Dress Circle | Lost in Translation: Subtitles can make or break a film

It was shocking to find out the DVDs of some Satyajit Ray and Girish Kasaravalli films that I had picked up from a film festival in Bangalore 15 years ago contained no subtitles. Why didn’t those who acquired the rights of an internationally acclaimed filmmaker’s work count the film buffs from other states and countries as their potential target audience? It was no longer surprising when you read the interesting trivia about Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Player). The film was screened at the prestigious London Film Festival in 1977 without subtitles. The screening was accompanied by English voice-over by actor Saeed Jaffrey, which the audience listened using their headphones. It turned out that though Ray did not get to hear or approve the dialogues in advance, he was very pleased with Jaffrey’s ‘live dubbing’.

Parallel films always had their niche audience across the globe, mostly in festival circuits. In popular films, cultural exchange across languages started through a strange process called dubbing. Dubbing essentially replaces only the spoken language of a total audio-visual experience from another culture in order to make it understandable to those who do not follow the original language that the work was made in. The language dubbing industry in Kerala that mostly worked on theatrical release of Telugu films and TV streaming of Tamil and Hindi films in Malayalam appears to be facing stagnation. A good number of Telugu cinema fans in other states have started watching the movies in Telugu with or without subtitles. Unlike Telugu, Tamil cinema never required dubbing to thrive in Kerala because there are similarities between Tamil and Malayalam and Malayalis understand the language to a large extent.

Localising everything in a film without considering the original cultural or social context often hampers the experience. The other common irritants include mindless word-by-word translation of lyrics and dialogues that create unintended humour. The dubbing industry stands accused of mutilating the content of numerous good films with lousily translated dialogues and songs. Watching Hollywood films that were dubbed in Malayalam or Tamil used to be one of the ways to laugh our heart out when we did not have Internet and social media for comic relief. Remember the Doordarshan days of yore when the national broadcaster used to telecast regional movies with English subtitles on Sunday afternoons? They too were no less funny as subtiling was still in its nascency. When it comes to mindless word-by-word translation, subtitling industry too has its fair share of bloopers.

Unlike parallel cinema, mainstream Malayalam films always had limited appeal among those who are not the native speakers of the language. Though Keralites are known for their ability to seamlessly blend with cultures that had no direct connect, the movies of the state did not grow their influence outside the fraternity. However, there is an unforeseen level of acceptance for mainstream Malayalam films across the world these days. Has the social media influence of Keralites played a role? Is it the trend of big, worldwide releasing that spun it for the films? Or is it the growth of over the top (OTT) web platforms and their efforts to be hyperlocal that gave them the boost? It has to be a combination of all of the above. But the largely unacknowledged player in the saga seems to be subtitles.

A still from the Malayalam movie Chocolate

The subtitling industry is booming in India, thanks to worldwide release of movies in thousands of centres and the growing popularity of OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Eros Now, SunNXT, Zee5, and so on. Some of the recent Malayalam releases in Netflix and Amazon Prime such as Virus, Lucifer, Kumbalangi Nights, Unda, Uyare, Angamaly Diaries and Sudani from Nigeria are reportedly attracting as much eyeballs as some of the big Bollywood and Tamil films on these platforms. These platforms make ‘tasting’ different cultures as easy as the click of a button by packaging content from different languages based on their merit and the power of analytics.

Though OTTs popularised the art of selling subtitled movies, it is unfair to give them credit for discovering the potential of subtitling. Subtitling received its first major break during the peak of VCR/VHS revolution when tapes of Malayalam films used to sell like hot cakes in the Gulf countries, part of which used to be smuggled back into Kerala by expats and traders. A veteran actor-screenwriter-director in Malayalam had recounted once how he used to make a living by doing subtitles for video cassettes during his early days of struggle in Kodambakkam. This was much before he created his own foothold by localising the screenplays of some famous international comedy films, which went on to become superhits.

Early 2000s saw a multiplex revolution in big cities. Big multiplexes with over 10 or 15 screens provided a level-playing field for big and small films in several languages. Malayalam films used to have just one show per day in multiplexes in metros outside Kerala, which was primarily for the Malayalam-speaking audience. The trend changed when Malayalam films started getting more attention through the positive reviews on the Internet and social media. To attract a mix of metro audience comprising early migrants who were not well-versed in the language and those from other states who did not understand the language, producers and distributors depended on subtitling, which effectively bridged the disconnect at a nominal cost.

Trolls and memes with regard to subtitles are quite common in social media

These days people who are fluent in the language too depend on subtitles to understand some of the dialogues that are in an unfamiliar dialect. Many Keralites who did not understand the nuances of the language or the many dialects spoken in different regions of the state found subtitles to be of great help. Apparently, a large number of people do not follow all the dialogues in the films which speak the language of local subcultures, be it Pranchiyettan and the Saint, Eeda, Kamattipadam, Sudani from Nigeria, Virus or the most recent Thanneermathan Dinangal. In a state where a hundred film festivals happen in every corner across the year, some are experimenting with Malayalam subtitles to make world movies reach those who cannot follow English subtitles. Some websites provide free subtitles in Malayalam for well-known international films to promote film literacy and appreciation.

Subtitles have added millions of fans to popular regional cinema and its actors and directors. Today, there are a good number of non-Malayalis who look forward to the next Fahadh Faasil release or the next Dileesh Pothan or Aashiq Abu film though they do not follow the language. Malayalam movies are even venturing into hitherto unexplored markets such as China, which talks volumes about the role of subtitles.

On the flip side, the increased demand for subtitling has resulted in mediocrity. Subtitles are often an afterthought and producers work with whoever can do the job in a day or two just before the release. We often see that the subtitles are too pompous to comprehend or too simplistic and hollow to give you the real meaning of a dialogue.

Subtitling professionals often work on tight deadlines using poorly recorded sync sound that drowns the dialogues, a messy screenplay with unclear or out-of-sync dialogues. Moreover, there is no time or opportunity to do a thorough edit of the subtitles before they are final. Adding subtitles early does not always work because filmmakers are forced to delete or beep out lines at the last minute in order to get clearance from the censors.

A still from Ardh Satya

Subtitling is not everyone’s cup of tea. At times, subtitles resort to explaining way too much detail on the screen than just dialogues and kill the fun. Some English subtitles of a recent film travel on a parallel track with little or no relation to the lines spoken on the screen.

The increased demand for subtitling has resulted in mediocrity. A still from Bollywood blockbuster 'Karan Arjun'

It’s time subtitling is taken more seriously – like translating a novel or a poem. In literature, no responsible author offers the job of translating his/her work to a person who lacks creativity or a clear grasp of good writing practices. A good translator closely reads the material at hand, researches further to understand the characters, their background and cultural sensitivities before translating. If subtitling is made an integral part of the post-production process and the subtitler is pulled into the process early to work with the writer and director, the subtitle quality can be improved. Usually, if a film has to be released worldwide, it has to be subtitled in English first and at least in four to five foreign languages later on. English subtitles act as the bridge for all the future translations. This increases the responsibility of the subtitlers. To ensure seamless translation of content, filmmakers should engage professionals who are well-versed in language, have an eye for detail to understand the nuances, and a good understanding of translation and internationalisation practices. This will do a world of good for the industry in which massive worldwide releasing in theatres and OTT platforms is fast becoming a norm.

At times, subtitles resort to explaining way too much detail on the screen than just dialogues

(The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Views expressed are personal)

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