What’s in a word in Bollywood songs? Quite a lot actually.

When I ask people to send me translation requests for Bollywood songs, I am always petrified that I will get a love song called ‘pyaar ishq aur mohabbat’ penned by Anand Bakshi for the 2001 film by the same name. Now, I am no expert translator anyway, but such songs have a love bug, quite literally.  If we start translating the title, it might as well be ‘love, love and love.’ The makers of the film released the film as ‘Love, Amour and Romance’ which does not quite cut it for me, as neither does ishq mean amour (which is basically the French word for love), nor does mohabbat mean ‘romance’ (which more of an action word/verb rather than a noun). So,’ love’ is a problem in Bollywood song translations and considering the number of beautiful love-songs that are written in Bollywood, the problem is bigger than you think. I feel the only word that truly corresponds to love in the songs is pyaar/prem.

Most Bollywood songs are written in Hindustani language, i.e. a unique combination of Hindi and Urdu, along with a few Persian words. Come to think of it, we are looking at some 15-18 words that mean love. Urdu is truly the language of love with phrases that remain wholly untranslatable in any other language.  Sample a few lines with word to word translations from Gulzar, Irshad Kamil and Nida Fazli respectively:

Jahaan tere pairon ke kanwal gira karte the
Hanse to do gaalon mein bhanwar pada karte the
(where your lotuses from your feet used to fall, where vortices appeared on your cheeks when you laughed)

Main Rang Sharbaton Ka
Tu Meethe Ghaat Ka Paani
(I am the colour of syrup; you are the water from sweet riverbank)

Hoshwalon Ko Khabar Kya,Bekhudi Kya Cheez Hai
Ishq Kije Phir Samajhiye, Zindagi Kya Cheez Hai

(Those who are in senses won’t know what senselessness means, fall in love and understand what a thing life is)

While meanings are beautiful, the intent of the phrase remains difficult to grasp with such a translation. The senselessness described in Nida Fazli’s lyrics is not ‘insanity’ really, it’s a deep, mad love for someone. Madness, insanity, lunacy etc. are all words that have a negative, almost threatening connotation in English. But in Urdu, they describe devotion and surrender to the beloved. Now how does one convey that in words? Therefore as a translator, I often focus on the meaning, rather than the word. But often I wonder, if a fan of a particular song would leave a comment about inadequacy of my translation. Every writer lives with a fear of being criticized, why should I be any different?

Coming back to ‘ishq’; a well-loved word used fairly commonly for romantic love in Hindi songs, though it really denotes ‘divine’ love. It comes from the tradition of Sufi poetry from Central and South Asia, where God is seen as a beloved. Sufi traditions in fact, describe seven stages of love – dilkashi/hub (allure), uns (infatuation), mohabbat (adoration), akidat (faith), ibadat (devotion), junoon (insanity) and maut (death).

Coming from such a sophisticated tradition, most poets who established the canon of Bollywood song writing from the early 40s, obviously saw love in its many avatars. Gulzar’s ‘Satrangi Re’ from Mani Ratman’s Dil Se is a philosophical exploration of this seven-step path of love. Needless to say, I am scared of translating that song too. Gulzar’s delicate metaphors don’t make it any easier, but I am going to try some day, accompanying the translation with an essay, hopefully unravelling the subtext part by part. Meanwhile you can check the exquisite song here, set to the hypnotic music by
A R Rahman:

Aside from these words, there are a whole basket of flowers to pick in Hindustani when you speak of love. Starting from simpler words like chahat (desire), vasl (passion) and yaari (friendship/attachment) to exquisite ones like qurbat (intimacy), unsiyat (attachment), mihr (affection), that can be savored like a melt-in-the-mouth dessert. Don’t be fooled by the words in the brackets, they just ‘indicate’ a meaning but do not offer one. For example the word ‘yaari’ can be used for an affectionate friendship but can indicate a deep bond, or even an illicit/secret romantic relationship, making it a very loaded and often
passionate word.

Problems do not end with love, the words to indicate a loved one are numerous and have a different use in every context. But that’s a discussion for another time. Until then, I shall remain in the world of love-bug bitten words and phrases from Hindi language cinema. How about you? Have the love-soaked songs of Bollywood ever astonished you with their versatile use of pyaar, ishq aur mohabbat? Let me know in the comments!