I recently watched the entire first season of the acclaimed drama Broadchurch without once switching on the audio. Masterchef Australia has also become a silent experience in our house. We imagine the splattering sizzles and the bubbling broths. If we cannot smell the hibachi, nor feel the crunch of the crust, how, then, does it matter whether we hear the hum of ice cream churning – or even the commentary – or not?

When the Metropolitan Opera started screening at a theatre in San Diego, my wife and I sat through four five-hour screenings of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Naturally, it was screened with subtitles. And our two-month 50+ Hindi-cinema binge back in 2012? With subtitles.

I used to be sceptical about subtitles. So what changed? During this lockdown, my wife gave birth to twins. Even though we have all experienced the effects of Covid-19, we have experienced them differently, with our own ways of coping: in my case, as a new parent. Our lockdown is also quite different from say, a house arrest or imprisonment of some other kind – and we will not, most likely, produce classic non-fiction such as Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History or Discovery of India in this period. Nor Anne Frank’s Diary of A Young Girl.

And despite all the complaints from those of us who do have homes in which to stay and spend our months in safety, we have also, at the very least, YouTube; we may have Netflix and Hotstar and many others as well. Poor trade-offs for doting visitors with whom to pass the time, no doubt, but 3 AM feeds-with-twins have become more tranquil with the infinite content we can easily stream. Late-night feeds and feeds at daybreak prompted me to re-evaluate subtitles, give them a silent second chance: I have even learned to enjoy their deceptive plainness in comparison with the moving image.

Why? A concatenation of events, to adapt Candide. Some are quite obvious: we live in a world of distraction. A world of noise, of flashy screens, soundtracks, alerts, instant communications, and a news cycle that seems on going… Our phones, tablets, and other screens grasp for our attention – and more often than not, they succeed – if only for a moment.

A shortening attention span

There is no dearth of commentaries about screen time or our ability to read in a sustained manner, but if anecdotal evidence serves, then I must confess, I too, am rather guilty: I often find it hard to focus, and flipping a page seems flippant compared to the eye-catching backlit text of a screen. It’s not just toddlers who are mesmerised by screens: all of us are. While reading, the lines are shorter on my phone, effortless. No wonder then, that paper can seem a drudgery, unfolding in its own time rather than at my finger’s (almost involuntary) flick?

Subtitles are different though. They have the feel of a halfway house – where someone who has binged too much on screens and sounds may come to recover the value of the written word. True, turning up the audio at 3 AM is disruptive, and not an option – early on the kids would be startled at the sound, and now of course the sound and light show has them wired if they catch a glimpse.

But for me it’s a recovery. Neither can I read a book (with both hands), nor can I comfortably read my kindle – it’s too slow and soporific – but subtitles, they’re persistent as ever, coming and going with their own agency, creating a kind of digestible flow. Subtitles are different, they are magnetic, and, once turned on, we cannot avert our eyes.

I find myself pausing or hitting the ten second rewind to know what happened – but more specifically, to re-read that text. With subtitles, their intervals guide my reading, moving along and moving me along. With a background of flitting images, they appear and scatter and reappear, like the letters left by tardy swallows in Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions – transparent letters across the sky.

Subtitles are the source, the underlying narrative behind many, if not all, the images one sees on screen. Except for some avant-garde cinema, the text – the story, the dialogue – undergirds it all. Everything the camera captures, everything we hear by way of sound, diegetic or not, is the director’s interpretation. One may politicise subtitles by suggesting their presence makes the screenwriter’s labour visible, true, but another way to think about it: with subtitles, the viewer too is the co-creator.

With our attention focused on the subtitles, we often read jokes before they’re spoken. We see the writer’s intention (that hoary beast) with bracketed stage (screen?) directions that bespeak actions, and occasionally sentiments that should accompany the line’s delivery. But then we decide whether the director’s decisions measure up to our own imaginations. Whether the actor is compelling, how we would have done it. What we would have cooked (in the case of Masterchef Australia) with those ingredients.

Subtitles reveal to us a rubric upon which we may map our own imaginations – in contrast with the director’s. If TVs (and screens) have often been called idiot boxes, in front of which passive viewers take in information over which they have no control, then subtitles offer something different: the ability to co-create the story without being distracted by the moving image. In de-linking subtitles from the director’s images and sounds, subtitles prompt us to make our own mental calculations and introduce some grey areas and abstractions into our lives.

Filling in the gaps

A search for something incomplete and to fill-in the gaps on one’s own. To realise that the director only creates one reality. Broadchurch, for example, like Masterchef Australia: does it really matter what David Tennant sounds like when he speaks? It is not so simple as the world literature quip that translation (subtitles, in my case) enables a text to travel, making a local text into a text of world literature. Nor is it about erasing the particular of Parasite (2019), for example, whose commentators remarked about its success despite subtitles.

Rather, subtitles enable a different reckoning for the text, opening a new and different reality in our reimagining, our reinterpretation, our co-creation. It is about accepting that the image is one step towards the concrete, while the language on the subtitles remains more ambiguous and abstract, awaiting our interpretation.

Years ago, my wife and I were lucky enough to travel to the prehistoric Pileta caves near the white hilltop town of Ronda, Spain, of Ernest Hemingway fame. The caves, dating to neolithic times, contain wall paintings from over twenty millennia ago. More “recently,” only twelve millennia ago, something remarkable happened, and quite counterintuitively.

Whereas the older paintings are more realistic – one could clearly see animals such as fish, bulls, horses, deer – the more recent paintings were a series of horizontal lines that resembled, of all things, a rusty old iron comb that one would see in the ancient decorative arts section of a museum. Nearly everyone on our tour group (none of whom was an archaeologist) was shocked, our imaginations captivated.

Over the course of fifteen millennia, the countless generations of the inhabitants of that cave had learned to represent things in the abstract: Those lines were the abstract representations, perhaps a step towards some kind of scripted language, of the animals they’d drawn before. Those rusty iron combs represented the development of abstract thought.

Fast forward nearly nine thousand years to the time when the legendary poet Homer committed his Greek epics to writing. People were amused that squiggly letters could actually signify sound. But unlike the strange dichotomy of Greek/Latin scripts that map onto eastern and western Europe, South Asia’s is even more beautifully graphic.

Reading the writing

Ours is a system in which scripts abound and the connection between language and script is demonstrably tenuous – Sanskrit has had a polygraphic history, written in numerous scripts from Kharoshti and Brahmi onwards. Marathi has been digraphic until very recently, utilising the Modi as well as Balbodh (modified Devanagri) scripts – both of which were implicated within social and political dynamics. Punjabi too, with Shahmukhi and Gurmukhi scripts.

A particularly foundational linguist at the turn of the twentieth century, Ferdinand de Saussure, was well aware of these disconnections between the sound (and its representation) and the objects being represented; he borrowed (plagiarised?) from Sanskrit linguists, and recast it in his Course on General Linguistics (1916) as the “arbitrariness” of the linguistic sign. All phonic representations of things are arbitrary, and interpretively, therefore, abstract.

For a few hours every night, I make camp in my own cave, the cave of my darkened living room. My wife feeds one son, and I the other. Light plays on many screens: a desktop, a phone, a kindle, an iPad, a laptop. It bounces off walls and illumines and conceals objects and illusions. It flickers inconstantly. A conflagration of images. But I’m not one of Plato’s bound prisoners, and I don’t watch the shadows on the wall: I read the writing instead.

I see below the fire the text that kindles all sorts of images in its combustion, all thought and sound. It is what must be sacrificed for everything else to emerge, the subtext that lets me ignore all the hyper-sensory distraction. And at three in the morning, when these children cry, or scream, or coo, I know what they crave too, is the ability to express what cannot assuredly be represented: attention, affection, care, comfort, security, among others. Surely words worth a thousand pictures each.

In doing so, my children, like prehistoric cave dwellers before them, like my need for words rather than moving images, wish to inhabit that world of abstract thought that makes us human.

Kedar A Kulkarni is Assistant Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University, Pune.