The Red Carpet Accent

Many celebs find it hard to speak without gushy adjectives and a beautiful dress is never enough to capture the red carpet. Is a “fake” accent then a rescue?

Kiara Advani’s “cringe” accent to a European journalist querying her in English about her participation at the Red Sea Film Foundation event, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s poetic description of a L’Oreal mascara delivered in a skewed version of elitist English accent, are heaving on the comments carousel of Cannes Film Festival 2024.

Every year, on red carpets, from the Oscars to the Met Gala, and at Cannes as well as several other high-wattage events, the world’s most popular stars wave and cheer, express emotions and talk about their work, their parents, mentors and motivators. Some protest and yell. Some tear up. They speak for themselves, their films, their emotional responses to extraordinary opportunities their careers offer them. At the Oscars, hosted in Los Angeles, US, most celebs speak for their home country; their regionality and ethnicity. Proudly so. At the Met Gala in New York, they speak for their sponsors and couturiers. At Cannes, they speak for films they may have made and starred in or the juries they sit on. Accents vary, some intonate from scripts pre-written by managers, others use the “mic moment” to speak their hearts out. What they say, the content and how they say it, opens a door into their identities—as artistes and as human beings.

Not everyone is as well-spoken as Oprah Winfrey or charmingly meaningful as Meryl Streep. Not everyone can coagulate a difficult moment into words like Shah Rukh Khan. Or, be smart and upfront like Jodie Foster.

Yet everyone gives away a piece of their self, when they respond even to the most ordinary questions. When that “self” gets veiled, we must listen to language without emotion, words without personhood, a front where a “fake” accent is called as rescue to hide something.

Accents and Adjectives

The more you listen to Kiara and Aishwarya, and then on the other hand to Alia Bhatt at the recent Met Gala and Deepika Padukone in dozens of her former global red-carpet appearances, you grasp the win and lose game. Nancy Tyagi, India’s newest favourite at Cannes, who spoke without accent as well as in Hindi while answering some questions emphasised her roots as her difference instead of trying to blend in. Whereas Alia and Deepika know either by instinct, articulation or by listening to those who wield power on the red carpet that nobody has time or patience with loose cannon adjectives of the glamour world—amazing, awesome, wonderful, thankful, grateful. They say what they have to, though clearly neither will be invited to a festival to celebrate Shakespeare.

Nancy Tyagi wearing her own creations to the Cannes 2024 red carpet.

Kiara though seems to struggle for words at Cannes—she says ‘special’, ‘wonderful’, ‘humbling’, ‘very special’, ‘very humbling’, ‘diverse’ in a loop. Even when the questions change. She brings little insight, no personal observation beyond boring words from a clotheshorse’s dictionary. Her accent, lost between American and English but one that only an Indian can mix and mess up, sounds “fake” only because the content is so vapid.

On the surface, neither Kiara nor Aishwarya appear comfortable in their ethnicity, their regional status through language. They want to sound like someone else—maybe people they admire, or people they aspire to be. They forget perhaps that revealing one’s roots and community is about warming up to the interviewer and the listener.

In the past, Priyanka Chopra Jonas who arrived one fine evening in Season 3 of a Koffee With Karan episode, wearing an American accent that ran ahead of her well-constructed arguments invited similar off-putting reactions. She smartened up with strategic celebrity behaviour and confessed many years later that her accent changes when the plane lands. Err…if we were innocently wondering why her accent was more American and less Indian in Mumbai, we were only learning the language of success of the desi American multi-hyphenate. She was rewriting a bunch of rules of engagement, that included poking fun at herself.

Content Over Cadence

The A, B, C of accent forensics is an engrossing field of psychological research and practice. Accents help novelists construct charecterisation and personas for storytelling. They help investigative police teams nail down the person they are looking for. “Accent can trigger social categorisation in a prompt, automatic, and occasionally unconscious manner,” Ze Wang of the University of Central Florida told the BBC in a 2018 web article on “received pronunciation” or “Queen’s English”.

Chopra confessed many years later that her accent changes when the plane lands.

Queen’s English is easily identifiable in India, which has never completely buried the ghosts of the colonial past. It remains an accepted way to “appear smart”. A slew of coaching classes teach it formally to large cohorts of students wanting to “go abroad”. Others teach American English if that’s where your student visa is to take you.

The bottom line though from Kiara to Priyanka is that it is content, not just pronunciation that matters.

That plus the revelation that the most expensive couture and most strikingly styled looks (or nightmarish fashion appearances), are seldom enough. Red carpets are also about “mics”. Those who can speak meaningfully if not magically, clearly and with brevity, light up their dresses.

In a 2007 experiment by Katherine Kingzler at Harvard University, babies were made to watch two people speak on a screen, one in a familiar tongue and one in a foreign accent. Then, each on-screen speaker offered the babies a toy before the other did. The babies preferred the toy given by the person who spoke their native language and accent.