“You haave a verrry strrong physique, you know,” slurs a sex-starved Silk Smitha to a quivering Kamal Hasaan in the classic seduction scene in Moondram Pirai (1982).

It isn’t just Smitha’s barely clad body that makes temperatures soar. The voice does the trick too – a breathy moan, laced with all sorts of possibilities. And it isn’t even her own. The Telugu speaking actress was dubbed in all her Tamil movies by V Hema Malini.

Hema Malini first dubbed for Smitha for the Sivakumar starrer Vandichakkaram (1980). Smitha played a tea shop owner. “They wanted a sexy voice,” Malini said. “Silk Smitha had a sweet and deep voice, and used to speak Tamil extremely slowly and drag her lines since she was not comfortable with the language. So I copied her talking style, and added the suggestive feel to make it sexy.”

Tamil cinema, like the other southern industries, is swarming with actresses who look the part but do not sound right since they cannot speak the language. Dubbing artists have come to the rescue of these actresses, including Hansika Motwani, Tamanaah, Kajal Aggarwal, Amy Jackson, Taapsee Pannu, Amrya Dastur, Sameera Reddy and Genelia D’Souza. When Jackson reels off Chennai slum slang in Shankar’s I (2015) to a stunned Vikram, it is the work of 23-year-old Raveena Ravi. Aishwarya Rai’s screams at her kidnapper in Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan (2010) sound real because of actress and dubbing artiste Rohini.

Amy Jackson’s face and Raveena Ravi’s voice in I.

In Shankar’s Endhiran (2010), Rai tells her anxious suitor, Rajnikanth, “Hello, don’t get ideas, I am not trying to put the moves on you.” The voice belongs to Savitha Radhakrishnan, who had previously dubbed for Rai in Jeans (1998). Radhakrishnan is also the voice behind the popular line “Looseaapa nee? (Are you crazy?) for actress Laila Mehdin in Pithamagan (2003).

If the actresses sound different in different movies, it’s because 1,700 dubbing artists, many of them women, are registered with the South India Cine Artists and Dubbing Union. There are also several freelancers who work hard to match the facial expressions of the movie stars.

“We act with our throats,” said MM Manasi, a 23-year-old playback singer who dubbed for Tamanaah in the Tamil version of Bahubaali: The Beginning (2015).“I used a baritone, a tough and rugged voice since she is a warrior in the movie,” Manasi said. In Devi (2016), Tamanaah plays an innocent village woman as well as Ruby, the ghost who possesses her. Manasi used a confident and stylish tone for Ruby and gave the other character a soft, innocent one.

Devi (2016).

Dubbing artists labour in anonymity and work behind the scenes, but the current crop of actresses, including Tamanaah and Trisha Krishnan, do not shy away from sharing the praise on social media. “We were few and faceless back then, no one knew about us,” recalled Hema Malini, who has been dubbing since the early 1970s. “No heroine would openly talk about us. The media started asking questions only when Bharathiraja used North Indian actress Rati Agnihotri.” Bharathiraja directed Agnihotri, who was living in Chennai with her family at the time, in her debut film Puthiya Vaarpigal in 1979.

Voice artists are nearly as old as the talkie film, and have been used for productions that were dubbed in Tamil from Telugu right from the ’40s. Several Tamil films continue to dub dialogue in recording studios rather than using sync sound – the practice of recording the voices and sounds on the sets itself.

Most leading actors do dub for themselves when they know the language. Voice artists are roped in when the performers are unfamiliar with the language as well as for minor characters. Hema Malini remembers dubbing for the actor Sathyaraj for his movie Maaman Magal (1995), in which he dresses up as a woman for a sequence. Sathyaraj could have affected a female voice, but he insisted on a voice artist to ensure authenticity.

“In most films, mistakes during shooting are rectified at the dubbing stage,” Savitha Radhakrishnan said. “We have changed the names of characters for the sake of lip-sync.”

Sathyaraj in Maaman Magal (1995), dubbed by V Hema Malini.

Female dubbing artists have been hard at work ever since the number of non-Tamilian actresses in Tamil cinema registered an uptick over the past few years. The actresses are rattling off Tamil dialogue written out in the Roman script, and they might fumble or miss a word during the shoot. The dubbing artist can be relied upon to fill up the pauses or supply missing words during the dub.

“Dialogue gets changed sometimes to match the lip movements,” said Raveena Ravi, the voice of Amy Jackson in I, Theri (2016) and Shankar’s forthcoming sci-fi movie 2.0. Ravi has also dubbed for Amrya Dastur in Anegan (2015).

The voices of the women on the screen and the ones in the recording studios are often very different. Tamanaah requires a bit of base and a different tone, Radhakrishnan said. A babyish voice sits well on Hansika Motwani, while Taapsee Pannu got a gruff voice for the Tamil dubbed version of Naam Shabana (2017), in which she plays a secret agent.

Savitha Radhakrishnan. Photo courtesy Shri Varshini.

For Amy Jackson, Raveena Ravi worked on what she termed her “fresh, innocent” pitch. “Amy is exceptionally good at memorising her Tamil lines, but she speaks very slowly, so you have to slow down to match her momentum,” said Ravi, who is from a family of voice artistes and has dubbed for close to 60 films since 2012. “Sometimes, if it is an emotional crying scene, it can seem drawn out.”

While most actresses do not acknowledge the existence of the women who enable them to mouth dialogue on the screen, Jackson called Ravi to tell her that she admired her work and sent her tickets for the first show of Shankar’s I.

Dubbing is not only about having a good voice. “It is about drawing from your own experiences, having a good command of the language, and being creative enough to improvise when the dialogue fails to match lip movement on the screen,” Radhakrishnan said.

Voice artists can greatly enhance a performance, especially when the actress is only mouthing the lines. Actress, director and renowned dubbing artist Rohini believes that dubbing provides a second layer to the performance. “Sometimes, the character can be elevated with dubbing,” said Rohini, who was most recently seen in Baahubali in the role of the titular hero’s adoptive mother. “You have to emote well and work on the expression the character conveys on the screen.”

Rohini in Baahubali: The Beginning (2015).

Rohini dubbed for Manisha Koirala in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, and her contribution goes a long way towards conveying the character’s emotional graph. Rohini still remembers Ratnam’s brief: “Your voice has to match her thin frame. She comes from a protected family and is scared, and she is in love. I don’t want to hear you anywhere. I had to watch that my personality does not seep in at any point.”

For Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997), Rohini dubbed for the two roles played by Aishwarya Rai – a rural woman and an urbane upcoming actress. “In Raavanan, we worked on creating sounds similar to that of a caged animal,” Rohini said. “In fact, I almost lost my voice, there was so much screaming in the film. I had to watch her movements on the screen, and a certain movement calls for a certain type of a scream.”

Ratnam proved to be a taskmaster. “He would make me run up flights of stairs so I would be breathless to get an authentic sound,” Rohini said.

Rohini is among the dubbing artists credited with infusing greater realism into the screen voice and making it sound less coquettish and screechy. “Until Mani sir, they all sounded the same and had no modulations in their tone,” Rohini said. “It was directors like Mani sir, Ram Gopal Varma [she dubbed for Amala in Shiva] and Gautam Menon who transformed the way heroines spoke on the screen. Mani sir taught me to dub and subsequently other directors wanted me to handle dubbing in their films too.”

Aishwarya Rai in Iruvar (1997), voiced by Rohini.

Apart from matching the actress’s facial expressions, dubbing artists must also convincingly portray numerous accents. Savitha Radhakrishan, who has worked in nearly 1,000 films, used a slangy Cuddalore accent for Nandita Das’s character in Azhagi (2002) and Kanyakumari and Sri Lankan accents in other films. “Directors now want us to go for a natural voice and use colloquial Tamil,” Radhakrishnan said. “Earlier we had to speak clear Tamil and be understood. Now, they even ask us to swallow our words and speak fast.”

Technology plays its part in enhancing a dubbing artist’s performance, said Sreeja Ravi, who dubbed for Laila in Dhill (2001) and Katrina Kaif for her Malayalam film Balram Vs Tharadas (2006). A multi-track system has allowed dubbing artists to dub one at a time, rather than all together as was the case previously.

The most challenging act during a dub? Laughing. “It is because you have to laugh from your stomach, or else it sounds unnatural,” Manasi said.

Nandita Das in Azhagi (2002), voiced by Savitha Radhakrishnan.

Dubbing artistes undergo tests for each production to match their voices with the characters. Raveena Ravi was selected from among 100 artists for I. The rates range from Rs 20,000 (the minimum industry standard) to a couple of lakhs, depending on the budget and the heroine.

Work has increased, but the competition is fierce. “We worked less but earned a lot of respect before,” Hema Malini said. “Now, filmmakers are in a hurry and don’t concentrate on voice modulations or lip sync.” They have no choice in any case. The beautiful face on the screen needs a voice to go along with it. “Dubbing is not just acting, but climbing into the soul of the character and emoting,” Radhakrishnan said. “You have to laugh, romance, cry and shout standing in one place before a mike.”

There are some advantages to her profession. Sometimes, friends ask her to call up their friends and wish someone in the voice of Jyothika or Hansika Motwani. The gag works each time, Radhakrishnan said.