Never mind ‘Tickled pink laughter’: Subtitled ‘Kabali’ proves the need to spread the net wide

English subtitles have expanded the box office business of Tamil cinema beyond its shores, spoofs and memes notwithstanding.

When Rajinikanth says “Magizhchi” (happiness, cheers, wonderful in Tamil) in Kabali, we know that yet another punchline has been added to the ever-expanding lexicon of Rajniisms. When he says ‘”Bahut khoob” (very good) in the dubbed Hindi version, it doesn’t quite have the same effect. And that’s where subtitling comes into play.

Rekhs (as Rekha Haricharan likes to be known) has written the English subtitles for the Tamil Kabali, and she is responsible for accurately translating filmmaker and writer Pa Ranjith’s thoughts into English as well the spoof-worthy ways to describe Kabali’s various laughs in the movie and the use of smileys.

While Rekha turned down several requests for an interview with, Ranjith justified the strange use of smileys in the subtitles. “My assistant was sitting with Rekhs, who subtitled the movie and we approved the final copy,” he said. “We have been getting a good feedback for the same.”

Have the “magizhchi” emoticons in the subtitles aided Kabali’s roaring business? The movie has reportedly totted up close to Rs 300 crore in the domestic and international markets. English subtitles for the Tamil film have provided the bridge to comprehension and appreciation for second- and third-generation Tamil audiences as well as non-Tamil speakers.

Kabali is the latest feather in Rekha’s cap – she has 333 movies under her belt. She entered the field in 2007 with Thoovanam, made by her filmmaker husband Haricharan. Her big break was Vinnaithandi Varuvaya in 2010, followed by Endhiran. Her formidable list includes A-list productions such as Nanban, 36 Vayadhinile and Theri. She is among a handful of individuals involved in the valuable post-production skill that helps local films cast a wider audience net.

Subtitling can be literal-minded and amateurish, thus completely missing the flavour and texture of the source language. A sophisticated, respectful and well-considered subtitling job, on the other hand, can communicate a movie’s intent and impact and help it widen its viewer base. “Younger directors are very keen on taking their movies to international audiences and they insist on the language being clean and simple without grammatical errors,” said Kaarthekeyen Santhanam, who has set up the subtitling division, company Benchsubs along with director Karthik Subbaraj. “Directors like RS Prasanna, Ramesh who did Thegidi, Nalan Kumarasamy, Karthik Subbaraj and Arun Vaidyanathan have audiences abroad and they spent a lot of time and effort on overseeing subtitling,” Santhanam added.

One of the keys to subtitling is to avoid explaining screen actions, said filmmaker Arun Vaidyanathan. “People don’t at times – for example, you don’t need to say in your subtitle that ‘The door is opening with a creak.’ It’s hilarious when they translate songs at times, like Kanne Maniye (a Tamil endearment) becomes ‘Eye balls and ringing bells’ and that’s when people start creating memes,” he said. “It’s better to avoid translating them altogether.”

More time means better subtitles

If subtitlers had more time to work on films, they would do a better job, said Nandini Karky, who has worked on Thangameengal, Pisasu and Yennai Arindhaal. “It’s only towards the end of the filming process, generally, only a week before the movie is about to hit the screen, you are given the work,” Karky said. “You have to put your thoughts into it, you have to look at it again and again to know that a line is sounding all right or it’s too literal. Or you go with your first version of the work. The pressure may affect the quality of work. Ideally, we should be given at least a fortnight to finish the work.”

Karky made the distinction between subtitling for non-Tamil audiences and for the hearing impaired. “Audio descriptions should be done more carefully, even then it’s never about stating the obvious,” she said. “It’s about describing sounds that one can hear in the backgrounds. Such subtitles take a lot more space on screen.”

Benchsubs tries to beat time constraints by working with a pool of professionals. “Subtitling has always been done by an individual, not a corporate or a group of people,” Kaarthekeyen said. “Being good at English does not necessarily deliver the final technical product: for example the way time-coding is done. We brought out a new tool and we have a five-member team who can do the job in four days or less.” A year since its inception, Benchsubs has subtitled about 90 films, primarily made by production houses owned by Karthik Subbaraj’s friends such as CV Kumar’s Thirukumaran Entertainment and KE Gnanavel Raja’s Studio Green.

Director’s cut

Some directors like to involve themselves with the subtitling so that non-Tamil audiences can benefit from the fruits of their labour. Mani Ratnam goes over his subtitles several times to make sure they are concise. “I work with him as his assistant, so I’m involved in the post-production as well. I take anywhere between two weeks to a month to subtitle a film,” said Shalini Shankar, his subtitler. “Mani sir tells me to keep it shot and simple. While subtitling for an audience in the rest of the country, he tells me to italicise words like Anna [brother] and Appa [father], because he feels the audience will be able to read it in the context of the film. But while presenting the film abroad, we take care to say Uncle Ganapathy instead of Ganapathy Uncle, so that the audiences there understand it better.”

National Film Award winner Vetrimaaran, who has made Aadukalam and Visaaranai, gets his movies subtitled by his long-time assistant, Varsha Mohan. “It is an integral part of filmmaking now, especially when you want to cross countries,” Vetrimaaran said. “Subtitling is not just about getting the text right. It’s also about getting the context right. It’s not just about what’s spoken, what’s inferred is also important. I take about 9-10 months in post-production. So all this time, I spend on subtitling. We write about 10-15 drafts before we lock the final one.”

New-generation Tamil filmmakers who are conversant with Tamil and English might even help subtitlers by writing their scripts in English, as was the case with Indian-American director Arun Vaidyanathan’s Acchanmundu! Acchamundu! (2009). “I wanted the songs like Acchamenbadu Madamaiyada [It’s foolish to be scared] to make sense to international audience as well, so I gave the job to a lady in Los Angeles,” Vaidyanathan said. “She did a good job and the movie also went to a lot of international festivals. For Peruchazhi [his 2014 Malayalam movie], there was an Italian actor in the movie. We did the subtitling in English and made sure that that guy understood it.”

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