For the love of Urdu

Azfar Rizvi
4 min readMar 23, 2019


I fell into writing for AI after spending years creating online media and broadcast content. Writing for an AI personality is vastly different from conventional broadcast writing where you chart a defined course and can follow it through a narrative arc. While the two share a few similarities, chatbot personalities must evolve as the dialogue progresses. It’s a great space to operate organically in — trying to navigate ambiguity with the purpose to make interactions more memorable and delightful — and in the process make AI more compassionate. Yes, AI chatbots have saved lives, counseled Syrian refugees, and continue to work towards providing nurturing and empathetic conversations.

In my current role, I develop the Urdu personality for an AI-power virtual assistant. Working with Urdu has its own challenges and opportunities. Urdu, the way it’s spoken in South Asia especially across India and Pakistan has historically been nuanced. Since it is mutually intelligible with Hindi, the current simple or ‘modern’ Urdu has become more prevalent with a far wider footprint than any other language in South Asia. It is spoken and understood by almost 700 million people only in the subcontinent. Ethnologue last year bumped this number close a billion with diaspora speaking Hindustani-Urdu as far as the Gulf region, UK, USA, France, Italy & Germany. Outside of Europe, Urdu has a sizeable representation in Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Nepal, South Africa, Suriname, and parts of the Caribbean.

The term Urdu is still used for the colloquial Hindustani-Urdu, and 80% of Bollywood liberally uses it for mass appeal. For decades now, words have seeped across so effortlessly between formal Hindi and Urdu, it is futile to debate the origins of several of these words.

My grandfather used to fondly recall his Lucknowi origins; the Chandni
Chowk vendors, the summer mango-runs to the orchids, and his trips to devour some exotic mithai near Hussain Ganj, the Lucknow area of the undivided Subcontinent. Of course, all in a distant memory. His eyes gleamed of passion and longing, the tales always remained devoid of any mention of religion. Names like Shankar ji and Sabir chacha would effortlessly flow challenging any contemporary notions of religion, sect or ideological divide. And everyone spoke Urdu or Hindustani. Or whatever one preferred calling it.

The Queen and Urdu

Queen & Karim. Garden Cottage. Balmoral 1890

Urdu for decades has been romanticized and courted by royalty and poets across generations. It wasn’t until recently the world found out Queen Victoria learned Urdu for over a decade, forging a close friendship with her Muslim servant Munshi Abdul Karim.

A friendship that spanned over 14 years, this unique alliance was captured and shared with us in the 2017 release Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench as the Queen.

Queen Victoria’s diaries reveal the two connected over curry and Urdu! Karim introduced the Queen to chicken curry and daal, both of which she liked so much she instructed these to be added to her weekly menu. Despite perception, the Queen was personally fond of the region and wanted to improve upon the status quo, much to the dismay of her contemporaries. All this is an integral part of the shared history of Pakistan, India, and Britain that must be remembered.

Page from one of Queen Victoria’s diary shows how she learned Urdu using English translations & Persian script along with roman Urdu

Over time, the Queen gradually increased her understanding about the subcontinent and the tumultuous daily happenings. To acquaint herself more about the world she was the Monarch of, she asked Karim to teach her Urdu. This started a lifelong affair with the language and the subcontinent. For over a decade, Karim taught her Urdu reading and writing, while he himself started to take English lessons. For the aging Queen, he became a friend, a confidant and a conduit to the enchanting subcontinent. He would share his worldviews with her, and frame the social-political developments in a manner the Monarch could relate to. Most of these accounts were lost until 2010 when Karim’s descendants finally came out to share these with the world.

In the end we are left with a unique historical perspective, one that celebrates the importance of meaningful conversations. For many of us, this is the stuff happening only in fairy tales. Yet, this is a true story of an alliance forged between two uniquely different worlds — a friendship forged in the poetic palms of Urdu.

Azfar Rizvi is a New York-based Filmmaker. He tweets @AzfarRizvi



Azfar Rizvi

Journalist-turned award-winning filmmaker. Writer. Chai drinker. Pakistani Canadian in Contemporary America! | W: