May 20 will see the release of a movie about a rookie reporter who uncovers a series of mysterious deaths while investigating road safety violations in Bengaluru. In Pavan Kumar’s U Turn, Rachna tracks down the vehicle owners who move the barriers on a busy flyover to make dangerous turns in the middle of the stretch to save time. The first such offender she meets dies mysteriously, and Rachna is blamed for the death. Nayak, a sympathetic police inspector, helps her establish her innocence, even as her recently acquired boyfriend Aditya shakes his hennaed curls in befuddlement.
U Turn isn’t as intricately plotted or convincing as Pavan Kumar’s 2013 sleeper hit Lucia, but it’s absorbing enough, has a vigilante aspect that will appeal to metropolis dwellers, and realistic performances from the refreshingly unglamourous cast. And oh, did we mention that U Turn is in Kannada and being released with English subtitles by Drishyam Films?
Every Friday, films from around India compete for screens with Hindi and Hollywood releases. The number of Bengali, Tamil, Marathi and now Kannada films that are being released with subtitles in the cash-cow centres of Mumbai and Delhi is small, but the volumes could grow if the trade and moviegoers set aside their reservations about subtitled movies.
If the film is of the calibre of Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi romance Sairat, which was released on April 29 with subtitles across Maharashtra and the rest of the country, it's clear that the audiences will flock in. There is no way of calculating how many non-Marathi speakers have contributed to the movie’s phenomenal box office performance (said to be in the range of Rs 55 crores-Rs 60 crores). But it is safe to speculate that subtitling has boosted Sairat’s reception and momentarily shattered the barrier between Marathi and non-Marathi audiences.
Sairat wasn't the only non-Hindi film in national cinema chains recently. The Tamil movie 24, starring leading actor Suriya, was released by Eros Entertainment on May 6 outside Tamil Nadu with subtitles. On May 27, Eros will distribute its co-production Praktan, featuring the hit pair of Bengali superstar Prosenjit Chatterji and Rituparna Sengupta, with subtitles. Previously, subtitled versions of such films as Kaakaa Muttai and Visaranai (both in Tamil) and Killa (in Marathi) have been released outside Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.If every regional language movie were to be distributed in this manner, might we actually see the creation of a secondary audience beyond the existing captive language markets and greater appreciation for the moviemaking talent beyond Mumbai?
One way that non-Hindi films have travelled to the Hindi belt is through dubbing. Over the years, this well-established practice has brought national fame to the big names of southern India, including Mani Ratnam, Shankar and SS Rajamouli. Dubbing can, however, be a hit-and-miss affair, requiring tremendous skill, an ear for the nuances of Hindi, and some investment by the original producers.
Dubbed films often need to work doubly hard to impress viewers, who are unaware of the mythology of the star cast from another regional industry or the reputation of the filmmakers. In the case of Mani Ratnam, the visual splendour, storytelling finesse, and AR Rahman’s music helped win him admirers beyond Chennai. Shankar’s Tamil blockbusters Sivaji and Endhiran (retitled Robot in Hindi) hinged on leading actor Rajinikanth, who had acted already in several Hindi films. The scale and grandeur of SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali tided over the relative lack of familiarity with its cast. Dubbed films also help fill programming slots on Hindi movie channels, and it is possible that there are more fans of Anushka Shetty and Suriya among Hindi speakers than we realise.
The success of dubbed Hollywood films in India, such as Jurassic World, Furious 7, The Jungle Book, Deadpool and Captain America: Winter Soldier, indicate that moviegoers are happy to watch on unfamiliar settings and plots as long as the storytelling is impressive. Yet, not all filmmakers have the resources to dub their films, and not all dubs are successful. The strange experience of watching characters speak in a language that clearly does not belong to the movie’s original setting can be jarring and risible.
English subtitling can be easier and retain the integrity of the original’s dialogue and setting. In any case, subtitled versions of non-Hindi titles are prepared for foreign markets and film festivals, so it isn't too difficult to release these versions across the rest of India too.
However, there are as many arguments against subtitling as there are for the practice. Unlike dubbing, subtitling restricts the market to urbane English speakers who have the ability to both absorb the images as well as take in the text at the bottom of the screen. Most subtitled films address pockets of the population that are habituated to watching foreign films and American and British television. This moneyed but small group will not give distributors the volumes they need to make subtitling the rule rather than the exception. (It does not help that ticketing websites such as BookMyShow do not specify whether a movie has subtitles or not.) But if dubbing or subtitling becomes a regular option rather than an afterthought, we will finally come closer to understanding the diversity of Indian cinema and expanding our choices beyond the limited fare offered by Bollywood.
Just as literary translations have helped Indians discover the riches of Indian writing, dubbing and subtitling could help films find new audiences.
A unified, national cinema is an impossibility in India due to the numerous languages spoken across the states. For Hindi and English speakers, film cultures from the rest of India can be as alien as Romanian or Argentinean cinema. The easiest way to find out what why Dulquer Salmaan is a star in Malayalam cinema, or why nearly every new Mahesh Babu release breaks box office records, is to watch their movies in a familiar language. Dubbed or subtitling can open our eyes to the numerous narratives that lie beyond Bollywood – and that can only be a good thing.