5 May 2015

Speaking in Tongues

My Mirror column for 3 May, 2015: 

Why are we so resistant to subtitled films, instead of pouring our efforts into improving their quality and reach?

Mani Ratnam's film, O Kadhal Kanmani, was released in Delhi with subtitles.
Most people, when asked if they read translated books, are likely to say no. Yet, anyone who grew up reading in English has probably read Hans Christian Andersen (originally Danish) and the Brothers Grimm (originally German). They're quite likely to know Heidi and The Swiss Family Robinson - both Swiss-German classics, one from 1880, the other 1812 - not to mention Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers (serialised 1844), and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince (1943), both from French. And The Adventures of Pinocchio, first published in Italian in 1883. And those who grew up in 1980s India are certain to have encountered books from the USSR (hands up, everyone who knows Dunno and his friends, or Baba Yaga the witch and Vasilisa the Beautiful!). 

And these are just the most obvious examples. Given how much of what we read as children was translated, how have we managed, as adults, to nurse a grudge against translated books? Who came up with the depressing notion that they're somehow "good for us" (read: no fun)? It's not an easy question, and there could be many answers. Maybe children are, despite appearances, more open to the unfamiliar than adults? Maybe children's books have less dense description, or simply less text, so translations are easier? 

Whatever the reason for most people's reluctance, it carries over to movies. Most people greet with utter shock the idea of watching a film in a language they don't speak. Or at least think of it as enormously hard work (repeat: no fun). Last month, two perfectly sensible, widely-read people responded to my recommendation of Court with a dubious "But it's in Marathi, no? Accha, it's subtitled?" Also last month, a Tamil gentleman seated next to us during a screening of O Kadhal Kanmani practically fell out of his chair upon learning that we did not speak Tamil. But that was precisely why I was so glad when Mani Ratnam's latest film, which my Twitter and Facebook couldn't seem to stop discussing, released in Delhi with subtitles: how often I've missed a big Tamil release because Delhi theatres ran an unsubtitled version. 

So yes, I don't watch a film if I have no way of knowing what the characters say. In that sense, I totally disagree with someone like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who once dismissed my question about the impact of English on the making of Hindi cinema by declaring that cinema "transcends language". I think language matters in cinema, just as it does in life. But just as in life, while you might not want to live forever in a place where you don't know the language, surely you can't let that stop you from travelling to new places? I've always been an anti-dubber (I hate the weird sense of cultural overlay: the invariably overdone intonations, the mismatched accents - perhaps this is how some people think of translation). But I'm a subtitled film fan. 

I see subtitles as giving me access to a world I wouldn't otherwise enter - but like a polite, well-spoken guide, providing commentary unobtrusively, not drowning out the voices of the locals. If you know the original language, of course, subtitles will always be unsatisfying: like my Tamil-speaking friend who spent the interval telling me how OKK's subtitles were doing no justice to the romantic banter. And because subtitling is often done on a tight budget, many films eat up their characters' words, like that lazy interpreter who speaks one sentence to the speaker's four. (Even the otherwise exemplarily subtitled Court labelled some perfectly intelligible policewomen talking in Hindi as "Indistinct Chatter".) 

The writer and filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir, veteran subtitler of some 600 Hindi films (into English and French), is one of the few who've managed to not just specialise in subtitling but be credited for it. She told me that BBC's Channel Four, with which she works, re-subtitles every Hindi film it screens, because the existing ones are usually so dreadful. Another sort of creative response to bad subtitles is that of Bollywood blogger Beth Watkins, who runs a joyously crowdsourced tumblr called "Paagal Subtitles": recent prizewinning entries include "According to the post-modem report" (Holiday, 2014) and "I am surrounded by duckheads" (Mardaani, 2014). 

Watch enough subtitled films and you will swiftly acquire the art of reading while also taking in the image. The only time I'm distracted by subtitles is when I don't need them, or they're in a language I don't know. But there can be unexpected pay-offs: two episodes' worth of House of Cards with French subtitles taught me more conversational French than a semester at Alliance Francaise. 

Of course, as with anything language-related in India, there's the usual elephant in the room: subtitles are only ever provided in English. I have never seen subtitles in any other Indian language -- whether it be for regional language cinema on Doordarshan (or more recently, on Lok Sabha TV), any film festival screening from Kolkata to Trivandrum, or the rare commercial release with subtitles, like OKK or Court, or the much-discussed subtitling of the "Urdu-heavy" Dedh Ishqiya in cities like Bangalore. Although I've long been pleasantly surprised by the varied audience at the International Film Festival of Kerala (and was appalled at Adoor Gopalakrishnan's desire to screen IFFK registrants for knowledge of English), Kerala's level of English-literateness does not extend to most of India. I cannot but agree with film critic Mihir Pandya's long standing suggestion that the government should fund the subtitling of all National Award-winning films each year, into all major languages. That would be a start. How else, really, will we ever listen to each other, outside the tiny echo-chamber of English?

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