The dubbing and subtitling of television shows across Indian languages has injected variety and freshness into programming. That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that by dubbing a Hindi soap in, say, Tamil, television networks are killing local talent and livelihood. On August 14, over a thousand members of the Tamil Nadu Chinnathirai Kalaignargalin Koottamaippu, which represents the television industry, are observing a day-long fast to protest the proliferation of dubbed television soaps on Tamil channels. The federation is also organising a signature campaign and will submit a petition to Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.

Jaya TV, which is owned by the Chief Minister’s All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazgaham party, telecasts the Tamil version of the Hindi mythological serial Ramayana. Shows across rival networks include Tamil versions of Naagin (Naagini, Sun TV), Diya aur Baati Hum (En Kanavan En Thozhan, Vijay TV), Rangrasiya (Azhagiya Lailaa, Raj TV), Beintehaa (Alaipayuthey, Raj TV,) Kitni Mohabbat Hai (Kanneen Kanmaniye, Vendhar TV), Balika Vadhu (Mann Vasanai, Raj TV), Uttharan (Sindhu Bhairavi, Raj TV) and Itna Karo Na Mujhse Pyaar (Mouna Raagam, Polimer TV).

The preference among Tamil general entertainment channels for dubbed serials over original Tamil soaps has badly affected employment, said Thalapathy, the federation’s president. “Right from producers to the lower rung of technicians, at least a hundred-member crew works on a serial,” he said. “With the 40-odd dubbed serials that are being played out in television now, over a lakh crew members are affected. We are pushing for the minimisation of the telecast of such serials and gradually ban them, so that our livelihood can be protected.”

It’s not only jobs that are under threat – local producers, which include several film actresses such as Khushbu, Radhikaa Sarath Kumar and Ramya Krishna, claim that Tamil culture itself is under threat from a northern invasion. “The dress, the ornaments and the extravagant sets are grabbing the attention of the audience, who are primarily women,” Thalapathy declared. “These serials are not conducive to Tamil culture. “There’s even a Korean series called K-Series that features dubbed shows [Boys Over Flowers, Iris and Playful Kiss] in Tamil. How do you think this aligns with our culture?”

Is dubbing cheaper than producing new content?

Sound economics rather than a calculated cultural attack are behind the proliferation of dubbed fare on Tamil networks, said RBU Shyam Kumar, the CEO of Puthuyugam. “We take all our dubbed serials only because it is cost effective and makes lots of business sense for us,” Kumar said. “The kind of money spent there [in the north] on the production can be amortized here. People watch these serials because of the grandeur, the sets, the dressing, the jewellery. If I have to produce one, the cost for a normal half-an hour episode would run to about Rs two lakhs, which is very expensive and does not get us that much revenue.” The Korean series being aired on Puthuyugam is primarily targetted at the college-going audience, he added.

Several Tamil shows enjoy high ratings and healthy advertising, but their production values are often poor and pale in comparison to the small-screen extravaganzas being rolled out of Mumbai. Local television producers have been locked in an unfair contest, said actress and producer Radhikaa Sarath Kumar, whose company Radaan Mediaworks, has churned out several soaps, including Chitthi, Selvi and Vaani Raani. While her serials, which are aired on Sun TV, have a high demand in the industry, the rest of the content suppliers are feeling the pinch. “It’s not just about the livelihood, people are getting used to watching something very, very different from us culturally,” she said. “We are more content-driven, whereas they are spending a lot of money on sets and grandeur. Our budgets are totally different from theirs. They are spending around 20-30 lakhs on an episode, whereas we don’t do that. When we are thrown into an arena and told to compete with them, it’s not a reality, it’s not going to happen.”

Profit should not be the only criteria behind broadcasting decisions, Kumar added. “I think they all have a responsibility towards the people,” she said. “We don’t have a censor board, but we all have an inward censor on what we produce. We don’t have stories that you cannot watch with your kids, we don’t have uncomfortable scenes, and we don’t have superstitious beliefs. It could be cheaper – but is that the bottomline?”

Despite Radhikaa’s claims, Tamil serials are not far behind Hindi shows in airing content that encourages superstition and upholds deeply conservative values about the place of women in society. Tamil shows too have their share of logic-defying and ludicrous moments, such as a recent scene in Chandralekha (Sun TV), in which a woman survives several minutes after getting shot in the head and demands flowers from her husband before passing out.

Yet, the quality of the programming isn’t the problem, said V Rajesh, Administrator, Finance and Content at Vision Time India, the producers of leading serials such as Ponnunjal, Kalyana Parisu and Vamsam. “There are enough opportunities available, but we need to know who to target,” Rajesh said. “Dubbed content does not resonate with audiences. Good stories and quality productions are what will work.”

The federation has a solution for what it sees as a crisis: ban dubbed shows or halt the acquisition of new ones. “Our request is that don’t just look at the issue from the commercial angle,” Thalapathy said.

If banning sounds too drastic, how about raising taxes on dubbed shows? “When a similar issue was faced in Sri Lanka, the government imposed high taxes on dubbed serials, which made it unviable for television channels,” Radhikaa said. “You can’t say don’t air them, you can definitely tax them.”