“Pay attention, you guttersnipes!” our English teacher in school, who fancied himself Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) from My Fair Lady, used to shout at the top of his voice. Without Google or the will to go through a dictionary for its meaning, we ignorantly mimicked that word behind his back. Then one fine day, he made us watch My Fair Lady. The penny dropped: of course, all of us were Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) in his eyes, who “should be taken out and hung, for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue”. The song ‘Why can’t the English learn to speak?’ could very well have been the soundtrack of his life, as it best conveyed his irritation at anything un-English. A stickler for grammar and a phonetic Nazi, he would have happily sent us to the gallows for the crime of letting what he called ‘mother tongue influence’ seep into our pronunciations.
Watching that movie was a revelation in ways more than one. All the teacher’s jibes made sense as they were derived from this movie. I fell in love with Audrey Hepburn, a bond that only deepened after watching her in Roman Holiday couple of years later. As much as I hated Mr. Higgins in the film, his passion for the English language rubbed off on me (thankfully without the snobbery or condescension). It was also the first time I saw an English movie that had songs in it, very much like our own cinema. “It is a musical, you fool, they do not put mindless songs and dances in every movie like us,” my teacher told me later that day, belittling the entire legacy of film music in our country. A fan of Rafi, Geeta Dutt and the music from the golden age of Hindi cinema, I pictured myself in Eliza’s shoes when she sings ‘Just You Wait Henry Higgins’ in a fit of anger, a song that culminates with her imagining a blindfolded Higgins shot to death by a cavalry. My teacher’s blasphemous remark against Hindi cinema deserved a similar fate in my adolescent head.
Of the screen adaptations of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, I like the 1938 version starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Miller better. But when it comes to musicals, this 1964 adaptation remains close to the heart. The dialogue delivery is unabashedly over the top, but that is what smoothens the transition into the songs without the actors breaking character. The tone of the film is uniform throughout. For example, when Eliza breaks into the song ‘The Rain in Spain’, with Higgins goading her on further, the lines of the songs, which are actual phrases in phonetic exercises (“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”, or “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen”), tie in perfectly with the English lessons.
The funny ones in the soundtrack include Eliza’s good-for-nothing father wishfully singing ‘With a little bit of luck’, which it has lines that are music (pun intended) to a school-goer’s ears (“With a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck, someone else will do the blinkin’ work”). Higgins, wondering about the mystery that is woman, breaks into ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’, a song that was funny in the times it was written but by today’s standards would be considered misogynistic. Higgins is unlikeable for most of the film’s run time and even as he rues Eliza’s departure at the end in ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’, there is more anger and frustration at being spurned than affection or love. You wonder if Higgins can ever love a person the way he loves the English language. Perhaps not. As for me, I took Higgins’s lessons seriously (about language, not women) as I went through Milton and Shakespeare. The side effect is that, even today on pronouncing a word wrong, I hear Higgins’s reprimanding voice in my head, screaming ‘guttersnipe’.