Zanjeer.

Today I watched the 1973 movie Zanjeer, an enjoyable police/revenge movie with a minimum of song-and-dance numbers. (Sorry, Bollywood fans, I just don’t like song-and-dance numbers.) What makes it LH material is the linguistic situation. I wasn’t surprised to hear a lot of English spoken; it seemed natural in police stations (relic of the Raj) and at posh parties (prestige). But this did surprise me: before the hero, Angry Young Man Vijay Khanna, goes out to take his long-delayed revenge, there is a brief scene with his romantic interest, Mala (an orphan knife-sharpener whom he rescued from the street). He says there is something he has thought a million times but hasn’t dared say, and now he has to say it. She assumes an expectant look (knowing as well as we do what is coming), and he says, “I love you.” Like that. In English. Perhaps someone more familiar with the conventions of Indian cinema than I can tell me whether that is an attempt to avoid the specification of class, intimacy, register, or what have you that would be required in Hindi/Urdu and whether it’s at all plausible in the situation. (I thought, of course, of aristocratic Russian couples communicating in French, but that was long ago and in another country.)

Etymological lagniappe: I wondered where the word zanjir ‘chain’ came from; my language shelves quickly told me it was Persian, but it took Google Books to find for me this footnote from Languages of Iran: Past and Present, edited by Dieter Weber: “A similar case is possibly provided by the Parthian spelling of zyncyhr ‘chains’ (Pers. zanjir). The routine etymology (*zaina/i-ciθra-) is proved false by Sogdian zyncry’kh (P 2, 1063), in Man. script jyncry’.” (I presume “Man.” stands for Manchu.)

Comments

  1. “Man.” = Manichean, methinks.
    http://www.omniglot.com/writing/manichaean.php

  2. It doesn’t surprise me that much. The stock Hindi/Urdu “main tumse pyaar karta hoon” or words to that effect wouldn’t carry any sociopolitical baggage that I’m aware of either, but the us of the English is unremarkable. Possibly due to its filmi overtones. I’d think of it like “thank you” “please” “sorry” and the English names for numbers and the days of the week, all deeply embedded and as likely to be heard as their aboriginal equivalents, even from non-English-speaking people.

  3. “Man.” = Manichean, methinks.

    Ah, of course!

    I’d think of it like “thank you” “please” “sorry” and the English names for numbers and the days of the week, all deeply embedded and as likely to be heard as their aboriginal equivalents, even from non-English-speaking people.

    Well, yes, but surely for such an intimate moment one would want to use one’s mother tongue! Or so I would have thought.

  4. I’m taking a total SWAG here, but my impression is that such a declaration of romantic love might itself be something of an imported concept, one most often encountered in films and other works of fiction. So perhaps it’s been adopted as is for that situation? My conversations with Indic native speakers are not of the sort to include it, and the films I watch are either from the last 25 years, when “I love you” and other English is endemic, or from the 50s and 60s. In those older films, I don’t recall having heard the phrase very often, whether in Hindi/Urdu or in English.

  5. LH, you seem to assume that the characters are using English in this context in order to faithfully depict how such characters would speak in real life. But consider it from the screenwriter’s perspective. In a film whose main language is Hindi, any line in English will have a marked quality. If the writer wants to mark off a moment so that it stands out from the flow of ordinary dialogue, a neat solution is to put it in English. The line is thereby bracketed, and will be registered by the audience as a discrete and important speech act, rather than just another string of jabber. As a bonus, the use of an important world language confers a timeless, elevated quality upon the sentiment. By speaking in English, the Indian steps out of his cultural and geographical particularities and becomes simply a Man speaking to a Woman.

  6. LH, you seem to assume that the characters are using English in this context in order to faithfully depict how such characters would speak in real life.

    Well, no, I wasn’t assuming anything of the kind — that’s why I asked about the conventions of Indian cinema and “whether it’s at all plausible in the situation.” But your explanation makes a lot of sense and jibes with what I vaguely suspected.

  7. No snideness intended! It just seemed to me that you had overlooked a narratological explanation. But I’m not surprised you didn’t think of it. We Americans are accustomed to monolingual storytelling, and don’t think of language as a device.

  8. What if a man in an American or British film, well, maybe a British film, at a moment of emotional intensity, said to a woman, “Je t’aime”?

  9. Interesting. The Bulgarian word for a chain, of the type that is put around the neck, either to limit your freedom or as a decoration, is синджир, with the more general word for a chain being верига. I assumed синджир was Turkish, but like so many Turkish words, it turned out to be Persian in origin.

    Thanks for the find!

  10. @Bill W at a moment of emotional intensity

    Assuming both protagonists had spoken only English up to that point, I’d take it as being too corny to be genuine, and I’d suspect the fella was up to no good. To be more generous-spirited: possibly he’s one of those up-tight Brits who’s too embarrassed by emotional intensity.

    (I’m thinking of Prince Charle’s “whatever love means” — then both of my interpretations cover the case.

  11. Since I was born almost a decade after Zanjeer, I couldn’t say if it was natural, or usual in normal conversation back then. Not even sure whether the movies had already shifted to using ‘I love you’ by then.

    But, it was pretty much normal for ‘I love you’ to be used in Bollywood movies from the 80s. So much so that Saudagar, a movie from 1991, had a song ‘ILU, ILU’, with ILU being short for ‘I Love you’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7aqbZYYTwg). Barf worthy, but that is Bollywood music from that period for you.

    There was also a 1992 movie titled ‘I love you’.

  12. Less so now, but in those days to say ‘I love you’ in Hindi sounded completely ridiculous. Saying it in any language was a western thing to do. Even to say it in English was ‘filmi’, not something that real people would do.

  13. Assuming both protagonists had spoken only English up to that point

    Not at all; if they had, I wouldn’t have been surprised or felt impelled to post. They’d spoken exclusively Hindi/Urdu. I guess I should have mentioned that, but I thought it would be obvious from context.

    But, it was pretty much normal for ‘I love you’ to be used in Bollywood movies from the 80s.

    Aha, that’s just the kind of contextual information I was hoping for; thanks!

    Less so now, but in those days to say ‘I love you’ in Hindi sounded completely ridiculous. Saying it in any language was a western thing to do.

    The same goes for that, and it’s nice to see you around here again, Nancy!

  14. It’s weird (and good for me) to find myself floundering in a cultural world of which I know so little, and it’s great to be able to be brought up to speed so easily. Once again I give thanks for the blessings of the internet.

  15. Nice to see you again too. I rediscovered you on Twitter, another blessing of the Internet.

  16. Deborah says:

    There is certainly an extremely elaborate Perso-Urdu language of love that Hindi cinema draws on (the Hindi of Hindi cinema generally being very much Urdu of the courtly sort influenced by Persian and used in poetry and song prior to and as well as cinema). So it’s not either this or main tumse pyar karti hun. There’s also all the mohabbating and the ishqing and all of that.

    Neverthless, “I love you,” often rendered something more like “I low you” is a staple of Hindi cinema, as BV says above, at least from the 1980s on. I agree that it’s something akin to a character in a Hollywood film of the 1950′s suddenly saying “Je t’aime” as a way of emphasizing the romance of his statement.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    The notion that saying “I love you” at all might be a Western import reminds me of the statement I saw somewhere after a discussion of the various ways to say “I love you” in Japanese (this being Japanese, there are at least three different basic words you might use for “love” even before you start getting into all the possible pronoun substitutes, degrees of politeness, subtly variant constructions which just seem to be there because Japanese likes that sort of thing etc etc etc) to the effect that the normal Japanese equivalent of “I love you” is in fact silence.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Less so now, but in those days to say ‘I love you’ in Hindi sounded completely ridiculous. Saying it in any language was a western thing to do. Even to say it in English was ‘filmi’, not something that real people would do.

    Perhaps relatedly, the Upper German dialects have an unusually small inventory of abstract nouns and related verbs. In those I’m familiar with, “love” plainly doesn’t exist. (“Like” does, though.)

  19. > Assuming both protagonists had spoken only English up to that point

    > Not at all; if they had, I wouldn’t have been surprised or felt impelled to post. […]

    I think you’ve misunderstood AntC’s comment. (S)he is referring to Bill W’s hypothetical scene in a British film where a man says “je t’aime” in French, not to the actual scene in Zanjeer that you were asking about.

  20. Ah! Of course you’re right, and thank you for getting it into my muddled head.

  21. A bit late on this one, Hat, but thought I’d comment since one of my favorite languages (Sogdian) is mentioned: Parthian (also written in the Manichaean script, btw!) zyncyhr ‘chains’ is probably /zēnǰihr/ while Sogdian (script) zyncry’kh and Sogdian (in Manichaean script) jyncry’ both imply /žēnčǝryā/. I don’t have the right works with me at the moment, but can find you a better etymology anon.

  22. Great, thanks in advance!

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Sogdian! Parthian! I had never seen samples of those, or heard of the Manichaean script. Thanks for enlarging my linguistic horizons.

  24. Well, I can only clarify a bit more, actually. Seems a better etymology has not been proposed in the literature.

    The Parthian zyncyhr ‘chains’ implies /zēnǰīr/, rather. One often finds the spelling -yhr- for /īr/ in Parthian (in Man. script). The Sogdian form should be /žēnčǝryā/, as mentioned. Other Sogdian words like zyncyk ‘harnessed, saddled’ and zynγwδ ‘harness’ imply a compound where zyn- is the first part.

    This zyn (still Sogd.) could be (1) zyn ‘weapon, armor’ (MP/Pth. zēn, Av. zaēna-), or (2) related to zyn- vb. ‘to take away, remove’, or (3) a compound form zyn- of zyn’kh ‘body’.

    Past that, I’m unsure of how to explain the second part, which I can’t find attested otherwise. Pth. cyhr means ‘form, nature, essence’, and so is doubtfully part of the etymology.

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