Spandan Banerjee’s new documentary English India looks at the language and its importance in a country that remains tethered to its multilingual past. Banerjee explores the importance of English as a means to social and economic mobility as well as a tool of trade through the presence of tour guides at India’s most well-known historic sites, such as the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal. English India is part of a planned three-part series, Banerjee said. Part one will get an international premiere at the Hot Docs documentary festival that will be held in Toronto from April 23 to May 3.

The aspirational angle to English speaking is intertwined with the showcasing of India’s past glory through tour guides. Which came first, the English or the tour guides?
English India is a film I have been developing since 2008. Actually it was during the time I had finished my film music documentary Beware Dogs when we started research and work on English India.

In between I finished You Don’t Belong (I shot over 2009-2011) on music, ownership and copyright, which won a National Award in 2012. By then I realised that given the stories and characters that we have, English India has to be more than one film. Only then could we do justice to the subject.

In the larger canvas of the film and the story, which will unfold over three parts, the tour guide is a small section almost like a prelude. The idea is to re-visit the places and narratives of the past everyone visits but with a different perspective. The perspective of language that is the subtext of everything that surrounds us. The story of English and its politics in India, politics which are changing even as we speak. The story of English as the language of power, aspiration and necessity is a story that is complex and reflects the reality of postcolonial India. Hence it requires its own time and pace. The cinematic canvas is large and there are still many characters to meet.

The film begins with an anecdote about teaching English at South Point School in Kolkata. What connection do you draw with what happens on the tour circuit later?
The film begins in the school (in this case I studied in South Point), the place where we learn English. I am a Bengali and I don’t think in English. In fact I am also constantly translating in my head and that is why the film is important to me as to many others. School is the beginning and the kind of school or class you belong to makes our destiny in India. And what we realised through the years of research that English learning for a lot of people is that one thing that can change their destiny. All of us were told at some point or the other that we must be well versed in English as that was the route to “success.”

It is about people who have learnt English with difficulty and have pinned their hopes on English as if English were a miracle or a person or an entity that would change their fortunes and the irony is in a way it is. Somewhere this is the story of India and its aspirations the way it is linked with people who are trying to learn it. Imran, a tour guide, is one of them. It is also looking at globalisation and its effects in the way the audio guide apps with their “perfect programmed English” have flooded the Indian market, in collaboration with the Archaelogical Survey of India.

It is about us and our languages that binds and separates us in this stunning multilingual nation. The story will continue, the next two parts (when they are made) will get into language schools, individual stories of struggle, hope, neglect, discrimination, change and the contemporary debates over one language and so on.

The other reason why it begins from Calcutta is that Calcutta was the first British India capital. With Thomas Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on English Studies in India, the first batch of English educated men and women (Indian Civil Services, ICS) were in Calcutta under the colonial government. Hence the story of English language to me must begin in Calcutta.

The documentary strings together vignettes, but was it ever an attempt to tell a single and linear story?
The linear story is the journey and conflicts surrounding English and the language we speak or aspire to speak in. Since that is the thread, the vignettes are like pieces that are tied by the invisible thread. It is a treatment that seemed right for this unusual story. A film on language is very challenging and interesting, as cinema is a visual medium but how does one cinematically treat a story about language, sounds, tones, words, memories, histories? Our experiences are accessed through the language we speak.

I have created the experience of India through the images and stories in this film. The music has been composed accordingly, and my edit also speaks the language and the experience of India.