Se-samee, See-same and M.G.R

Ringa Ringa Roses
Pocket Full of Poses
Asshhaa Busshhaa
All Fall Down.

If you were able to relate to this nursery rhyme, at what point in your life did you find out that you may have been singing it completely wrong?

Me? In my late 20s.

And The Hindu is still going around correcting Indians as a showcase of ‘English’ learning!

Now, if you were to think about how you first got to learn the so-called wrong way to sing that nursery rhyme, you may assume that you heard it from someone when you were young and then remembered it for life (till someone corrected you). Where did they hear it from? Someone else. And it gets passed on, till the chain is broken and someone passes the so-called right way.

This is like the Chinese Whispers game where the message gets distorted by being passed around in a whisper – it becomes a bit different with each pass.

A basic lesson in effective communications is to clearly articulate your thought so that you reduce the kinds and amount of distortion it may result in when people read it and pass it on. This is particularly topical in the world we live in now, full of fake news, misinformation, and disinformation.

Let me use the same test for another, more entertaining example.

How do you pronounce “Sesame”? (Til, in Hindi – or, eLLu, in Tamil)

Till my mid-20s, I have pronounced it as “See same”.

Then I stumble upon the TV show ‘Sesame Street’ where I hear people uttering it as “Se sa mee Street” and my whole life felt like a lie. My mom still pronounces it as “See-same”.

And then I realized that at least in the case of Tamil Nadu, one of the reasons why many people pronounce it as See-same could be because of M.G.Ramachandran aka MGR!

Why?

Because, he starred in a 1956 Tamil version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves (Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum), which was massively successful, and he said, in that film, “Andaa Ka Kasam, Abu Ka Hukum, Thirandhidu See-same”!!

Now, he wasn’t referring to the see-same in any cooking or kitchen sense – he was merely parroting what was given to him as dialogs in the movie. And there was no specific context to sesame in the film either. But “see-same” stuck on, somehow, beyond a fantasy film, to a LOT of people in Tamil Nadu using that pronunciation!

Just search for “seesame” and ‘tamil nadu’ and you’d realize how very common this pronunciation is!

Was MGR the super-spreader of this pronunciation, passed from generations? I don’t know but looks highly likely given that movie’s popularity back in the 50s and 60s. But even with MGR, the film’s dialog writer/dialog coach would have taught him how to read the dialog… which he may have coined after reading the original dialog. The key here is ‘after reading the original dialog’, and not ‘hearing’ it. If he (or she) had heard it, they may realize that it is pronounced se-samee and may have taught MGR too that pronunciation.

The phrase supposedly appears for the first time in Antoine Galland’s french book Les Mille et une nuits (1704–1717), based on One Thousand and One Nights, popularly known as Arabian Nights, as ‘Sésame, ouvre-toi’ (meaning, sesame – open yourself)

Why sesame, of all things? The use of sesame in a code phrase to open a magical cave is not entirely clear. Some theories say that since sesame seeds grow in a seed pod that splits open, the phrase probably indicates the opening of treasures where the cave is the pod. It is however not certain if the word “sesame” in the phrase actually refers to the sesame plant or seed.

Other theories include sesame being the Hebrew šem ‘name’, meaning God/name of heaven.

But this line of thought took me in another interesting direction. Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves is a story from Arabian Nights and it has been made as a film many times, in many countries, in many languages.

How was the ‘sesame’ word pronounced in all those countries/language versions?

Here’s a fascinating snapshot based on what I could gather from some of the films that are available on YouTube!

Let me start with our neighbors from Andhra Pradesh!

The 1970 Telugu film, Ali Baba 40 Dongalu, starred NT Rama Rao and Jayalalita! NTR says, in the film, “Khuda Ka Kasam, Hassan Ka Hukum, Khulo Sey-same”!

Another neighbor – Kerala! Prem Nazir stars as Ali Baba, in the 1975 film, Alibabayum 41 Kallanmaarum. He says, “Allah Ki Kasam, Abu Ka Hukum, Thurakkum See-same”!

Going up North, the story was made into Bengali, probably the first version in India, in 1937. The script was an adaptation of Kshirodprasad Bidyabinod’s play that was itself based on the original Arabian Nights story. The film stars Sadhana Bose and Madhu Bose. The phrase used in this film is “Chiching Fak“. This is the (like the early Hindi equivalents – see below) Indian equivalent of Open Sesame that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with ‘sesame’, as far as I could find out.

Another Bengali film from 1973, ‘Marjina Abdulla’, starring Gita Dey, Utpal Dutt, Santosh Dutta also uses the same code-phrase ‘Chiching Fak‘!

Hindi cinema has used the Ali Baba story more than once. Here are some of those.

The 1954 film, Alibaba Aur Chalis Chor, starring Mahipal and Shakila. Mahipal says, “Khul Ja Samsam”!

In the 1966 Hindi film starring Sanjeev Kumar, the code-phrase is the same – “Khul Ja Samsam”!

For the 1976 film starring Dara Singh as Ali Baba, the code-phrase is the now-famous, “Khul Jaa Simsim”.

In the 1980 Indo-Russian co-production Alibaba Aur 40 Chor, starring Dharmendra, the phrase was “Khul Jaa Simsim”.

Incidentally, sesame is called ‘simsim’ in East Africa! So, they are essentially referring to sesame too, just not in an Indian language variant of the name.

Going outside India, here are some versions.

In a 2007 French TV film, Ali Baba et les 40 voleurs, the phrase is, “Sésame, ouvre-toi”. Not say-samee, but ‘se sam’, closer to the Tamil Nadu pronunciation!

In the 1971 Turkish version of the same story, “Ali Baba ve K?rk Haramiler”, the phrase is, “Aç?l susam, aç?l”. Susam is one of the Turkish words for Sesame, from what I gathered online!

Of all the movies made on the Ali Baba story that I glimpsed to check the cave-opening phrase, the funniest was the 1960 Malaysian movie, “Ali Baba Bujang Lapok”. It is billed as a comedy movie and not as an adventure movie. The leader of the thieves comes in a puny bike! He even says ‘Hi’ to Ali Baba who is hiding in a tree and then goes on to literally sing the phrase with a hilarious dance-like gesture 🙂 There doesn’t seem to be anything related to sesame in the phrase this guy uses!

The pronunciation for sesame that I learned from my mother (the one MGR popularlized through his film) is close to the French pronunciation but vastly different from the actual English pronunciation. I still have to mentally tune my pronunciation to decide whether to say ‘say-samee’ or ‘see-same’ depending on who I’m talking to.

I also realized that Indians may not be the only ones to use the ‘see-same’ pronunciation.

For all of them, the starting point is making up their own mind of how to pronounce the word, or they heard it being pronounced ‘see-same’ by someone else.

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