter Sellers in The Party, to Apu in The Simpsons and Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory — the Indian accent has been a plot point and a comic device in most shows and movies in Hollywood. On the other end of the spectrum, actors like Anil Kapoor in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and Priyanka Chopra in Quantico have received considerable flak for their highly Americanised accents in their Hollywood ventures. The latest accent (or non-accent in this case) to catch people’s attention is Deepika Padukone’s, in her Hollywood debut xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. The actress was being lauded on social media for retaining her ‘Indianess’ and seeming ‘normal’ in the trailer of the film. Giving her company, only last week, Irrfan Khan in Inferno showed the actor retaining his original accent.

Actor Dalip Tahil, who has worked in international projects, believes that one man in particular should take the bullet for stereotyping the Indian accent — or the French for that matter. “Not only Indians, Peter Sellers has managed to messed up even the French accent as the Inspector Jacques Clouseau,” he says with a laugh. Dalip, who has acted in several international production is perhaps best known for his antagonistic roles in the nineties films such as Tridev, Baazigar, Ghulaam, etc. But he had also played important roles in various international productions. “I remember when I had worked on EastEnders (British soap opera), the first question I had asked was, ‘how would you like me to speak ’ They told me, ‘speak exactly the way you speak English’.” Recollecting an earlier instance when he refused to put up a caricatured accent, he says, “I was at the audition for an American series called Nevermind Nirvana. I was asked to play the Peter Sellers’ version of caricatured Indian English, which I refused. I didn’t get the job, which I believe was because of that reason.”

From the new wave of actors that have hit the shores of Indian cinema, Tannishtha Chatterjee is one of the prominent faces. She has worked in several international productions, the most recent being, Parched, which has won her Best Actress award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. She says the most important coordinate, which decides the character’s accent is her back-story. “Accents always depend on the character. If the character in the film is born and raised in India, then she will be expected to have a thicker Indian accent,” she says.

However, she is of the view that caricature of Indian accents is a thing of the past and people have moved on. “In Jason Bourne, (British actor) Riz Ahmed, plays a South Asian, but he speaks in a very neutral accent. As the world becomes more and more global, and people spread more across the globe, the accents will have a local flavour, and we will have more accents and dialects,” she explains.

She is positive that cinema worldwide will gradually incorporate these changes soon. “Priyanka Chopra, for example, speaks in an accent which is not quite Indian neither quite American. Language is ever evolving and slowly these changes will seep into films as well.”

However, closer home, Indian filmmakers don’t put too much stress on the nuances of the language.

“Unlike in the West, accent or dialect training in India are not given enough stress. For example, my co-star in Brick Lane, Christopher Simpson, is Irish-Rwandan, but in the movie he had to pick a Bangladeshi English accent, which is quite different and difficult for an actor. Although recently, she says in Ranveer Singh’s Marathi-laced-Hindi accent in Bajirao Mastani was quite praiseworthy although she accepts such instances are quite rare.

Echoing her lament, Dalip too rues that the Hindi film industry has never put enough effort to deal with the accents and dialects of Indian languages. “No one here is willing to work on accents and therefore, most of the characters end up being two-dimensional, like cardboards and I myself have a part to play in it by caricaturing Sindhi in Hum Hain Raahi Pyar Ke,” he says.

Regional films, however, arguably may have done better. In the Bengali film Bariwali, actor Kirron Kher played a Bengali woman for which she also won the National Award. Amitabh Chakrabarty, a music and singing teacher by profession had helped her learn Bengali. Speaking of the experience, he says, “When Kirron Kher was asked to do the role of Banalata in Bariwali by Rituporno Ghosh, she did not know Bengali at all. Since Anupam Kher is my friend, he asked me to help her out with the language and pronunciation. I worked with her for about a fortnight to help her properly enunciate the Bengali dialogues. There are several words, especially the ones, which emphasise the typical Bengali ‘o’ sounds where she had a lot of trouble, but she kept at it and eventually the hard work paid off and she sounded quite convincing. I not only had to coach her in the nuances of pronunciation but also guide her through the nitty-gritties of Bengali culture, since she would need a context and background to truly be able to portray the role of a middle-aged single Bengali woman,” he says. With inputs from Dyuti Basu