Bangla overcame Urdu hegemonic attempts on February 21, 1952. Today, the world celebrates Feb 21st as the International Mother Language Day, one that recognizes the importance of ethnic languages and the right to cultural freedom. Pakistani rulers tried to use political power to downsize Bangla; state-owned radio and television were used to popularize Urdu but the Bengali language had the strength to fight back the master’s voice.
However, we failed to see Hindi spread its wings in the past decade even across the rural areas of Bangladesh. Taking advantage of the television boom, Bollywood has made inroads through channels like Star Plus and Sony. Even the masala on Indian news channels has started to influence Bangla news presentation. Media power is becoming stronger than political power, hence we see an ever-increasing crowd using Hindi words and expressions in Dhaka.
Rural folks along the common border areas watch Bollywood movies at tea-stalls, while housewives hooked to Hindi soaps find themselves relating to the characters that dazzle their minds. They have also actively started to mimic Delhi-Mumbai costume, make up and mannerism. Where a small but significant English-medium group tries to live the American dream, the others in Dhaka now follow dreams set by Hindi cinema and soaps.
Can Bangla survive this media colonization?
Dhaka film industry almost died in the ‘80s. Bangladesh television drama serials snatched away a large number of cinema goers. Audiences in West Bengal also developed taste for Dhaka drama serials and magazine programs. Then came video cassettes, which quickly infiltrated homes and popularized Hindi cinema. Although private TV channels played their part in absorbing news audience, freelance telefilm- and soap-makers failed to compete with Indian channels. We have to agree that in this age of expanding illusions, media reality is proving to be more influential than ground reality. Also, in hindsight the fall of Soviet Union can be attributed on some level to the fact that it didn’t develop its own Hollywood or CNN.
As Hindi and Urdu sound similar, Indian films and soap are quite popular in Pakistan as well. Most singers and actors desire and await a call from Mumbai, Pakistani singers and composers are active as a backward linkage to Bollywood for gathering fame and recognition. It’s a win-win situation when Times of India and Jang Group partner up for a liberal media market.
But the situation in Dhaka is different: Hindi and Benglish are eating away at the roots of Bangla, while we ourselves seem less interested in efforts to restore the spirit of the 1952 Language Movement. As rules of war change so do the ways and limits of cultural invasion. Now the colonizer enters from open skies to infuse Bollywood Dhamaka into our airwaves. The language and culture war is openly and defiantly being fought on the media front with the sole aim to expand products market. When I see Bangladeshi sponsors more interested in running their commercials on Sony Entertainment, I wonder about the end game. I also wonder who to blame. After all, Indian media’s global and glocal approach is to portray Hindi as a colorful language and their country a dazzling culture.
What should we do now?
Globalization has toughened media competition and we can no longer stop anyone from watching what they want. There’s also the matter of freedom of choice. So, unless we can offer better alternatives, people will watch whatever attracts them. In our collective conscience, nationalism and conservatism are being forced to make room for a more glocalized approach to life. There is no time to lose. Bangla has to enter the competition by delivering better media products. The world is celebrating the spring of internet media revolution where it’s all about catching back the audience that has the habit to browse away to anything that glitters.
Bengali is the fourth biggest language in the world and hence it has the potential to create waves in the media market. Bangladesh, West Bengal and the rest of the global Non-Resident Bengalis still look for entertainment in their own language, but if they are disappointed they will be easily hijacked by Hindi entertainment. To the Bengali audience Hindi is a more familiar language than English.
Bengali speaking journalists, singers and film-makers need to build a viewers stronghold or we will lose audience everyday. Artistes are better placed to overcome geographical barriers, and Dhaka-Kolkata joint media ventures can certainly fight back this Hindi onslaught. War of the waves can no longer be fought with hatred and old-fashioned negative nationalism. Survival demands unity of thought and purpose in crossing over the narrow Radcliff line between Bangladesh and West Bengal.