India in translation

Why the subtitles for ‘Sacred Games’ are offending both Congress members and Hindutva supporters

Released on July 6 on Netflix, season one of ‘Sacred Games’ is drawing anger and attention from both ends of the political spectrum.

Note: Spoilers ahead about the Netflix series based on the Vikram Chandra novel.

Sacred Games, the first Indian original web series produced by Netflix, has already begun to rattle cages in India days after its release on July 6. On July 10, Kolkata-based Congress party member Rajeev Kumar Sinha lodged a police complaint against the global streaming service and actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, among others, for allegedly insulting former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Season one of Sacred Games, adapted from Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name and directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, consists of eight episodes. The series tells the story of Mumbai police officer Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), who is investigating the suicide of Mumbai ganglord Ganesh Gaitonde (Siddiqui). Radhika Apte plays a Research and Analysis Wing agent.

Rajeev Kumar Sinha has expressed outrage against a scene from the fourth episode, titled Brahmahatya, in which Gaitonde calls Rajiv Gandhi a “fattu”, which was originally subtitled “pussy”. Requesting for the police lodge a First Information Report against Netflix and Siddiqui, Sinha has also noted in the letter that the series “crosses all limits of decency and has taken the Indian Film Industry to a new low”.

Rajeev Kumar Sinha’s complaint. Courtesy: Twitter.
Rajeev Kumar Sinha’s complaint. Courtesy: Twitter.

In the scene in question, Gaitonde narrates how the Congress government in 1986 overturned the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case about maintenance for Muslim women since the party feared a backlash from the Muslim community. Gaitonde says, “Woh pradhaanmatri Rajiv Gandhi, woh fattu bola, chup baith aurat.”

While the word “fattu” was initially subtitled as “pussy”, it has since been changed to “wimp”. The English subtitles are credited to Jahan Singh Bakshi (along with Prime Focus Technologies, which synced the subtitles). Bakshi has subtitled such films as Irada (2017) and the yet-to-be-released Yours Truly.

“A number of extensive changes have been made by the platform,” Bakshi said. “Companies like Netflix have a strict standardised code regarding how they want their subtitles. Matters such as the length of the subtitle has to be kept in mind because one has to concentrate on both the scene and the lines.”

Bakshi’s original choice was “wimp”, which was changed to “pussy” and is now back to “wimp”. Bakshi added, “The subtitles here are not hardcoded [meaning they can be changed after the series began streaming]. So changes are still being made after so much feedback, especially, from Vikram Chandra himself.”

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

Sacred Games has also drawn brickbats from the Hindu Right Wing on Twitter, who allege that the series has hurt upper-caste Hindu sentiments. They have found issues with several sequences, such as the one in which Gaitonde causes a riot by hiding a chicken bone in a plate of rice, another in which a Muslim boy is killed by a Hindu and Sikh policeman, and the suggestion that a Hindu cult is planning a nuclear attack on Mumbai in the series, which is the plot of the novel.

One user pointed out that in a scene from the first episode, Ashwatthama, a board of a hotel saying “Satyanarayana Shukla Hindu Hotel shuddh sakahari” is translated to “Upper caste Hindu hotel – pure vegetarian”. Jahan Bakshi said that in such cases, the subtitle was probably added to “contextualise” the scene.

However, following Sinha’s complaint, the series has seemed to gain some positive traction among the Right Wing.

Set in Mumbai and spanning four decades, Sacred Games has several characters conversing in Marathi, apart from Hindi and Punjabi. The series has two parallel storylines, one involving Sartaj Singh in the present, and the other in which Ganesh Gaitonde narrates his colourful criminal history. Gaitonde’s track, directed by Anurag Kashyap, features the choicest of abuses that are too deeply entrenched in popular culture and the Mumbai vernacular to be translated into English.

In various instances, the original dialogue’s bite has been lost, and critics were quick to point out their unhappiness with the subtitles on social media. The subtitles are presently being changed in the series.

Besides the “pussy-wimp” switch, subtitles in another key scene from Brahmahatya has been changed. Bunty (Jatin Sarna) asks his sister if her lover Chota Badariya (Anil Charanjeett) is able to get an erection. Bunty’s sister Mikki (Sukhmani Sadana) says, “Itna gehra andar jata hain na tera haath bhi na pahunchey.” The line was initially translated to “He sticks it in deeper than you ever could.”

The subtitle has since been changed to “He sticks it so deep that your hand wouldn’t even reach the places he can.”

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

In an exchange on Twitter, François-Xavier Durandy, who has subtitled Hindi films such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) in French, said of this particular scene that an attempt to replicate the original lines would result to a lengthening of the English subtitle which is “always the problem”.

Speaking on how the first translation (“He sticks it in deeper than you ever could”) wrongfully suggests incest, Bakshi said, “That interpretation is taking it too far. She [Mikki] isn’t saying it about herself and Bunty. It’s a general statement she is making.”

In various scenes, particularly involving Gaitonde, the texture of the original line – an abuse or a combination of abuses – is absent from the English subtitle. In one scene in episode five, Sarama, Gaitonde threatens Bunty with “Gaand mein haath daalke mooh me nikal dega” (I will put my hand up your arse and take it out of your mouth). The English subtitle reads, “If I see you again, I will make you suffer.”

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

In another scene in episode two, Halahala, Gaitonde describes his camaraderie with a new partner-in-crime, saying that money has brought them so close that “jaise hum ek gaand hagte ho.” (As if we shat from the same asshole). The English subtitle simply reads, “Money brought us a little too close together.”

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

The graphic opening scene of the series, in which Gaitonde’s voice booms over a shot of a dead dog, has also faced the same fate.

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

A delightfully clever and raunchy line, “Bina aam khole guthli nikal sakti hain main” (Without eating the whole mango, I can take out the pulp), said by a prostitute to Bunty in Sarama, becomes “I can take you to the moon” in English.

Stills from Sacred Games. Credit: Netflix.
Stills from Sacred Games. Credit: Netflix.

In a similar scene from the Ashwatthama episode, Gaitonde tells Sartaj Singh that small-time gangster Ravi Pandit “apni moot ki boondh ke barabar hain”. Bakshi explained, “There are several lines like these whose literal English translations seem clunky. Someone is worth a drop of my piss doesn’t sound nice.”

The English subtitle reads, “Ravi Pandit doesn’t mean shit.” Bakshi added that he tried several versions of the line (“He doesn’t mean horseshit”), but ultimately went with one that conveys the message in the shortest and simplest way.

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

Again in episode one, Gaitonde’s choice of words to describe the mass sterilisation programme ordered by Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency is “Sarkar logon ke lund kaat ke le ja reli thi” (The government was cutting off people’s penises). The English line reads, “The government was sterilising its people.”

Doesn’t the translation itself strip Gaitonde’s pulpy dialogue of its potency?

“To know the specific historical reference of Emergency and sterilisation would be a stretch for the Western audience to know,” Bakshi explained. “Since they don’t know the Emergency, you would have to simplify, more so because the series is choc-a-bloc with historical references. To write cutting off balls would have been more accurate, but that makes sense only in the context of Emergency and the sterilisation programme.”

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

The visible changes to the English subtitles since its release include “home run” being changed back to the Indian original “sixer” in a scene in the final episode, Yayati. Here, Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi) tortures Gaitonde in the prison with a bat. He says, “Yeh dekh sixer” (See, a sixer), before hitting Gaitonde with the bat.

“The challenge is to keep it consistent,” Bakshi said. “I had even removed names of Gavaskar and Tendulkar [from a scene in the first episode] because if we are going for the Americanised home run later on, we need to change Gavaskar and Tendulkar to something similar.”

But constantly opting for an American or a Western alternative can be complicated, Bakshi added. “I can easily change Hema Malini to Marilyn Monroe or flatten it completely and saying just some star but that would be wrong,” Bakshi said about a scene where a character refers to Gaitonde’s lover Kukoo (Kubbra Sait) as Hema Malini.

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

In a similar situation, Parulkar says to his subordinate Majid (Aamir Bashir) in the Sarama episode that if one had to list Gaitonde’s friends, the line would begin from Colaba in Mumbai and stop at Kolkata in West Bengal. Instead of changing Colaba and Kolkata to American cities in the subtitle, Bakshi changed the line to “The list of Gaitonde’s friends is quite long.”

But what does one do when dialogue is steeped in a local socio-cultural context and mythology?

In episode seven, Rudra, the conniving Trivedi (Chittaranjan Tripathy) is introduced to Gaitonde by Trivedi’s aide Bipin Bhonsle (Girish Kulkarni) at a function. Trivedi comes from a place of power. He is described by Bipin Bhonsle as a “badey pundit” (big intellectual) and someone who has a “direct hotline” with god.

Gaitonde, bored by Trivedi’s cryptic talk, tells him, “Shayad aapne Valmiki ki Ramayan padhi hain. Humne to Ramanand Sagar ki padhi hain” (You might have read Valmiki’s Ramayana, but I have watched Ramanand Sagar’s television version). This line becomes a commentary on the different social classes to which Gaitonde and Trivedi belong. The English subtitle reads, “You talk in riddles. I prefer to keep things simple.”

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

“I had two options for that part,” Bakshi said. “Either find out an alternative riddle that the Western world would get, which I couldn’t find, or go for its barest essence. The other way would be, you read the scriptures, I saw the TV soap, but it wouldn’t make sense. These are tough calls to take. The seventh episode, which has those classic Anurag Kashyap dialogue, was particularly tough.”

As a similar example, Bakshi cited a case in Rudra where he literally translated into English the Hindi riddle “Teetar ke do aage titar teetar ke do piche teetar aage teetar piche teetar bolo kitne teetar?” and turned “teetar” into “ducks”. The line became “Two ducks in front of a duck, two ducks behind the duck, so how many ducks are there?”

“Again I couldn’t find an equivalent riddle. And what do you even call teetar?” Bakshi said. “Pheasant would be way too exotic. I just went with ducks.” (Teetar is a local name for the grey francolin).

Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

The colloquial Marathi dialogue posed unique translation challenges. Bakshi spoke of the Marathi phrase “Aai zhavli”, which is repeatedly said by constable Katekar (Jitendra Joshi) and by Sartaj Singh in the last shot of the final episode. “Holy shit” is the line used in English.

“Holy shit is just too simple for aai zhavli,” Bakshi said. “What to do with aai zhavli? It’s impossible to translate it correctly. I struggled with it since it was a key part of the series. We wanted it to stand out. The closest I could think of, without being generic, was holy motherfucker, which then turned to holy shit. The other option would be to take a complete departure from the actual meaning and go with something like, fuck me sideways.”

In the Hindi subtitled version, “aai zhavli” has become “ae saala”, which also does not quite have an exact English equivalent.

“You can Americanise, shorten, flatten, do different things,” Bakshi said. “There are no right or wrong answers in subtitling. One of the things I have learned from subtitling is that it all depends on what call you take in the end.”

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Sacred Games (2018).
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