TALKING FILMS

Manoj Muntashir of ‘Baahubali’ and ‘Black Panther’ fame: ‘Literal translation is a mistake’

The lyricist speaks of his method of writing Hindi dialogue for non-Hindi films.

Manoj Muntashir had never written a single line of dialogue in his life. But when SS Rajamouli heard him narrating a story in Hindi to music director MM Kreem, he immediately tasked Munstahir with writing the dialogue for the Hindi versions of his Baahubali films. Muntashir warned Rajamouli about his lack of experience but the filmmaker had complete trust in his writer.

The rest was box office history.

“I was sitting in a room with Kreem sir and narrating something in Hindi,” Muntashir recalled. “I had done a few films with him like Baby and was working with him on a project. SS Rajamouli happened to walk in. I did not recognise him as I had never seen Mr Rajamouli. He went back and decided that I should write the Hindi dialogues. He didn’t care about my background or work. These people just go by conviction.”

Before the Baahubali films opened new doors to him, Muntashir had primarily been a lyrics writer for Hindi films. Since 2005, he has written a fair number of hit songs, including Galliyan (Ek Villain, 2014), Saathi Rey (Kapoor & Sons, 2016) and Besabriyaan (MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, 2016).

Following the success of the Hindi versions of Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali: The Conclusion, Muntashir received many offers from the Southern film industries to write Hindi dialogue for dubbed productions. But his next project was an English film from Hollywood – the Marvel superhero film Black Panther. Starring Chadwick Boseman as the titular character, the Ryan Coogler-directed film will be released on February 16.

Transporting himself from the ancient Hindu kingdom Mahishmati to the fictional African nation of Wakanda was not difficult for Muntashir. For him, the spirit of Black Panther is just as “Indian” as the Baahubali franchise.

“There was something about Baahubali that was very Indian,” Muntashir said. “Not just the dialogues but the entire set-up worked. Similarly, Black Panther is a very Indian story. King T’Challa [Black Panther] is like any other king from Amar Chitra Katha. There is a fight for righteousness in the story, a fight for the throne, just like in Baahubali. Then, the father-son story, brother-sister story, cousin-rivalry story, all this Indian-ness can be found in Black Panther.”

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The Hindi trailer of Black Panther.

The Black Panther character, played by Boseman, was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Black Panther, also known as T’Challa, is the king of Wakanda. After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther returns to his homeland, only to find that his claim to the throne is challenged by forces within his kingdom. He also has to protect Wakanda from malevolent powers that seek to destroy it.

Created in 1966 by writer Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character has appeared in numerous comic books, video games and animated series. But Muntashir never had to read the source material to get acquainted with the character.

“I know that the Black Panther comic books sell in the US like hot cakes,” Muntashir said. “But I never read them. The creative team provided me with all the research and data. I had to consult them a lot, mostly in the first few weeks. It is not like I watched the film and immediately sat down to write. Only when I knew the character like I know the back of my hand did I sit down to write.”

Muntashir says that literal translation is the biggest obstacle for a dialogue writer who has to represent a film in a language other than its own.

“Literal translation is a mistake that we have been making for years,” Muntashir said. “That is the reason a lot of great cinema from the South never worked in Hindi, because what was being offered was fake and unreal. News can be translated. Not literature, poetry or dialogues.”

In case of the Baahubali films, Muntashir didn’t merely translate the lines. Instead, he began from scratch and reproduced the essence of the screenplay and the lines as he saw fit. The task is not one bit easy. “When a film has not just been shot but also thought of in a different language, it is quite the task to find common ground between two cultures and blur the lines as a writer, especially, in the case of recreating humour from one language to another,” he explained. “If one doesn’t just copy the punchline but understands the context of a joke, that is, why a thing said could remotely be funny, then the job gets easier.”

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The Hindi trailer of Baahubali: The Conclusion.

Muntashir’s lack of experience in screenwriting was made up for by his devotion to the efforts of ace duo Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar. Muntashir grew up with films written by Salim-Javed, and understood the nuances of dialogue writing through their work.

“The way Salim-Javed understood the pulse of the audience who spends three hundred rupees in a dark theatre to watch a film is amazing,” Muntashir said. “At first, we were a country that understood dialogues to be only big, bombastic lines such as the ones from, say, Mughal-e-Azam. Now, who spoke like that? But look at Salim-Javed’s dialogues. ‘Mere paas maa hai’ or ‘Kitne aadmi they?’ Salim-Javed had the conviction to turn small everyday lines into dialogues. And they did it by creating great situations but balancing it with minimalist lines. I want to bring that kind of simplicity in my writing.”

For now, Muntashir says that he is not itching to write his own screenplay. He will instead wait for the right project that is “epic, huge and has some kind of immortality”.

Muntashir explained, “With Baahubali, I have tasted blood. So, the next time I work on a film, it has to be that big. It cannot be, for example, a Golmaal film but something like, say, Padmavati.”

Manoj Muntashir.
Manoj Muntashir.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.