Of Mehmood, Angrezi and Immigrants

“Mei, Mehmood” succinctly explores the workings of this language capital and how the social prestige attached to it continues to plague the psyche of people

WHEN Mehmood finds himself with a basket full of rejections while his English-speaking counterpart bags profitable targets – the third-world audience can easily catch the central argument of Pratya Saha’s short movie, “Mein, Mehmood”. Indeed, English still remains a language of power in the post-colonial world. This is explored by Saha through the story of a middle-aged Indian immigrant working in Dubai.

Dubai is the new age’s “happy” getaway. It has taken over the might of the American skyscrapers and become luxury’s first home. This is perhaps why it is inviting many for merry and work. Even as the picture-perfect poster of this place sits symmetrically, it is interspersed with an unfamiliar crowd that often puts the colours into question.

This modern-day idyll is questioned in Saha’s movie which unpacks the struggles of South Asian immigrants, one shot at a time. Saha’s Dubai isn’t warm and welcoming as it is in popular advertiser’s imagery. The tall skyscrapers aren’t promising. They bring out the sublime irony of Saha’s protagonist, Mehmood’s helplessness.

Mehmood, who works as a tele-caller in a tourism company, is seen juggling life amidst the pandemic. He is seen repeating monotony to achieve sales targets to earn money and send it to his family back in India. Mehmood’s difficulty is primarily shown to be his inability to speak in English, even as his clientele is mostly Hindi/Urdu speaking. This is a crucial point in understanding the commentary on English that the story is trying to make.

Unlike South Asian immigrants in the US, where language barrier becomes a hindering factor, in Saha’s movie English is dominantly attached to prestige. This makes the movie a strong postcolonial work which investigates the persisting and ever continuing colonial hangover of the language for South Asians.

Besides being the coloniser’s language and enjoying power as a residue of the imperial legacy globally, English had been framed as a superior language by British colonisers. Additionally, when English was privileged as a medium of education in British India, a select group of elites were able to avail it. Moreover, English education also created a section of elite Babus, a class of fluent English-speaking people. This educated elite went on to become the future leaders of India and it is this first generation that also enjoyed most positions of power after independence from foreign rule.

In the Post-Colonial context, however, English continued to remain the language of power and of the “powerful”. As such, it carried with it not only a connotation of social capital but also potentials of economic mobility. Perhaps this explains the many English language coaching institutes that have sprung up across the subcontinent.

“Mei, Mehmood” succinctly explores the workings of this language capital and how the social prestige attached to it continues to plague the psyche of people. That Mehmood fails to meet his monthly targets while his colleague finishes well in time, even as they had Hindi/Urdu speaking clientele, goes on to show the double standards that dictate our lives.

The movie brilliantly shows the interlinks between power, education, prestige and social capital. It is not just a lack of English education that creates hurdles in the way of Mehmood but also the element of prestige that he couldn’t flaunt to his potential customers. It also explores the internalised colonial hangover that is not residual but quite unabashedly operational within our communities. To have a South Asian immigrant face problems at the hands of those who share the same ethnicity is a telling comment on the uncritical “progress” of people.

It is this class of Brown Sahib’s that Macaulay, the orientalist who had advocated English had set out to achieve. It is a pity that even after having access to education, people still thrive in the Babu complex and judge their own.

In addition to a telling comment on the irrational power attached to English, the movie shows the everyday struggles of an immigrant. This is done in simple yet impactful scenes. It throws open a Pandora’s box of issues that immigrants have to face. Not only do they struggle far from their roots but find themselves uprooted in more than one way. Identity, marriage, family and life – an immigrant risks all. The displacement affects every aspect of their life as they’re left chasing after the promises of green pastures.

The movie is also a critique of the industries of luxury that have been built around the world which often seem out of tune with the reality of the times. This is shown impactfully in the exchange between two victims of fate. Mehmood is seen putting on his corporate pants to make ends meet as he tries to sell vacation tickets to a man who has just lost his wife during the pandemic. This exposes the insensitive irony that has governed our lives in the past two years, in which, some were seen trying out experimental recipes to pass their day and others were seen being evicted or facing loss of loved ones.

From fake smiles to sombre days, “Mein, Mehmood” shows all in only 11 minutes.

The movie’s success in saying a lot in less is to be credited to the lead actor Ozair Abdul Aleem, who lends to the role a depth that goes beyond expressions. Together with Prateek Saha’s story and direction, the story stands as important and relevant as ever.

While struggling immigrants find quite a space in the aware critiques of the “American dream”, how many have ventured to deflate the bubble of the “green pasture” possibilities in places like Dubai? This enterprise throws open new questions to understand the status of the post-colonial world in new contexts.

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Tooba Towfiq

Tooba Towfiq is the Opinion Editor at Kashmir Observer. She tweets at tooba_tweets

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