In one of the biggest box office hits Ae dil hai mushkil, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan played a girl named ‘Saba’ who was a ‘Shaiyra’ by profession! No ‘Shaiyra’ is not a name. It means a poetesss.
Directior of the movie Karan Johar, took a gentle dig at what he perceives to be a certain demographic’s confusion between a common noun (shayra) and a proper noun (Shyra). It was, also, likely a reference to his friend Aditya Chopra’s latest confection Befikre, which released six weeks after his film. Here, Vaani Kapoor plays a girl called Shyra.
Shraddha Kapoor as Jiah in ‘Rock On 2’.
A couple of weeks before Befikre, in Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi, Alia Bhatt was Kaira. She is a cinematographer, she works in Mumbai, has work prospects in New York. Earlier this year, in Shinde’s partner R. Balki’s film Ki & Ka, Kareena Kapoor Khan was Kia. Shraddha Kapoor plays a singer called Jiah in Rock On 2. In Baaghi, which released earlier in the summer, Shraddha Kapoor was Sia, a film actor who bags leading roles. Alia Bhatt was Tia in last summer’s hit family drama Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921). In her debut film, Student Of The Year, Bhatt was called Shanaya, the posh prom queen of her school. Some years ago, Anushka Sharma was Akira in Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Last year, Sonakshi Sinha was the title character in A.R. Murugadoss’ Akira. She plays a college girl who is capable of taking on a squad of able-bodied men single-handedly (Sinha’s Akira is different from Sharma’s Akira though, she was from small-town Jodhpur and wore salwar-kurtas; indeed, she is distinct from this posh cohort in general).
Kaira, Shyra, Akira, Kia, Tia, Sia. Shanaya. These are Bollywood’s cool new names, broadly classified into the “ya” or “ra” nomenclature. The Poojas, Nishas, Anjalis and Nehas of the 1990s are déclassé. These new names carry an unmistakable aspiration to be global.They are unrooted to place, community or any kind of identity except class. They are almost never longer than three syllables and easy to pronounce. They float on coolness and lightness. An ex-colleague memorably christened them “First-World Yoga Names—FWYN”.
There is a nice reference to names in the Bengali film Maach Mishti & More (2013). Actor Soumitra Chatterjee, a chatty grandfatherly type in the movie, is curious about a young girl at a roadside tea stall. “What’s your name?” he asks.
“Sunny,” she replies.
“Yaa, you have a problem with that?”
“A bit, yes. I’ve never heard of a Bengali name like Sunny in my lifetime.”
I feel a lot like this. What are these names? Who thinks of them? Why are they so baffling? Be honest: Do you know anyone called Shanaya or Shyra who is above the age of 12? That is, anyone from what can be broadly termed the Indian identity. What happened to the Poojas, Anjalis, Nehas, Nishas, and indeed the more old-fashioned Rajjos, Pushpas, Neenas?
One clue is provided by Johar. In a scene in his debut feature Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Farida Jalal asks Johnny Lever where the puja room is. “Puja has not shown up for work today,” he replies.
“What? There’s no aarti (prayers) in the mornings?
“Who is Aarti?” he asks.
Perhaps Johar was implying that this kind of old-fashioned name was already bereft of meaning in his set. That they were just old habits. The girls had to be called something: call them Puja, Nisha, Anjali, et cetera. In his next film, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…, he shortened Pooja to Poo. In Student Of The Year, his heroine was called Shanaya. And in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, a film which can also be read as Johar’s crush on Urdu culture, his heroine is called Alizeh—a name hitherto unheard of in Bollywood and likely to be unfamiliar to most Urdu speakers.
Vaani Kapoor as Shyra in ‘Befikre’.
The FWYN appears, at first, to be wholly meaning-free: Who is to say what Sia means or Kia or Kaira or, before Johar told us, Shyra? But they likely claim a global register of meaning—outside the largely Hindi-Hindu and partially Urdu-Islamic axes of Bollywood nomenclature. In fact, these names are almost completely removed from the old markers of place, religion, community. Who can say where Shyra is from, what Shanaya’s mother tongue is, what kind of food they