Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Newbie's Guide to Hindi Cinema Vocabulary

(Last edit July 6, 2009)

Okay, part of my "mission" (hahaha, like I have some grand over-arching purpose for this blog other than an exercise in narcissism) for Paisa Vasool is to be friendly to the Bollywood newcomer by explaining everything that people who've been watching Hindi cinema for a while already know.

Bearing that in mind, I've tried to put together this list of commonly used words and phrases either used in or about Bollywood movies. If I've gotten any wrong or left any out (I'm sure I've done one or the other, if not both) would someone more knowledgeable than me please comment with correction so I can edit? (In case you were wondering, "someone more knowledgeable than me" would include--just about everybody.) This way when I use hinglish in my posts I can just provide a link to the vocabulary list.

Aaj: today
Allah: Arabic word for God (used by Muslims who speak Hindi too)
bas: enough (used as an exclamation like the English "that's enough!")
Bengali: from the Bengal region, a great deal of which broke away to form Bangladesh in 1971. In films Bengali people are often depicted as well-cultured. Also used to refer to the language of the region
crore: ten million (or one hundred lakhs)
deewana: crazy, mad
desi: of South Asian descent
dil: heart
dishoom dishoom: the distinctive, traditional Bollywood sound effect for punches that really sounds more like a gunshot than anything else and isn't used much anymore, if at all
ferangi: slightly derogatory term for "foreigner"
Filmfare Awards: arguably the biggest awards ceremony in the Hindi film industry
filmi: of, or regarding, film
friendly appearance: a very brief cameo in a film, usually without any spoken lines, by a highly recognizable actor, usually done without payment
Goan: from the region of Goa, India's smallest state in terms of geography. Goa was once a Portuguese territory, so many Indians from this region have Portuguese surnames and are from Catholic families. Goa is usually portrayed as party central for affluent filmi characters who vacation there; usually also has lots of filmi foreigners since it is in reality a popular tourist destination with a sizeable hippie population
gora (or gaira): another term for "foreign," "other," "different," or "alien," also means pale or fair
Gujarati: from the Indian region of Gujarat; also sometimes affectionately referred to as "Gujju." Filmi Gujarati characters are often portrayed as affluent, with good business sense.
haan or hA.n: yes
hinglish: mixing Hindi and English together, like in the film title "Pyaar Ke Side Effects"
ishq: Arabic word for love used in Hindi, originally used to refer to love of the created for the creator (man's love for God); literally "love without lust"
item number: an often sexy song-and-dance number, usually performed by someone who doesn't appear in the rest of the movie, which sometimes reflects the feelings of the main characters
jAnA: go (imperative)
ji: a polite suffix to someone's name or title, also a polite way to say "yes" or a polite prefix/suffix to hA.n or nahI.n, sort of like "san" in Japanese
jodi: pairing, i.e. an onscreen duo like Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. Usually used to refer to members of the opposite sex paired onscreen but sometimes jokingly used to refer to same-sex pairings (see Sakshay, Shashitabh)
kahA.n: where
kaun: who
kyA: what
kyA huA?: What happened? (sometimes used like the American English "what's up?" or "what's going on?")
kyun or kyon: why
lakh: one hundred thousand (ten to the fifth power)
masala: mixture of many things, originally used to refer to a spice mixture used for cooking but now used to refer to a film that has several different elements such as comedy, love interests, and action-adventure
memsahib or memsaab: "ma'am" or "honored ma'am"
naach: dance
nahI.n: no
NRI: Non-Resident Indian, esp. those living in Westernized countries
paagal: crazy
paisa vasool: I'm actually not sure if this is a noun or adjective phrase; what it supposedly means is "money's worth" and that's how I've usually seen it used
Partition: the separation of Pakistan into a separate country from India in 1947
playback singer: the person who actually sings the song your favorite movie star lip-syncs to onscreen
prem: Sanskrit word for love, or the name of the main guy character in any film by Sooraj R. Barjatya
Punjabi (or Panjabi): from the Punjab region, which is split between India and Pakistan. Most Punjabis live in Pakistan; they are arguably the ethnic group most affected by Partition. Punjabis have a filmi reputation of being hardcore party animals, loud and fun-loving. Also describes the Punjabi language, unusual for the region in which it originated because it is tonal
pyaar: love
pyAra: loved one
Rabba (or, more properly Romanized, R^ibhu): a deity, usually translated "God" in the subtitles
Rajasthani: from the largest Indian state in terms of geography, Rajasthan. Often filmi Rajasthani men are portrayed as cold-hearted tyrants toward the people in their authority.
rupee: Indian currency
sahib or saab: "sir" or "honored sir"
Sakshay: term coined by veracious of So They Dance! to refer to the Akshay Kumar/Saif Ali Khan jodi
Sardar: a term for a male adherent of Sikhism. Often used with "-ji" at the end to denote respect
shaadi (or shAdI): marriage
Shashitabh: the highly celebrated Shashi Kapoor/Amitabh Bachchan jodi, ruler of all things masala (thank you, Post-Punk Cinema Club, for the definition!)
Sikh: an adherent of Sikhism, a minority religion that believes in one God and ten Gurus, and baptism through the tenth Guru. Sikh men usually do not cut their hair, including their beards, and often wear it up in a turban. This is not always the case, however. They also sometimes fill the role of "dumb blonde" in Hindi films, although that is changing as a stereotype
special appearance: a small but important role in a film usually played by a highly recognizable actor
tawaif: courtesan, most often a skilled dancer and singer, like Chandramukhi in Devdas
vamp: the Hindi femme fatale; usually a Westernized, alcohol-drinking, cigarette-smoking temptress; often played by Helen in older movies (thanks again, PPCC)
vivaah: wedding, marriage

So... what (else) did I forget?


  1. Great point about Prem! :-)

    A couple of corrections - today is aaj not aja and though pyaar is love, pyaara is loved one.

  2. Thank you so much! I'll correct those now. :-)

    (And the most confusing thing about MPKDH was wondering which guy was the real hero since they were both named Prem!)

  3. Quick correction: kaun = who

    You might want to include such Hindi staples as:
    1. vamp: the Hindi femme fatale; usually a Westernized, alcohol-drinking, cigarette-smoking temptress; often played by Helen
    2. dil: "heart", a requisite of any good masala movie, usually big and squishy
    3. dishoom dishoom: the sound of Amitabh Bachchan's fist hitting something; often used as to mean "action" in a masala film
    4. Shashitabh: the highly Shashi Kapoor/Amitabh Bachchan jodi, ruler of all things masala

  4. PPCC--thank you, ever so much. I've added and corrected. :-)

  5. Here's a very comprehensive one, for your learning pleasure.

  6. Ooh, thank you, Beth! I'm a huge word nerd so that's awesome.

  7. Thanks for the credit on Sakshay. It came about in a chat with an online friend who's never received credit for it, but then, I'm not sure if she's keen to get co-credited for coming up with it so perhaps it's best I'm the only person associated with it. :P

    Good list! I like how this shows that little by little we start picking up words from watching these movies. I may never have the patience or the time to self-learn Hindi but it's a pleasure to know a little something based on the films I see.

  8. veracious, who wouldn't want to be credited for a term that's gained so much notoriety? ;-)I'm with you in that I might never have the dedication to really learn Hindi but it is fun to have some working knowledge of its basics!

  9. Sabash ajnabi!
    I keep a little Bollywood notebook with a list of the movies I've seen my thoughts on them. There's another section where I write words that I have learned or think I have learned. I think the first word was dil, and the second was pagli! Enjoying your blog and thanks for adding me to your blogroll. You're on mine too! I wrote the tag for yours as, "Bollywood from Ajnabi's western eye."
    All the best,

  10. Goodness, Sita-ji, I'm quite impressed with your organization! I've just recently started keeping a spreadsheet of movies viewed along with stars & my impression of each, but I hadn't thought to include a vocab section. Nice call!

  11. There's many words for love. Have you seen Mohabbatein? Mohabbat also means love.

  12. Thank you thank you thank you! This American newly minted Bolly-fan needed thoses definitions! And...I really love your notes on cultural stereotypes. I just picked up on the Punjabi-as-rough-and-loud-country-bumpkin stereotypes, but I'm in the dark about Gujaratis, and Bengalis and South Indians or Tamils!

    Thanks again!

  13. honeybunny, I've not seen Mohabbetein due to Netflix's stubborn insistence on not buying a new copy, but yes, there are lots of words for love. :-)

    Danielle: I'm still trying to figure out the stereotypes. Like, in South Indian movies, often the villain is depicted as being North Indian and speaking Hindi, whereas, in the few Hindi films I've seen with South Indians, they're often shown as effeminate. But I don't know if they're stereotypes or just coincidentally in the couple of movies I've seen with them, yk? I'm glad it was useful!


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