RACE, TONGUE AND BODIES IN CINEMA OF THE FANTASTIC
Invented languages either take off from existing languages or depart from them entirely in order to highlight the ‘Otherness’ of its speakers. At the face of it, they transcend linguistic division, ethnicity, location, nations and boundaries. But languages do not exist in vacuum. Thus, much like ‘real’ languages, invented languages too draw from political categories. This is because language is closely intertwined with racial performativity, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in filmic explorations of speculative fiction.
(DISCLAIMER: Spoilers ahead)
Over the past 7 years, Game of Thrones has introduced us to a unique drama of the fantastic populated by the Starks, the Lannisters, the Targaryens, dragons, white-walkers, and a whole new horizon on onscreen nudity. Alongside, it has also introduced us to the nomadic Dothrakis. Modelled on the Mongols and Native American tribes, the Dothrakis are portrayed as a rapacious bunch who thrive on loots and conquests, and communicate in their own language. David Peterson, the linguist instrumental to its creation, intended for Dothraki the language to reflect the belligerence of the warrior race and provoke visceral responses in the listener. On set, the actors are given their lines in Dothraki, while English translations on the side communicate meaning and by extension, cue the performers into the scenes. This long-winded process of artifice has helped establish the language as credible in the popular imagination over time. Dothraki has thus become a legitimate tongue for many and follows its own trajectory of evolution through digital fan-clubs.
Forwarding its narrative around hypothetical, fantasy scenarios, speculative fiction often deals with the ‘Other’, where constructed languages offer a significant means of establishing an alternative universe on screen. They are often used to portray people- and thus a race- of a new world. Typically, the language helps mark the alterity of the people constitutive of the race in question. It also helps distinguish the intelligence of the alien race, ultimately aggrandizing one race over another. The vocal inflections or physical gait of the members of the ‘subservient’ race implicitly become markers of a certain ‘primitivism’ and, in most cases, the reason they are outdone in the narrative. In his essay Don’t Make my Black Face Blue, John G. Russell discusses the atavism, buffoonery and hypersexuality commonly portrayed by characters in America’s cinema of the fantastic. These characteristics are meant to mark their bearers as peculiar, he points out, and are also reminiscent of the racial stereotypes associated with the African-American community in the United States. He discusses the Na’vi people in Avatar (2009) in particular, calling out the use of non-white actors’ bodies to bring the strong, blue-skinned species to life on screen through the use of motion-capture technology. In being masked as aliens, the black actors, Russell argues, are racially coded on screen. They are denied direct visual representation while simultaneously having their physiognomic features exploited for a persuasive depiction of the Na’vi tribe. The colour of the ‘other’ has changed, but the template of ‘otherness’ remains rooted in contemporary racial representation.
This underlying tension reflects on the language the Na’vi’s use. When the Na’vi’s speak, their language appears in cursive flourish in the subtitles, implying the sort of linguistic belatedness calligraphic penmanship suggests. This complicates questions around racism where the cinematic avatars, in simultaneously inhabiting and displacing the black body on screen, become a reel surface on which existing racial tropes are projected. In the absence of a real, referential counterpart, invented languages serve to cushion actual prejudice by tantalizing the viewer outside the immediate text to a fictional linguistic system.
Like the Na’vi’s, members of the fictional tribe Kalakeyas in the recent blockbuster Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) speak in their native tongue, Kiliki. Members of the Kalakeya tribe are portrayed as dark-skinned and brutal. Seemingly an innocuous characterization of an entirely fictional tribe, this implicit association of dark skin and savagery clearly draws from colorist prejudices in South Asia. A loaded signifier of identity and value, fair skin is associated with the higher caste in popular consciousness, while dark skin is seen as a marker of the lower castes, and is relegated to the realm of the abject. The specific context of whiteness in Baahubali is evident in the positive portrayal of the fair-skinned upper-caste royals, who ultimately win over the dark-skinned Kalakeya, the latter’s collective demise attributed to their lack of sophisticated machinery and clever strategizing on the battlefield. This civilizational deficiency, alongside their dark skin and rotting teeth, helps establish the Kalakeya as a race caught in a primitive state, justifying their extermination.
Kiliki, the language spoken by the Kalakeyas, plays an interesting role in this context. Constructed from scratch, it is used in the film to establish the aggressive villainy of its speakers. Built around the frequent use of click consonants, Kiliki consists of ‘primal sounds’ meant to ‘incite fear’ in the viewer. In an interview, Madhan Karky, the formulator of Kiliki, describes the guttural language as having meant to be phonetically provocative to fit the popular imagination of a blood-thirsty tribe. However, care was taken to not use a familiar tongue in order to avoid hurting sentiments, he adds. Notwithstanding though, Kiliki’s kinship with Dravidian languages is unmistakable. In a country where the South is regularly marginalized for its otherness in skin tone and tongue, one wonders about the implications of this analogy.
Taking a stab at speculative fiction, Bollywood’s PK (2014), a satirical dramedy, narrates the story of an extra-terrestrial creature who lands on earth. PK is a likable alien, whose infant-like innocence is marked by the absence of a spoken language, with touch used as the only means of communication. This ‘oddity’, of preferring touch to tongue, symbolizes its ‘Otherness’. Soon though, after finding itself in the company of a sex worker who speaks a mix of Hindi and Bhojpuri, PK absorbs her vocabulary through prolonged physical contact and abandons its own touch-oriented mode of communication. It consequently takes this newfound lingo to its native planet and seemingly dethrones the lexicon of contact by establishing Hindi-Bhojpuri as the master language. This is a significant shift, marking what is implied to be an obvious ascendancy of a ‘natural’ language on an alien territory.
The growing aural ubiquity of Bhojpuri (or Bhojpuri-tinged Hindi) in Bollywood- thanks to films like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)– provides an interesting backdrop to this shift. By exoticizing the Bihari native, otherwise derided and discriminated against in Mumbai and other parts of India, Bhojpuri is appropriated as a trendy deviation from normative Hindi. It is also telling that PK’s Hindi-based tongue comes to denote linguistic domination on its home planet. In many ways, this mirrors the hegemony of the language in the pan-Indian context.
Removed from the purpose of practical communication in the real world, invented languages in speculative fiction are complete only within the scope of the fiction. Kiliki and PK’s touch-based communication system point to the phantom of a larger linguistic order outside of the text which viewers can decipher (and further learn) through discussions on fan-fiction platforms. In each of the cases discussed in this essay, the body emerges as central to the dissemination of language, and thus marks itself political. The hard consonants in Kiliki (as in Dothraki) create a formidable staccato effect that aligns with the image of an all-male tribe of carnivorous warmongers. The people of the Na’vi race speak an unfamiliar tongue, wear dreadlocks and are enacted by predominantly non-white bodies- all of which culminate into a cohesive picture of racialized performance on and off the screen. PK poses a bit of a linguistic puzzle, where the difference in the mode of communication itself marks the alien language deviant in its utter simplicity. PK’s assimilation of the Bhojpuri language also denotes a shift in power, where he replaces his own knowledge system with another.
Language is a significant element in the matrix constitutive of body and ethnicity. Unsurprisingly therefore, its invented counterparts also submit to existing racial tropes. As the body, its kinship with other bodies, and the language it speaks collide with each other, cinema finds an opportunity to conjure a lexicon – whether through deviation or invention- and uses it to create an alternative (yet not too distant) linguistic universe on screen.
*Cover image ‘EEE=MC2’ by Shailesh BR
Najrin Islam is an independent researcher. She is currently also the Programme Officer at the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA), India. She graduated with a Master of Arts degree from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India. A theatre actor and playwright, she takes active interest in Cinema, Theatre and Performance Studies. She presented her most recent research paper on Post-Colonial Mutations in Shakespearean Texts: Questions of Linguistic Specificity and Universality at the International biennale conference, ‘Shakespeare, Traffics, Tropics’ organised by the Asian Shakespeare Association (ASA) at the University of Philippines (UP), Diliman in May, 2018.