Spandan Banerjee is a Delhi-based documentary and feature filmmaker whose resume includes an eclectic mix of films. He has worked on Beware Dogs, a documentary based on the music of the original Indian Ocean
band and the National Award-winning You Don’t Belong,
which tracks how a folk song becomes popular in an
urban center in India. His To-Let was a very perceptive
look at the travails of young people — single and coupled
— as they search for rented apartments in Delhi.
His latest film English India — part of a trilogy that
Banerjee is planning — explores how the English language has seeped into India.
The film had its world premiere at the recent HotDocs
festival in Toronto, one of the most important documentary festivals in the world.
Banerjee was interviewed via email, while the filmmaker
was in Toronto.
I have noticed in your recent docs how you observe life
around you, the streets — the people and some how your
stories evolve from there. Am I right?
Absolutely! There are stories everywhere only if we have
the patience and imagination to gather them. That’s what
inspires me and troubles me the most in India and its
dichotomy. In the world around me, people, images,
moments, life is constantly evolving and fascinating stories live everywhere around us. Every image that you see
or photograph could be a story if one sees it as fiction.
How did you get the idea of the film?
Most of us in India are bilingual or trilingual so language is a very important part
of our identities. I guess English as the language of power and aspiration is something a lot of us talk about and acknowledge all the time — from our growing up
years, schooling, education. We focus on
English even while we were reading
I remember a discussion about languages
and translation years ago with my screenwriter, when I had mentioned what if we
were to conceptualize a film on English
language in India. That’s when my screenwriter,
Rupleena, had suggested we see it through people who
use ‘English as a language of necessity but never of intimacy.’ That was the line/ thought which got it going; it
even included me as I don’t always see English as a language that is intimate to my thoughts.
I like a subject that no one has explored visually... Also I
wanted to create a journey, a unique way of looking inside
and a cinematic style representing language, a very challenging subject itself for the visual medium!
My DOP is Mrinal Desai and it was something we had
been talking about every now and then over the years.
I notice that you start with the highly educated and then
look at English as it has become a part of the lives of people
who perhaps come from lower economic classes — the
guides, the rickshaw driver. How did that idea evolve?
This was done at the research script/ script stage.
Rupleena is the one who scripts the journey from an idea
or even a thought to a story to the narrative. Rupleena,
who is also an English professor, has a gamut of experiences and stories related to English as the language of
After the story or the journey evolves and the script
comes to me, that’s when I give it a visual language and
design. Here, when we revisited the journey from idea to
narrative even as the research continued, we realized with
the stories and characters we had, English India has to be
more than one film. Only then could we do justice to the
Are there many rickshawwallahs in Old Delhi who speak
English? How did you find the characters for your film?
Actually you’d be surprised, there are! English India is a
film which has been in development since 2008. In the
course of all these years, there were many characters and
people we met. That’s the thing about living with a film
for so many years, especially in the case of English India
where the research was never ending. There is a constant
process of finding and talking to people. Finally, some
stay, some don’t. In fact, the first shoot was years ago in
2010 in Ramjas College ( University of Delhi) and I
haven’t used that section here as the education system and
language learning will need its own time and pace.
That is why, this is planned as a three-part documentary
now (depending on funds and so on) because I simply
cannot end the story here. There are so many more characters to meet and the canvas of this film has to be large.
I loved the two guides in Delhi and in Agra. How did you
There were a few fascinating characters we were talking
to over the years. It is a long process and difficult to
explain as we go back and forth. Again I have to thank my
able production team who have worked with me on multiple projects and their perseverance in going to the location and research spots over and over again in search of
that one thing which will make that resonating moment
in the final film.
While the film is funny, you show a lot of respect to your
characters. Instead of making fun of their accents, their
grammar, you let them speak and that
brings out the color in these people. What
kind of thought went into that process?
My characters are fascinating people!
They have in their way paved the path
towards their success. Some of them have
learnt the language off the streets because
they know it can give them a better life. In
a way English is a wall that divides: They
understand that and they are sort of making their own destiny. Anyway, its only
about being born in a particular class;
that’s why some of us have got more opportunities than others and that has nothing
to do with one’s own merit. The larger
question is how English is a language of
power in India and how that itself represents the contrast that this postcolonial
nation is all about.
This is also a celebration of the languages
What did you learn in making the film?
we speak, especially English, which also been colored by
the dialects, regions, styles, practices prevalent across
India. It is our own language now, which we tailor and
modify and that is the beauty of English language too.
So many things! This is a story, a narrative, which keeps
going on and on. A project, which is not going to end with
We also found a fiction story for my next feature film, a
fiction thriller Golden Triangle we developed while
researching English India, which I am setting up now.
Language is a fascinating thing; it mediates our experience of reality. It divides us yet it binds us. It is who we
are, our identities, our stories — they have a bizarre connection with the language or languages we
‘ENGLISH AS A LANGUAGE OF NECESSITY BUT NEVER OF INTIMACY’
That one thought spawned
Spandan Banerjee’s English
India. Aseem Chhabra/India
Abroad finds out more.
CINEMA WITH A SOUL/HOT DOCS
THE MAGAZINE M15
Spandan Banerjee (inset), through English India (above and below), shows how English has become the language of power and aspiration in his homeland.