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Language and Cinema: Schisms in the Representation of Hyderabad

www.tandfonline.com | September 26, 2021


The city of Hyderabad has had a distinct linguistic and political history. It was a multilingual city with Urdu (and Persian) as the court languages under the Asaf Jahi dynasty until 1948, when it was annexed by the Indian union. While Hyderabad continues to be multilingual with Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil being spoken in the city, its identity has undergone many changes. It became the Telugu capital city with the formation of Andhra Pradesh state in 1956. In 2014, it became the capital of the newly-formed Telangana state and Urdu was added to Telugu as the official language of the state in 2017. This article examines the transforming image of the city as constructed by Urdu, Telugu and Deccani language films from the 1950s to the present. Reading these films for the discourse on the city, it argues that each addressed its own imagined audience, claimed a specific identity for the city and invisiblised all others. The schism of representation reflected in the films is rooted in the city’s historical past and its multiple contested identities.


This article examines the interrelationship between different language cinemas and the city of Hyderabad. Here I draw from the existing understanding of cinema,1 using its vocabulary to think about the city2 and to examine the discourse in which the city of Hyderabad has been imagined by Urdu, Telugu and Deccani language films over a period of five decades. I argue that there is a representational schism in imagining Hyderabad on the screen because each of these languages addresses a very specific audience that is divided along communal lines, and ignores all others. These films lay contesting claims3 on the city, which reflect the linguistic assertions on the city.

For this purpose, I have chosen representative films from different historical periods in the three languages, and I look at how the city is constituted by these films. In terms of method, I take the films as an entry point to unwrap the contestations over language and linguistic publics in Hyderabad. I discuss the films in terms of the discourse about the city in which they have been framed. This method enables me to point to the exclusions and invisibilities in each language film group and hence discuss the differences in the imagined city of each. Through these different language films, I follow the journey of Hyderabad from a princely city ruled by a nizam to the contemporary city. I begin with a brief linguistic history of Hyderabad, which enables me to draw from historical references to read the films.

A brief linguistic history of Hyderabad

The city of Hyderabad was founded in 1591 under the Qutb Shahi dynasty which ruled the Deccan region until 1687. The area was then under Mughal rule for a brief period, after which the Asaf Jahi dynasty was established in 1724, which continued until 1948 when the princely state of Hyderabad was annexed by the Indian union. The Deccan region is home to multiple languages such as Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and Deccani. The Deccani language developed between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries in the Deccan—it is known to be an old form of Hindi and Urdu.4 Deccani was influenced by the other languages of the region, that is, it borrowed some words from Telugu, Kannada and Marathi.5 Deccani was known as the language from the South and it later travelled to the north of India and influenced Khari Boli.6 It also had a significant influence on the development of Hindi and Urdu. However, Deccani declined after the eighteenth century due to the strong focus on Persian as the official language of the Asaf Jahi court. Later Urdu became the official language of the court in 1884. Despite the historical decline of Deccani, the spoken language in the Deccan carries some aspects of the former Deccani language. Unlike in Delhi, where socio-cultural networks were disrupted by British rule, the Deccan, has retained a continuous socio-cultural tradition. After the fall of the Mughal Empire, many poets from the Delhi court moved to the Hyderabad court. Thus, in their ethos, contemporary references to Deccani draw on the long association with the Hyderabadi tradition. By the twentieth century, Deccani had begun to be considered as a dialect of Urdu that had a distinct flavour of the Deccan. Words such as nakkohauamma and kaiku7 were borrowed from other languages and incorporated into Urdu, while Deccani diction marked its distinctiveness.

In the twentieth century, the question of Deccani (now considered a dialect of Urdu) broadly became the question of Urdu in the Hyderabad princely state. Due to the prevalence of Urdu in Hyderabad, the state was thought to be the bridge between North and South India.8 Being the official language, Urdu was also the language of education in the princely state, and many Telugu poets and writers were educated in Urdu. The Urdu question was particularly significant in the context of the two-state theory in pre-Independence India, where Hindi was increasingly being projected as influenced by Sanskrit and hence belonging to India, and Urdu was being framed as the language of Muslims and hence the ‘other’ of the Indian nation. The Hindi-Urdu question had largely been restricted to Uttar Pradesh and the North in scholarly debates,9 but as the division between the Hindu and Muslim communities increased in nationalist politics, the language question came up in the Asaf Jahi state too, a state with a majority Hindu population ruled by a Muslim monarch. The princely state consciously responded to this question with its own two-language policy, promoting both the mother tongues of Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu or any other language spoken in the region and the world language of English for advancement in the modern world. However, at the same time, the state used Urdu to promote social harmony between different communities. The 1941 census of Hyderabad state noted that the distinctions between Hindi, Hindustani and Urdu were artificial because they were in effect the same language adapted by different communities, that is, Hindus infused it with Sanskrit and called it Hindi, Muslims infused it with Persian and Arabic and called it Urdu, and those who did not want either of these associations called it Hindustani.10 As a result, Hyderabad state claimed that Urdu was associated with religious harmony in the Deccan. This claim of social and religious harmony went hand in hand with the Deccani synthesis proposed by scholars such as Haroon Khan Sherwani, Abdul Haq and Abdul Majeed Siddiqui. They argued that the Deccan had been the site for a unique confluence between Hindus and Muslims since the medieval ages.11 Osmania University, established in 1918, became the centre for efforts to fashion a Deccani syncretic synthesis.12 However, all these plans centred on Urdu came to a sudden halt in 1948. The nizam of Hyderabad had not wanted to join either the Indian union or Pakistan, and hence the Indian union conducted a hostile takeover via the police action called Operation Polo. Sectarian violence followed, carried out by the Indian army on Muslims in the rural areas of the state.13 The exact death toll is unknown, but estimates range from tens of thousands to over a hundred thousand.14

After the fall of the Asaf Jahi dynasty in 1948 and the linguistic reorganisation of the state in 1956, Hyderabad city officially became the Telugu-speaking capital city of Andhra Pradesh despite not having an association with the language. The state of Andhra Pradesh was formed after a popular struggle for a linguistic state. The Telugu people had initially demanded Madras (now Chennai) as their capital, but when this was not granted, Hyderabad became the next choice15 even through it was not prominently associated with the Telugu language or culture. The city’s Deccani traditions and Urdu connections were completely ignored by the Andhra Pradesh government. In post-Independence India, Urdu was increasingly ostracised due to its status as the official language of Pakistan. In India, it was associated with the Muslim community and hence marginalised along with the community. In Hyderabad, Urdu, which until then had been used in all official communications and was a medium of education, was replaced by Telugu. After Hyderabad became the Telugu capital city, people migrated from the Telugu-speaking areas of the former Madras Presidency into the city. The Telugu language, which was spoken by a large community of people in the region, forged its own identity with the formation of the state and this identity took over Hyderabad.

While the official prominence of Deccani was gone, it continued to be spoken among the people. It became one of the cultural markers of Telangana, making it distinct from the rest of Andhra Pradesh. In 2014, Andhra Pradesh state was bifurcated to form the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh states. Telangana claimed cultural continuity with the former princely state of Hyderabad. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti, which won the state elections after the formation of Telangana, claimed the syncretic culture and confluence of the Hindu and Muslim religions or Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of the former princely state, a kind of Deccani synthesis. In 2017, Urdu was made into a state language along with Telugu. The Deccani spoken today might not have linguistic continuity with the medieval period, but it does have social continuity and a strong association with the distinctiveness of Hyderabadi culture. It has become a marker of the city. The spoken language inspires a lot of popular culture such as web series, rap songs, television shows and Deccani-language films.

This history locates the three languages I intend to discuss in this paper in the context of Hyderabad city: Deccani as the people’s language distinct to the Deccan with associations of religious harmony; Urdu which has become a marker for the Muslim community in India after Independence; and Telugu which is one of the largest linguistic communities in the city, mostly associated with the Hindu community.16 In the next section, I examine how Hyderabad city is imagined by these three languages.

Reading cinema for the city

The city of Hyderabad has been represented in cinema since the 1930s in Urdu, Telugu, Deccani, Marathi and other languages.17 In this section, I examine the representational history of the city in cinema in Urdu, Telugu and Deccani films from which I selected three specific films set in Hyderabad as entry points to unwrap the linguistic publics to which each language plays. The films were chosen for their explicit historical references, which enables me to illustrate my argument, although the same argument can be made using other films from each language. I see continuity of the imagined city between films of the same language, that is, the cinematic worlds of each language group are in conversation with each other. The choice of films is based on the following criteria: (1) the films are set in Hyderabad; (2) the films are sensitive to history;18 and (3) together, these films help me track the historical trajectory of the city. I read each film with the following questions in mind: (1) what kind of a city does the film construct?; (2) what is the historical discourse in which the film is located?; and (3) what is the imagined audience for the film? Through these questions, I unwrap the linguistic schism in the representation of Hyderabad in cinema.

The Hyderabad of Urdu cinema

Urdu-language films like Hyderabad ki Nazneen (1952), Aasman Mahal (1965), Hero Hiralal (1988), Mandi (1983), Well Done Abba (2009), Bazaar (1982), Bobby Jasoos (2014), Hyderabad Blues (1998), Teen Deewarein (2003) and Daawat-e-Ishq (2014) have their narrative universe set in Hyderabad.19 To pose the above-mentioned questions, the first film I discuss is Aasman Mahal, made in 1965.20 I chose this film because it is the only film set in the period of the city’s transition from princely city to a city in the Indian union.

Aasman Mahal can be broadly placed in the genre of the Muslim social or Islamicate film, which deals with Muslim subjects and their everyday lives.21 The film tells the story of the end of Hyderabad’s patrimonial culture22 and the inability of the elite to accept it. Aasman Mahal, an old nawabi palace, is on the verge of bankruptcy, but Nawab Asman-ud-Daulah does not want to relinquish his status and accept the changing social system. The film ends with the auctioning of Aasman Mahal and the death of Asman-ud-Daulah, marking the passing of an era in the history of Hyderabad. The film constructs two cities, the old princely city and the new post-colonial capitalist city. The princely city exists inside the elite’s mansions and is based on a network of lineage by birth, whereas the post-colonial city exists outside the walls of the palaces and mansions. These two cities stand in opposition in many respects. The opening scene shows an English-speaking real estate agent dressed in a suit arriving at Aasman Mahal with the intension of buying it. However, he is made to dress in a sherwani (long jacket) and a topi (cap) to meet Nawab Asman-ud-Daulah in order to maintain the proper etiquette for meeting a nawab. The agent offers Rs100,000 for the palace. He intends to make it into a hotel, but the nawab refuses, saying: ‘Some things are not for sale, like the sky and the Aasman Mahal’.23 The agent retorts that everything is for sale, but the nawab refuses to part with his palace. The mansion represents the city built on social hierarchies by lineage, while the buyer is the representative of the new city,24 where everything is valued in monetary terms. The film presents the old as decadent and the new as representative of the ‘developmental’ discourse. Raja Shukla, Asman’s friend, part of the princely elite turned industrialist, implores Asman to adopt ‘the developmental path’ to which the nawab responds that he does not see it as development but as rebellion against the existing order. He also argues that the equality which development promises is superficial and just new terminology for a new hierarchy created by capital.

This struggle between the old city and the new city is finally resolved in favour of the new. We see this through the song of a mysterious fakir who is searching for something throughout the film; it is revealed at the end that he is searching for the murderer of his father, who was buried under Aasman Mahal. The character of the fakir is used to point out that the old system was built on brutality. At the end the fakir sings:

How fake is the pride in wealth and power Pride in name, respect and lineage Everyone has to bow down

All the luxuries must end like a performance All the palaces are buried like corpses.25

In the end, the new city consumes the old. The song ushers in the new city where lineage is no longer the currency. Asman-ud-Daulah dies and his palace is sold, and thus the transformation is complete.

Apart from presenting the social transition of the city, the film also brings to the fore the question of the status of Muslims in independent India, particularly in the context of Hyderabad which until then had been ruled by a Muslim elite. The status of Muslims is illustrated in a dialogue between Asman-ud-Daulah and a neighbour who implores him to sell his palace and move to Pakistan. Asman considers such a suggestion a slur on his person:

You said that my blood is impure, you said that I’m a bastard, you said I could sell my mother for some money and a few acres of land. You are suggesting that I leave Hindustan. I can’t leave this Aasman Mahal on peril of its destruction, why would I leave that royal palace which is my country. This Aasman Mahal is just a remembrance of my father but Hindustan is my mother. We have our Taj Mahal, our Ajanta Ellora, Bibi ka Maqbara, the graves of my ancestors, and my childhood friend Shukla. How can I leave Hindustan?26

Asman-ud-Daulah depicts the anguish of many Hyderabadi Muslims after 1948. The desire of Hyderabad state to remain independent in the wake of Partition is often held against the Hyderabadi Muslims and their allegiance to the Indian union has been questioned. The end of the Asaf Jahi rule led to a huge exodus of Muslims out of Hyderabad; some went to Pakistan. This question of the status of Muslims is significant to the Islamicate universe of the film which addresses the subjecthood of Muslims geographically situated in the old city of Hyderabad. We can see the universe of the old city of Hyderabad portrayed in Aasman Mahal carried forward in later Urdu films such as Daawat-e-IshqMandi and Bobby Jasoos. For instance, Bilqis, the protagonist of Bobby Jasoos, lives and breathes the by-lanes of the old city and takes pride in them. In most Urdu-language films, the old city is the life-world of Hyderabad.

The Hyderabad of Telugu cinema

The identity of Hyderabad as a multilingual city with a dominant Urdu culture changed in 1956 when the city became the linguistic capital of Andhra Pradesh. However, the prevailing culture of the city did not change overnight.27 Over several decades, people immigrated to Hyderabad from the Telugu-speaking regions of the former Madras state and the Telugu identity slowly took shape.

How did Telugu films imagine Hyderabad city? The default city for Telugu-language cinema was Madras even up until the 1990s. Though the film industry began moving to Hyderabad from the 1970s, it is only after the 1990s that Hyderabad became significant to the representational universe of Telugu films. The Hyderabad imagined by Aasman Mahal did not exist in the Telugu film universe. There were some films which situated their narrative universe in Hyderabad city as early as the 1970s such as Manasu Mangalyam (1971)28 and Mattilo Manikyam (1971).29 Though major parts of these films were shot in studios and not on location in the city, they marked the city as the site of the narrative by using a montage of the city or a song dedicated to the city.30 Here I focus on Manasu Mangalyam because the film alludes to a specific historical time in Hyderabad, the last years of nizam rule (1940s). Manasu Mangalyam is a social film,31 a family drama. The plot of the film is irrelevant here, so I only discuss those aspects of the film that are connected to the city of Hyderabad. Ravi, the protagonist of Manasu Mangalyam, is very poor and does not show any zest for life. It is later revealed that Ravi was a part of the Telangana movement fighting against the landlords and the Razakars.32 His mother was killed in the violence and he was separated from his brother and sister. He also spent considerable time in jail, and it is said that because of these tragedies, he lost his enthusiasm for life. Through these specific references I draw attention to the Razakars and the Telangana movement. The Hyderabad state under Asaf Jahi rule had many smaller samsthans run by Hindu landlords33 using the feudal practice of bonded labour. The peasants rebelled against the feudal landlords in the Telangana armed rebellion, which took place between 1946 and 1951.34 Towards the end of nizam rule, an armed militia called the Razakars was formed, which fought to retain Asaf Jahi rule.35 This militia was active outside Hyderabad city in the rural areas and aided the feudal landlords. The Razakars fought briefly against the Indian military forces too but were no match for them.

Asaf Jahi rule, the activities of the Razakars and the police action by the Indian union are contentious events in the history of Hyderabad state and are viewed from varying ideological perspectives. Nationalist historians present the annexation of the Hyderabad princely state as a liberation. They give a communal colour to the activities of the Razakars, that is, they are presented solely as perpetrating Muslim violence on the Hindu population, overlooking the fact that the Razakars had quite a number of Hindu members.36 Nationalist historians also ignored the fact that bonded labour was practised by Hindu feudal lords, not just by the nizam, and that the Telangana rebellion was against the entire feudal system.37 However, later historians have re-evaluated these events based on the Sundarlal Committee Report which exposed the violence against Muslims by the Indian army in 1948. Historians such as Omar Khalidi and A.G. Noorani have argued that the activities of the Razakars occurred mostly in the Marathwada region where the Hindu Mahasabha organisation was very active and keenly promoted a communal agenda, and that Razakar atrocities were over-reported whereas the violent activities of Hindu Mahasabha members were under-reported.38 These events have contemporary political and social significance. The date of the occupation of Hyderabad by Indian forces, 17 September 1948, remains controversial even today. The Right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh–Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS–BJP) alliance calls it a liberation day in order to propagate their communal agenda;39 this also serves to spread the idea that the people of Hyderabad wanted to join the Indian union. In the wake of the Telangana movement, the Telangana History Society released a book reassessing this claim and several scholars have argued that 17 September should not be seen as a day of liberation because the event is much more complex.40

However, apart from these historic references, Manasu Mangalyam does not have anything to do with the city of Hyderabad. The city which this film presents is already a Telugu city with painful memories of the past. In the background to the film, the memories of Asaf Jahi rule are of atrocities committed against the Hindu population by the Muslim Razakars. The protagonist is a Hindu who was active in the Telangana movement, while the only Muslims the film portrays are the ‘barbarous’ Razakars.

The representation of Hyderabad became significant to Telugu cinema after the late 1990s. Films by director Sekhar Kammula like Anand (2004), Happy Days (2007), Anamika (2014) and other films such as Anukokunda Oka Roju (2005) and Pelli Choopulu (2016) placed their diegetic universe in Hyderabad. Unlike the usual Telugu family dramas which situate their narrative world in an idyllic coastal Andhra (or Rayalaseema) village,41 these are urban films which describe the world of students and white-collar workers. For them, Hyderabad city is a city of cafes and restaurants, geographically focused around Banjara Hills, Jubilee Hills or HITEC City, which are areas of new economic activity for the information technology, media and entertainment, and financial sectors. These Telugu films embrace the capitalist city in which the Muslim is an outsider, and the (usually) Hindu main characters do not normally inhabit the old city. The old city is employed to provoke fear and/or mystery,42 or to present the Charminar only as a tourist attraction. For example, Anamika, which is a remake of the Hindi film Kahaani (2012), uses the old city and its lanes to produce fear. The old city, inhabited by Muslims, is presented as a mysterious, unpredictable, precarious, uncertain, unsafe space. Such films present a Hyderabad in which most characters speak standard Telugu rather than the Telangana dialect or Hyderabadi Urdu. As a result, Muslim subjecthood is invisiblised or communalised. By contrast, other Telugu films such as Azad (2000),43 Khadgam (2002)44 and Vedam (2010)45 have Muslim characters, but they are asked to prove their Indian patriotism. They are often represented in the trope of good Muslim–bad Muslim, where the good Muslim sacrifices themselves for the nation. This representational universe of Telugu cinema underwent a change with the formation of the Telangana state in 2014, which I discuss later in the paper.

The Hyderabad of Deccani cinema

Between the Urdu films and the Telugu films we have the diegetic universe of the Deccani films in which the characters speak the distinct Hyderabadi dialect of Urdu and locate themselves in the cultural milieu of the city. These films are produced in the city itself rather than within the Telugu film industry. They were at peak popularity in the first decade of the 2000s. Films such as The Angrez (2005), Hyderabad Nawabs (2006), Hungama in Dubai (2007) and Hyderabad Nawabs 2 (2019) are Deccani films, and they were made after the success of Hyderabad Blues (1998), drawing on its popularity. Hyderabad Blues was the first multilingual film (in Deccani, Telugu and English) set in the cultural context of Hyderabad. I have argued elsewhere that the Deccani films reference Hyderabad’s syncretic culture based in the Deccani language.46 Geographically, they pit the old city against HITEC City to generate humour. For example, The Angrez presents conflict between two non-resident Indians (one of them Telugu) working in HITEC City and a gang that resides in the old city.47 The gang lives around the Irani cafes of Hyderabad, speaking Deccani, eating local food and using Hyderabadi idioms. Geographic locations are used to represent temporal differences; the old city is represented as idiosyncratically operating in an older time whereas HITEC City works in global time, so that the sense of time for the old city inhabitants is presented as relaxed. We see them idling away their time and not trying to enter the world of new opportunities, whereas those in HITEC City are constantly pressed for time and experience the world in an accelerated fashion in pursuit of their global dreams. The difference in time of these two geographical areas also represents differential access to capital and the capitalist city, while the old city remains outside this. These films use satire to bring out these oppositions in the city. They tap into the nostalgia for the city existing among the non-resident Hyderabadi population, that is, nostalgia amongst those inhabiting global time for the older time, nostalgia in the capitalist city for the old city. The directors of these films are also non-resident Hyderabadis or people who have spent significant amounts of time abroad. Deccani cinema has initiated a trend for a lot of digital content in Deccani such as Deccani rap (or Death rap) and the television show, Deccani Khabrein.

These Deccani films address a gap in representation that appeared between Telugu cinema and Urdu cinema, that is, Urdu cinema geographically set in the old city and Telugu cinema geographically set in the new city.48 While Telugu and Urdu could not breach the geographical boundary, Deccani films could inhabit both geographies. They present the geographical division between communities, the implicit association of Urdu and Muslims with the old city and Telugu and Hindus with the new city. Through the use of the Deccani language, which draws on both Urdu and Telugu, these films are able to inhabit both geographies. They challenge singular ideas of the city as solely a backward old city or a global high-tech city. In several ways, the city of the Urdu films and the city of the Telugu films interact with each other in the site of the Deccani films.

The Hyderabad of the cinema of Telangana state

The representation of Hyderabad in Telugu films saw a shift after the formation of Telangana state in 2014. The state had the same politico-geography (except for the Marathwada and Hyderabad-Karnataka regions) as the former princely state. It was formed based on the failure of historic promises made during the formation of Andhra Pradesh and the distinctive culture of the region.49 Drawing on nizam rule, it made claim to the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb,50 a popular term used to represent the convergence of Hindu and Muslim communities, a kind of Deccani cultural and religious synthesis. Telangana state came into being with the promise of addressing the lower-caste and Muslim electorate which had been neglected by the Andhra Pradesh state. Telangana announced that Urdu would be its second official language along with Telugu in 2017,51 and it has allocated funds for the promotion of the Urdu language. Giving Urdu the status of an official language meant the government was acknowledging the state’s significant Muslim population, and that statehood was not based on a single language.

During the struggle for a separate linguistic state, the question of the representation of Telangana culture in Telugu cinema came up. Protesters claimed that the majority of the film industry personnel were migrants from the coastal Andhra region and that they mocked both Telangana language and culture via Telugu cinema.52 After the formation of Telangana, however, Telugu films started attempting to represent Telangana and Hyderabad on screen without stripping the region of local reference points. Shekhar Kammula’s Fida (2017) was one of the early efforts to use the Telangana dialect in a commercial film, but the film was set in a village and in the USA, so it did not particularly represent Hyderabad. Falaknuma Das (2019),53 a Telugu remake of the critically acclaimed Angamaly Diaries (2017, Malayalam), was unique in setting a commercial film in a particular locality of Hyderabad city and building the narrative around the city’s neighbourhood cultures. I discuss this film in detail to elaborate how the city is constituted in post-Telangana Telugu films.

Falaknuma Das is the story of Das and his friends who live in the Falaknuma neighbourhood in the old city in Hyderabad. The film is about the life-world of Falaknuma’s inhabitants,54 and shows how Das (a Hindu) and his friends (both Hindu and Muslim) set up a butchery in the old city. It ends with Das marrying his childhood friend Zoya (a Muslim). The film focuses a great deal on developing individual characters in order to reflect the perceived culture of the old city. It is one of the very few Telugu films which are set in a specific part of the city;55 most Telugu films are set in an idyllic, if generic, coastal Andhra village which is not specifically marked.56 Falaknuma Das starts with the titles overlying a montage of both Hindu and Muslim signature images of Hyderabad such as the Charminar, the Buddha statue in the middle of Hussain Sagar, Golconda, the sheep market during Bakrid, the making of Ganesh idols, the Ganesh procession, the Bonalu procession, the silver workshops, lac bangles, naan and Ram ki Bandi dosa. The city is constituted as a place of festivities and processions, a space of constant commotion, and a space for celebrations. The monumental and cultural markers become a way to locate the narrative in the old city of Hyderabad. Throughout the film, several identifiable places such as Mahboobia school, the Shadab Hotel, Osmania Arts College, the High Court and City College are used as backdrops for various scenes. The use of familiar spaces serves to evoke a sense of belonging among the audience. The Telangana dialect, comprising Telugu and Deccani Urdu, is used as another significant marker to situate the narrative. The film runs against the backdrop of the Bonalu festival, an important non-Brahman festival in the Telangana region. Since the formation of Telangana state, this festival has become so prominent as a cultural marker of the state that it has been declared a state festival.57 The characters in Falaknuma Das express their belonging to Falaknuma at multiple instances in the film; they want to spend their lives in Falaknuma rather than leave for a better life abroad. The film is also very unusual in representing Muslim subjecthood outside the purely communal context, that is, Muslims are not looked at only in the context of the nation and are not asked to prove their allegiance. The protagonist Das has several friends who are Muslims and the group all express their belongingness to Falaknuma. Das finally marries Zoya, a Muslim, who was his childhood friend, and we see Das and Zoya praying at a dargah (Sufi shrine). The Muslim-ness of Zoya is not an issue in the diegetic universe of this film.

Falaknuma Das brings together non-Brahmanical and Muslim subjecthood in Telugu cinema, and it breaks Telugu cinema’s geographical barrier of not setting narratives in the old city. Rather than drawing on Telugu films, in many ways, this particular film draws its universe from Deccani films and the syncretic traditions of Deccani identity.

The schism in the representation of Hyderabad

In the above sections, I have investigated the linguistic history of Hyderabad and how the three language films chosen represent the same city of Hyderabad in very distinct ways. There is a representational division of labour between the three languages which I term the representational schism of Hyderabad on screen, a schism that is present geographically and culturally.

Most Telugu film narratives are not located in the old city, which is used as a trope for historic relics or as a negative space inhabited by villains. The subjecthood of Muslims is rarely represented in Telugu cinema except to question Muslim allegiance to the Indian nation. The old city and the Muslims are the unspoken ‘other’ in the all-Hindu universe of Telugu cinema. For example, the suspicion of Muslims portrayed in Manasu Mangalyam continued in Telugu films until recently. Geographically, Telugu cinema after the 1990s situated itself in HITEC City, thereby claiming the discourse about development and the global city. These areas are inhabited by migrants to the city from other Telugu-speaking regions who settled there from the 1960s. Telugu films do not embrace the historical identity of a Hyderabad dominated by Urdu culture. The imagined public for Telugu films is Hindu and the films lay claim to the city on behalf of this public.

The Urdu language in Hyderabad is associated with the old city (even though it is spoken everywhere) due to the high concentration of Muslims living in the area. Most Urdu films set in Hyderabad are geographically located in the old city and speak from the perspective of the people inhabiting that part of the city, and they present Muslim subjectivity prominently. Films such as Well Done AbbaDaawat-e-IshqMandi and Bobby Jasoos are set in an Islamicate universe. Hyderabad is known for its distinctiveness as a southern city which could speak Urdu in South India. This picture is carried forward in the filmic representations of Hyderabad in Urdu films and is expressed through variants of the Muslim social genre. Interestingly, while significantly representing Muslim subjectivity, Urdu films do not present the Hindu as the ‘other’ unlike Telugu films. The Urdu films’ claim over the city is not exclusive.

Deccani films can be thought of as the bridge between the two because they break the geographical boundaries set by Urdu and Telugu films. Deccani films claim both Urdu culture and the new global identity. Deccani films construct their city not as an Islamicate or a Hindu universe, but as an urban universe where both communities can engage with each other. They lay claim to the Deccani identity of the city.

After the formation of Telangana state, the Urdu language was reclaimed as an official state language. Thus, Telugu is no longer the sole representative language of the state. Through films like Falaknuma Das, the formerly upper-caste Hindu culture of Telugu cinema has incorporated new subjecthoods representing Telangana.


The author acknowledges the comments of anonymous South Asia reviewers and the editor, Kama Maclean, for their valuable feedback.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


1. Ranjani Mazumdar has argued that cinema is an archive of the city. She studies the urban types constructed by Bombay (now Mumbai) cinema and situates them in the history of the city. I draw from her argument and read cinema as a repertoire of symbols of the city, although my interest lies in how different groups lay claim to the city through cinema: Ranjani Mazumdar, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
2. Sudipta Kaviraj, ‘Reading a Song of the City: Images of the City in Literature and Films’, in Preben Kaarsholm (ed.), City Flicks: Indian Cinema and the Urban Experience (New Delhi: Seagull, 2004), pp. 60–82.
3. S.V. Srinivas has argued that cinema is a site of expression for contesting claims on the city by different interest groups. I draw from this argument in tracing the claims on the city of Hyderabad: S.V. Srinivas, ‘Cardboard Monuments: City, Language and “Nation” in Contemporary Telugu Cinema’, in Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, Vol. 29, no. 1 (2008), pp. 87–100.
4. Panchal Parmanand, ‘Traditional Indian Forms of Deccani Poetry’, in Indian Literature, Vol. 53, no. 5 (2009), pp. 211–9. The poet Quli Qutb Shah is known to have composed poems in Deccani.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Nakko means no, hau means yes, amma means mother and is also used as an exclamation, and kaiku means why.
8. V.B. Raju, ‘Andhra Pradesh: Prospect and Retrospect’, in Socialist, Vol. 8 (1974), p. 76.
9. R. Ahmad, ‘Hindi Is Perfect, Urdu Is Messy: The Discourse of Delegitimation of Urdu in India’, in Alexandra Jaffe et al. (eds), Orthography as Social Action: Scripts, Spelling, Identity and Power (Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2012), pp. 103–34.
10. Census of Hyderabad State (1941), Telangana State Archives, p. 251.
11. Karen Leonard, ‘The Deccani Synthesis in Old Hyderabad: An Historiographic Essay’, in Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, Vol. 21, no. 4 (1973), pp. 205–18 [205].
12. Osmania University was a one of a kind university in that its medium of instruction was Urdu. Even engineers and doctors studied in Urdu. Kavita Datla writes that the work at Osmania University was intended to develop a vernacular language of science as a challenge to English: Kavita Datla, The Language of Secular IslamUrdu Nationalism and Colonial India (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2013).
13. Abdul Gafoor Abdul Majeed Noorani, The Destruction of Hyderabad (London: Hurst, 2014).
14. Ibid.
15. A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Chennai Not Madras: Perspectives on the City (Delhi: Marg Publications, 2006).
16. The non-Hindu subject has mostly been absent from the Telugu language. Very few Muslim voices are acknowledged in Telugu literature. Writers like Sky Baba present the unique Telugu Muslim voice which has been largely absent from literature and popular culture.
17. The Destruction of Hyderabad filmed the floods of 1908 in the city. It was exhibited in the UK. Firoze Rangoonwala’s filmography lists 11 films made in Hyderabad during the 1920s–1930s: Firoze Rangoonwala, Indian Filmography: Silent and Hindi Films (1897–1969) (Bombay: Udeshi, 1970). Newspaper reports state that a film titled A Prince of People was shot against the backdrop of the Charminar in 1930: The Times of India (10 Jan. 1930), p. 12. While the political debate about Hindi vs. Urdu rages from time to time, Bombay cinema has fostered the Urdu language without attempting to categorise it. Tariq Rahman writes of Hindi and Urdu as a continuum and argues that Bollywood uses this continuum to address a larger audience. Drawing from him, I refer to Bombay films as Urdu films in this paper. All the Bombay films discussed in this paper are some variant of Islamicate films: Tariq Rahman, From Hindi to UrduA Social and Political History (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2011).
18. There may be many films set in Hyderabad in which the city is only incidental to the plot because the narrative is not situated historically in the city; I have not considered these films for my analysis.
19. Films like Ankur (1974) and Nishant (1975) by Shyam Benegal are set in the region but are not specifically concerned with Hyderabad.
20. Aasman Mahal (dir. and prod. K.A. Abbas, Naya Sansar, 1965).
21. Kesavan writes that Muslim social or Islamicate films are not directly related to religion and religious beliefs, but ‘to [a] social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among the Muslims themselves and even when found among the non-Muslims’: Mukul Kesavan, ‘Urdu, Awadh and the Tawaif: The Islamicate Roots of Hindi Cinema’, in Zoya Hasan (ed.), Forging IdentitiesGender, Communities and the State (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1994), p. 244–257. [246].
22. Eric Beverley defines patrimonialism as authority premised on the relationship between the ruler and the ruled with expectations of voluntary compliance by the ruled and accountability by the rulers. When I use the term patrimonial culture, it is a culture dominated by personal relationships based on family and lineage: Eric Beverley, Hyderabad, British India, and the World: Muslim Networks and Minor Sovereignty, c. 1850–1950 (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
23. Aasman Mahal, all translations are by the author.
24. Geographically, Hyderabad has two new cities, one built across the Musi river which was set up in the twentieth century, the other is HITEC City set up towards the end of the twentieth century. In Aasman Mahal, the reference is to the first new city.
25. Aasman Mahal.
26. Ibid.
27. S.V. Srinivas writes that though the Telugu film industry settled in the city of Hyderabad between the 1960s and 1980s, the city cannot be easily claimed as a Telugu city. He has pointed to the slippages between the linguistic film industry located in the city and the linguistic identity of the city: Srinivas, ‘Cardboard Monuments’, pp. 87–100.
28. Manasu Mangalyam (dir. K. Pratyagatma, prod. Koganti Kutumba Rao, Uttama Chitra, 1971).
29. Mattilo Manikyam (dir. B.V. Satyam, prod. Chalam, Sri Ramana Chitra, 1971).
30. Mattilo Manikyam used a song about Hyderabad titled ‘Rim jhim rim jhim Hyderabad’, while Manasu Mangalyam used a montage of the city.
31. Social has been described as an all-encompassing genre of Indian cinema: M. Madhava Prasad, ‘Genre Mixing as Creative Fabrication’, in BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies, Vol. 2, no. 1 (2011), pp. 69–81. Rachel Dwyer writes that there is ‘no genre called Hindu social as Hindu practices and beliefs are the norm in Hindi cinema’: Rachel Dwyer, Filming the GodsReligion and Indian Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 94.
32. The Telangana movement was an armed peasant rebellion against the landlords and the nizam (the biggest landlord) which took place between 1946 and 1951.
33. Samsthans were smaller kingdoms presided over by Hindu rulers: Benjamin B. Cohen, Kingship and Colonialism in India’s Deccan1850–1948 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
34. Shyam Benegal’s Nishant and Ankur are set in rural Telangana against the backdrop of the Telangana rebellion. They present the oppressive relationship between the landlords and the peasants and portray Hindu landlords tormenting Hindu peasants. Gautam Ghosh’s Maa Bhoomi also chronicles the Telangana rebellion both in rural and urban areas.
35. The Razakars were an unofficial private militia headed by Kasim Razvi.
36. Noorani, The Destruction of Hyderabad.
37. Ibid.
38. Omar Khalidi (ed.), HyderabadAfter the Fall (New Delhi: South Asia Books, 1988); and Noorani, The Destruction of Hyderabad.
39. ‘BJP Demands Government Celebrate Telangana Liberation Day on Sept. 17’, The Hindu (29 Aug. 2019) [https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/bjp-demands-government-celebrate-telangana-liberation-day-on-sept-17/article29282616.ece
, accessed 3 April 2020].
40. Scholars such as A.G. Noorani, Divi Srinivas and Sangisetty Srinivas contributed to 17 September 1948, Bhinna Drukkonalu (Hyderabad: Telangana History Society, 2008).
41. Madhava Prasad, ‘Realism and Fantasy in Representations of Metropolitan Life in Indian Cinema’, in Preben Kaarsholm (ed.), City Flicks: Indian Cinema and the Urban Experience (New Delhi: Seagull, 2004), pp. 83–99.
42. S.V. Srinivas writes that the Telugu films produced in Hyderabad have often presented the old city as a space for criminals; people who spoke the non-standard dialects of Telugu were represented as examples of ‘subalternity and/or villainy’. The basti (neighbourhood) of Hyderabad was presented as a ‘metonym of everything that was quaint and dangerous about Hyderabad’: Srinivas, ‘Cardboard Monuments’, pp. 87–100.
43. In Azad, the vigilante hero saves the nation from Islamic terrorists.
44. In Khadgam, there is a character who is a good Muslim and an Indian patriot and his brother who is a terrorist. The good Muslim eventually kills the bad Muslim.
45. In Vedam, a good Muslim is falsely accused of terrorist links, but his nephew (a bad Muslim) is the actual terrorist.
46. C. Yamini Krishna, ‘The Neo-Liberal City and Cinema: Deccani Films’, in South Asian Popular Culture, Vol. 17, no. 2 (2019), pp. 185–96.
47. The Angrez (dir. Kuntaa Nikhil, prod. M. Sridhar Rao, SDC, 2005).
48. Here, by new city, I mean HITEC City.
49. When the Andhra Pradesh state was formed in 1956, certain guarantees were given to the Telangana region to ensure that it would not be dominated by the Andhra people. There was a demand for a separate Telangana state in the 1970s which was put down by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. The demand for a separate Telangana arose again in the new millennium.
50. ‘KCR Vows to Get Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb Back’, The Hindu (13 July 2015) [https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/telangana/kcr-vows-to-get-ganga-jamuni-tehzeeb-back/article7416305.ece
, accessed 3 April 2020].
51. ‘Urdu Is Second Official Language Now’, The Hindu (17 Nov. 2017) [https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/urdu-is-second-official-language-now/article20493655.ece
, accessed 3 April 2020].
52. Sathya Prakash Elavarthi and Vamshi Vemireddy, ‘Telangana and Language Politics of Telugu Cinema’, Anveshi (20 Jan. 2015) [http://www.anveshi.org.in/telangana-and-language-politics-of-telugu-cinema/
, accessed 3 April 2020].
53. Falaknuma Das (dir. Vishwak Sen, prod. Karate Raju, Vanmaye Productions, 2019).
54. The film is built as a very masculine universe and women do not have significant roles, but in this paper, I limit the discussion to examining how Hyderabad is imagined in the film.
55. There are a few other films such as Eeshwar (2002) set in Dhoolpet.
56. Prasad, ‘Realism and Fantasy in Representations of Metropolitan Life in Indian Cinema’.
57. ‘Bonalu, Bathukamma Declared State Festivals’, The Times of India (17 June 2014) [https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/Bonalu-Bathukamma-declared-state-festivals/articleshow/36677768.cms
, accessed 3 April 2020].

-C. Yamini Krishna, Assistant Professor - Communication Studies

(Source: https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/FQTNTKBYXJZ6RSSUSCPU/full?target=10.1080/00856401.2021.1975209)