In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s tragic heroine revealed her naivete when she questioned the significance of names. Over the years, her assertion that the rose by any other name would smell as sweet has been refuted several times (author LM Montgomery suggested renaming the flower to “skunk cabbage” to assess the truth). Most recently, the renaming spree in several Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled territories – Allahabad is Prayagraj, Faizabad was renamed Ayodhya and Ross Island was rechristened Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Island – has made amply clear that even towns, when called by any other name, do not sound as sweet.
A tongue-in-cheek reminder of the harm of such narrow-minded renaming was offered in Shyam Benegal’s Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008). While introducing the titular fictional village, the protagonist Mahadev recalls that it was once called Durjanpur, but was rechristened by Jawaharlal Nehru after independence. “While it was called Durjanpur, majority of its residents were decent,” Mahadev says. “But after it was changed to Sajjanpur, it has become full of scoundrels.”
Several Hindi films demonstrate that the name of a place is deeply intertwined with the identities of its residents. If the name were to be changed, all metaphorical significance would be lost. In Sholay (1975), the craggy and barren landscape that Gabbar inhabits reflects his personality. Meanwhile, the innocent people whom he terrorises are defined by the name of their village – Ramgarh’s residents are good, god-fearing people who live together peacefully and tolerate injustice.
Finding Fanny (2014) is set in a sleepy Goan town called Pocolim. Director Homi Adjania said in an interview that he was inspired by the work of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and hoped to construct a town that would be a hybrid of Indian influences and Marquezian eccentricity. The “Catholic-Portuguese influences in Goa” suited the setting that he had in mind. The name Pocolim, which is inhabited by zany people who deftly flit between the real world and the one of their imaginings, invokes these historical connections.
Sometimes the connections between the names of villages and inhabitants are more direct: places with peculiar names are often inhabited by eccentric people. In Joker (2012), residents of Paglaapur all harbour delusions – some believe that World War II has not yet ended, while some speak gibberish. Billu (2009) is set in Budbuda, a village populated by unusually effervescent folk. Billu’s unconventional sense of humour also finds reflection in the name of the village he inhabits.
In a song from Jagga Jasoos (2017), an intrepid young detective states that he is from Jhumri Talaiya and surmises that his accident-prone companion is perhaps from Timbuktu. Both Jhumri Talaiyya, which is located in Jharkhand’s Koderma district, and Mali’s ancient city of Timbuktu, are often confused to be fictitious places, used to connote an otherworldly or mythical town. Timbuktu is also tucked far away from Jhumri Talaiyya, indicating that their personalities are poles apart.
The name of the place sometimes ironically points to a lack in the lives of its residents. In Pratighaat (1987), a completely lawless town governed by a local hoodlum is called Dharampura.
Names of villages are also imprinted with the class and caste of its residents. Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013) is set in a village that is undemocratically named after a wealthy businessman, Harry Mandola. Harry treats Mandola as one of the many businesses that he owns. Huge billboards of his commercial enterprises, which are also named after him, are placed like nameplates in strategic locations. Harry is a ruthless exploiter of farmers, but he begins to voice revolutionary Maoist thoughts when he is drunk. The name of the village is a cheeky nod to the man’s wavering mind.
In Kaun Kitney Paani Mein (2015), a village perched atop a hill and primarily inhabited by upper-caste people is called Upri. On the other hand, the village in which people born into lower castes have settled is called Bairi, and is located in the foothills. These villages could be set absolutely anywhere in India, their positions are articulating a widely prevalent social truth.
Village names in movies also often denote the central ideology around which its social and cultural structures are formed.
Bulandi (2000) is set in Bharatpur. The narrator takes great pains to establish that Bharatpur is a place where people still remember their traditions and customs. It is inhabited by people who accede only to the authority of one king and eye modernity with scepticism. Boundaries of class and caste are sharply drawn, and women are told that they can enjoy their freedom, but “within the limits of propriety”. Bulandi’s Bharatpur attempts to represent an ideal, culturally rooted India, but unintentionally winds up exposing the many social inequalities and prejudices that fracture the country.
While the people of Bharatpur invest tremendous belief in traditional hierarchies, the villagers in Yeh Hai Bakrapur (2014) place their faith in the supposed mystical powers of a goat named Shahrukh. Yeh Hai Bakrapur depicts what happens when religion, superstition, politics and poverty intersect in rural India: people become convinced that a goat represents Hindu deity Shiva, as well as Allah. The name Bakrapur alludes not only to the residents’ devotion to an ordinary goat, but also to their gullibility and propensity to be led like a herd of mindless cattle.