When in Haryana, speak as the Haryanvis do – and if not from Haryana, make sure you get an accent coach.
Sunita Sharma is one of the persons you should look for. In 2015, Sharma helped Kanagna Ranaut sound authentically local in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and she has repeated the feat for 2016’s last big release: Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal.
The film, which opens on December 23, has been inspired by coach Mahavir Singh Phogat and his medal-winning daughters, Geeta and Babita Kumari. Phogat’s story has been the subject of numerous media stories and also features in journalist Rudraneil Sengupta’s book, Enter the Dangal: Travels Through India’s Wrestling Landscape. A biopic was inevitable. But a film that stars Aamir Khan as the patriarch who hopes for a son, has daughters instead, and decides to turn his perceived disadvantage into his greatest weapon has to be perfect in every way.
Sharma’s contract doesn’t allow her to say much about her exact contribution to Dangal, but she is confident that the movie will help redeem Harayana in the popular imagination. The state’s deplorable sex ratio (879 females to 1,000 males, as per the 2011 census), and culture of khap panchayats and honour killings have in recent years inspired critical documentaries (Izzatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyan) and movies (NH10). Dangal could well alter the view of Haryana as a terrible place to be born a woman, especially since it reveals how Phogat trained his daughters to become champions in the face of opposition and ridicule.
“Dangal is a very motivational film, and I want to tell the Haryana government to make it tax free,” said Sharma, who has worked with Khan and the principal characters – Sakshi Tanwar as his wife and Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra as his daughters.
“Whatever you hear about Haryana is true to an extent – after all, a story emerges only when there is a basis,” Sharma added. “But things change with time. There is more education, people are changing attitudes, and stereotypes are breaking down.”
Phogat will be Sharma’s second major contribution to the cinematic representation of Haryanvis. Her first is Datto, the character played by Kangana Ranaut in Anand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015). A sequel to Tanu Weds Manu (2008), the comedy features Ranaut in two roles: one as the coquettish and petulant Tanu, and the other as the lookalike athlete with short hair, buck teeth, and a tongue that can slice an orange faster than you can say “What did she just say?”
Ranaut didn’t just sound like a Haryanvi: she also worked hard with Sharma to adapt her character’s physical traits. “Kangana devoted herself to the accent and body language, and she has set the benchmark for others,” Sharma pointed out. “There are very subtle differences that the average Hindi speaker will not get, but the person from Haryana will immediately understand. I will never forget Tanu Weds Manu Returns because of the way in which Kangana justified her character – on a score of 100, she scores 90, and for somebody who does not speak the language, that is a very big deal.”
Sharma has been working in the radio, television and advertising industries since the 1980s, and she compared her job to sifting flour. Haryanvi is written in Devanagari, and her first task is to listen to the actor read out the lines without intervention. “My job is to see where the words are slipping, which parts the accent is catching, and what is being missed,” she said. “It’s like using a sieve – it gets more refined as it goes along.”
Haryanvi can be a bit rough on the ears – detractors describe the language as coarse – but there is a wiliness to Haryanvi humour and a sweetness to its idiom that only the right accent can convey, Sharma pointed out. Haryanvi is often confused for Rajasthani, and first-time speakers tend to unnecessarily grind their tongues. “People mix Rajasthani and Haryanvi because of the ‘nna’ sound, but this sound is not used in many Haryanvi words,” Sharma said. “For instance, deewana is deewannna in Rajasthani and divvana in Haryanvi. That is I how I explain things to actors.”
Sharma is a Punjabi who grew up in Kurukshetra in Haryana. After Bachelor in Arts and a Bachelor in Education degrees, she started working as a voice artist and compere with the local All India Radio station, where she perfected her speech. “My diction is probably very good because I used to listen to the radio a lot,” she said.
Sharma met her future husband, the actor and voice artist Virendra Sharma, while working for AIR Kurukshetra. They moved to Mumbai in 1993, where they continued to work with AIR as freelance artists. Sharma even taught first graders for a year in Mumbai, but eventually succumbed to the lure of the entertainment industry. Her first assignment was for Siddharth Kak’s blockbuster Indian culture showcase Surabhi, which he hosted with Renuka Shahane. Sharma’s excellent Hindi diction helped her do voiceovers for the television show, which ran from 1993 to 2001. “Siddharth Kak’s Surabhi was the first show for which I got credit, and I was even paid properly,” Sharma recalled.
Further dubbing opportunities presented themselves when the Zee television network started translating its Hindi shows into other Indian languages, including Punjabi. Sharma also worked for many years with Punjabi dubbed versions of Balaji Telefilms series. She has also dubbed for and carried out voice training for commercials. “I guess my training as a school teacher has come handy – if the actor gets even one word wrong, I will not let it go,” she said.
Sharma worked with the Punjabi language for many years, and her first assignment in Haryanvi was for a dubbed programme by Christian evangelist Joyce Meyer. “The Haryanvi accent trend really took off with Tanu Weds Manu Returns,” Sharma said. The movie is among several recent Hindi productions that prefer local accents and dialects over the standardised Hindustani-Urdu mix that is spoken in popular cinema. Hindi filmmakers have been repeatedly criticised over the years for ignoring or watering down the specifics of the social milieus in which they set their films. Accent trainers have become important players in film production, and part of an actor’s preparation involves sitting down with a voice coach and balancing. the vowels and consonants as required.
Sharma hopes that as more films are set in Haryana, and as more filmmakers strive to get the speech patterns right, popular perceptions of the state will change. “Films like Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Dangal are good for Haryana – our people used to feel ashamed of admitting that we are from the state, but such films will help improve our self image.”
Everything will depend on the bulky shoulders of Aamir Khan’s Mahavir Singh Phogat and his doughty daughters. They face the challenge of not only charming ticket buyers but also conveying the particularity of the story, which could not have originated anywhere else. This wrestling ring has to be entered with the right pronunciation: it’s “p-ho-gat” and not “fogat”, Sharma said.