It’s obvious that where his films are concerned, Aamir Khan cannot be messed around with. He’s a detail-crazy perfectionist, and makes no bones about the fact. That’s perhaps why few of his films fail to do well. But recently, director Rajkumar Hirani was more than pleasantly stunned when the actor volunteered to step in during the post-production of 3 Idiots, and take charge of the movie’s sub-titles.
Who’d dare complain? Sub-titling is one of the most tedious tasks on the film set, one whose importance has so far been underrated in film production, neglected financially as well as in terms of skill. But Aamir Khan is not the only person to acknowledge how important a film’s sub-titles are; directors and producers have woken up too.
That’s because there’s a growing realisation of how heavily the experience of a film depends on how the audience receives it, especially through its language. And if the language of the film is foreign to viewers, or beyond their understanding, it’s as though the film need not have been distributed at all. Which is why there’s more sub-titling in films these days than ever before. Imagine the endless number of excellent films that would be out of our reach without them.
But what is it that actually goes into making sub-titles? And why do so many of the movies that we watch today – whether on the big screen, on TV, on DVD, or the Internet – come complete with them?
“Today, you can no longer afford to ignore sub-titles; we are in a global market,” says Nasreen Munni Kabir, London-based documentary filmmaker and author who has also sub-titled over 400 films for Channel 4 TV in UK. “People in the US and Europe come out laughing from the theatres because the quality of Hindi movie sub-titles is so bad. We need to take the work more seriously.”
Kabir need not worry. Directors and producers in India are increasingly growing aware of potential markets to be catered to all over the world. Most directors, in fact, take sub-titles so seriously, that they personally sit with the sub-titles’ writer and explain the film scene-by-scene, just so that the work is done exactly the way they want it.
“It’s important to get the thought out of the dialogues, rather than merely translate,” says Rakeysh Mehra, who worked hard on the sub-titles of his recent film Delhi 6 and earlier, Rang De Basanti. “It’s important to get to the soul and heart of the meaning. People who watch your film are actually reading it more than listening, and it’s important to take complete care of the sub-titles. So I sit with the sub-titler and try and convey how each character speaks, in his unique, individual way.”
Sub-titles are used because viewers may not understand the language, but they are also used because viewers of the film may be foreign to the country where the film is made. So, it’s important that cultural constructs need to be conveyed as well as possible, using only a few words at a time. Which means the sub-titling must be done well.
“Every word doesn’t need to be translated,” explains actor-cum-producer Eelahe Hiptoola, who has worked with filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor since his very first movie, Hyderabad Blues. “The human mind is so fascinating that it picks up words in an amazing way as it goes along. So it’s the gist of the meaning and the gist of the film that must be conveyed.”
She shudders as she recalls how the sub-titling was done for their other film Dor. “There were lots of spelling errors where proper nouns were concerned, and the placement was not up to the mark.”
It sounds like a small thing, but placement is actually very, very important. As Hiptoola says, “If the sub-title pops up before the sound, the effect is killed. Nobody understands this issue.”
Equally important, says Rakeysh Mehra, is that the sub-titles need to be introduced in such a way that they do not intrude into the film, but remain apt. Nasreen Kabir, who has worked with him on several occasions as a sub-titler, agrees. “It’s true that good sub-titles may not improve a bad film, but bad sub-titles can definitely ruin a good film,” she says. “Think about Iranian cinema and the use of silences there.”
MS Sutar, technical director at Future Works, a sub-titling agency in Mumbai, feels the quality of sub-titling still has a long way to go. He remembers various instances in his almost three-decade-old career when, as a technical person, he had to return sub-titles to translators because of appalling mistakes and bad judgement.
“I remember this instance when a sub-titler had actually written ‘chi… chi… chi’ to indicate birds chirping in the background,” says Sutar. “This is not done; it looks and sounds extremely foolish. All you need to write is “birds chirping in the background”! We usually get sub-titles approved by the director before they are printed on film.”
Digital technology and other methods available today have made sub-titling easier, points out Sutar, who had worked at the National Film Development Corporation for almost 23 years. Still, there can often be dreadful mistakes. “Although we’re technical people, the sub-titling can sometimes be so terrible that we get down to correcting it ourselves,” he says. “Even then, there are times when we’ve had no choice but to go ahead and release the film, because directors are in such a hurry.”
Sub-titles also suffer because there’s little money in it. “It’s a badly paid profession, and very tough to find good talent,” says Sutar. Kabir agrees.
“I often tell my directors that they aren’t paying attention to sub-titles,” she says. “They’ll spend Rs 5 crore on making a film, and Rs 5,000 on sub-titling. This is disproportionate,” she says.
If you watch English films, you’ve probably seen that the sub-titles on them are, as Kabir says, “mostly very good.”
But if you find it utterly baffling that English language films on TV should have sub-titles in English, be rest assured there’s no mystery. The sub-titles are introduced to help us come to grips with different English accents, not the language itself.
“The Hollywood accent is not easy to catch in India, even by those whose English is very good,” says Shruti Bajpai, country manager of HBO South Asia. “I myself find it hard to understand some words in English films, because the way we speak is different.”
But subtitling these films also gives the channel control over the content of the subtitles – and that means that explicit words and phrases that have not already been censored out of films, are now toned down. And HBO is not the only movie channel to do this.
“Though we never screen a film that is not cleared by the censor in the first place, if we ourselves feel, even after that, that words or scenes are inappropriate to be viewed, we take the initiative to censor it,” says Bajpai. “We don’t allow explicit words to go in writing in the sub-titles, even if they are being spoken on screen.”
Films aired on TV are not the only ones to be subject to this second censorship. The DVD version of the bilingual Slumdog Millionaire also keeps its tone low on many abusive words. Translated from English to English as well as Hindi to English, some of the most abusive words in Hindi are replaced by tamer ones like ‘idiot’, ‘brute’, and ‘scoundrel’. Words like ‘shit’ are changed to ‘crap’ and almost no explicit usage is repeated in writing.
Ira Bhaskar, who teaches Cinema Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, says she remembers this happening in the film Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro too. “There was a lot of abusive talk, street-language in the film, and we found censorship in certain sub-titles,” she says. “But when we screened it at a recent film festival in Abu Dhabhi, we redid the sub-titles ourselves.”
There are fewer constraints on the Internet though. Movie clips, like that of Kajra Re, on sites like YouTube, are filled with unofficial translations. However, producers can exercise their rights to protect their own material.
“We’ve never pulled up anyone for putting up translations. Those are their personal interpretations,” says Hiren Gada, director, Shemaroo Entertainment Private Ltd. “But we do often notify websites and get videos pulled off, if uploaded illegally.”