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Karnataka and its long-standing unspoken ban on dubbed films

Since 1962, Karnataka has had an unspoken ban on films being dubbed into Kannada. That rationale is being questioned now nearly 54 years later.

regional movies Updated: Nov 09, 2016 17:23 IST
Hindi film My Husband’s Wife was dubbed into Kannada as Naanu Nanna Preeti.
Hindi film My Husband’s Wife was dubbed into Kannada as Naanu Nanna Preeti.

Do you remember a 2010 Bollywood movie My Husband’s Wife, with Shakti Kapoor, Prem Chopra, and Rati Agnihotri? Probably not. But it has been dubbed into Kannada, named Naanu Nanna Preeti, and was released in seven centres in North Karnataka in July. This came after Darshan Enterprises, the producers of the movie even filed a writ petition in the Dharwad bench of the Karnataka High Court, seeking security for the release of the film. Why? Well, no other movie has been dubbed into Kannada since 1962.

Pawan Kumar, director, actor and screenwriter, who has directed films like Lucia and Lifeu Ishtene, recently tried to get The Jungle Book dubbed into Kannada, like it has been done in other Indian languages. He says, “People end up picking up other languages to be able to consume the movies they want to watch. Everyone got to watch The Jungle Book except Kannadiga kids, because it was offered in every language except Kannada.” When Kumar approached Disney Studio for the rights to dub the film, he didn’t get the permission: “It was an unpleasant scenario, because no studio would want to take the risk of dubbing into Kannada even though the ban has no legal sanction; it is easier for them to simply ignore this language and continue to do business in all the others,” he says.

The long-standing ban on dubbed films ended only in July 2015 when the Competition Commission of India (CCI) stated that they found that the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC), Karnataka Television Association (KTVA), and the Kannada Film Producers Association (KFPA), were responsible for keeping this anti-dubbing agreement in place, thus going against Section 3 of the Competition Act, 2002. They then imposed a penalty on the three bodies. The KFCC has now appealed to the Competition Appellate Tribunal.

The unspoken ban on dubbing does not have any legal sanction, but might as well have for decades. Prakash Belawadi, an actor, filmmaker, activist and journalist, who co-founded the Centre for Film and Drama in Bangalore, says that the origin of this ban was in the 1940s and 1950s, when the Kannada film industry was first born and separated from Madras, where films were always made. The late veteran actor Rajkumar had then requested Madras to stop dubbing films into Kannada to let the industry grow, and this agreement stuck. Film and TV serial director B Suresha adds that in 1965, a few exhibitors at Kempegowda

Road committed orally that they would not screen dubbed films, which became a social custom.

Now, in 2016, nearly 60 years after this oral agreement, G Krishnamurthy of Darshan Enterprises insists, “It is the right of every Kannadiga to watch a movie in their language,” and adds that in the seven centres in North Karnataka that Naanu Nanna Preeti has been released, the movie has done well. He also says that this is despite many people trying to scare away viewers by talking to the media and saying that they will not be responsible if the movie faces backlash. Krishnamurthy is also the secretary of the newly formed Karnataka Dubbing Film Chamber of Commerce (KDFCC), which supports dubbed films, as opposed to the KFCC, or the KTVA.

Naanu Nanna Preeti sought security before its release.

Given all the acronym-bearing rival bodies, it’s unexpected that the CCI was asked to resolve the issue by a group of viewers, not by someone within the industry. The inquiry lasted two whole years.

Vasant Shetty, a techie who is also the admin of the Facebook page ‘Allow Dubbing in Kannada’ (started in 2006/7), and was one of the people who demanded this change, says that it was easier for them to be able to do this because they were part of an audience - “We had no stakes: when people from the industry itself protested the ban, they would immediately have been made outcasts,” he says. He remembers a time in 2010, when the Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy spoke to actors, directors and producers after Ernst & Young published a report on the South Indian film industry, according to which Karnataka’s market size was only Rs 0.5 billion. After this meeting, they came out with a long report that had just a single line about dubbing, stating that it would help boost the industry. There was then a huge ruckus about the line on dubbing, and it had to be withdrawn. Ganesh Chetan, who also filed the case with the CCI, says he did so when he realised that cartoons and Discovery channel programmes were not available in Kannada. He says very confidently that those who don’t support dubbing only do this for commercial reasons, using the idea of protecting Kannada culture for cover, because the issue then becomes emotional. The hope is that once one dubbed movie comes out, others will follow.

There is a tone in which ‘dubbing culture’ is talked about in Karnataka, which is similar to the distaste with which we refer to ‘Western culture’ as coming in the way of ‘Indian culture’. Much of this has to do with a strong sense of linguistic chauvinism that plays out in this protectionist way, and is perhaps tied to the Kannada film industry more strongly because of the rigour with which actors like Rajkumar supported the rule against dubbing. But the term in itself is an ambiguous one, and the debate on dubbing in the Kannada industry seems as much economic as it is cultural, although the arguments seem to switch between these angles, depending on who it is directed towards.

Filmmaker B Suresha, for instance, believes that those who went to the CCI are receiving funding from “corporate giants”. Then he says that the dubbing controversy is a purely cultural one, because it is a cultural model that is in practice and not an economic one - the CCI, he argues, has nothing to do with culture, but only competition.

He says, “If anyone wants to break a social custom, it can happen any day; someone can just wear their slippers in a temple if they choose to. It is the same in the case of dubbing; you can never bring the cultural ethos of one language into another language by way of dubbing, and as a film maker, you choose the language you want to make your film in. I think we should let the social custom of not wearing slippers into a temple continue.” Having said this, he is also quick to add that the budgets for Kannada films are different from Bollywood ones, and Kannada films cannot compete with a Sultan. “For a local man, a dubbed film will look rich on screen, and people addicted to consumerism would feel happy with something that looks rich on screen, and they will not think that it is not their culture. This is disturbing,” he says seriously.

Further explaining his argument, Suresha points out that a sunflower oil brand’s advertisement in Kannada makes no sense -- the Hindi tag line, Maa ko dekho, health ko dekho, has been translated into Amma-ge nodu, health-ge nodu, where the use of ge sounds silly and awkward. “Each language has its own structure and placement of words, and no entertainment should ever be dubbed into another language, because it’s a danger to the regional language. A young child will learn this language, which is not the way in which it is supposed to be spoken,” he says.

Suneel Raghavendra, who recently made his first film Puta Tirugisi Nodi, says that the issue of dubbing is more complex than just saying that it is unconstitutional. “We need to look at the politics of the language utilised, because when we dub something, it’s someone else’s voice; it’s the same problem during subtitling, and I usually try to keep the voice of the character. Every language has a politics intrinsic in it, and dubbing becomes contentious along those lines,” he says. Instead, Raghavendra suggests that perhaps we can begin by dubbing foreign films into Kannada, or other Indian languages, because the visuals are so starkly different from scenes that people are used to seeing in India, that it cannot be appropriated.

What these arguments don’t look at, however, is that the intended audience for dubbed content is not always for the class that can consume the content in the original - many of us have luxuriously had conversations about funny translations of the names of houses in the Harry Potter movies when it is playing in Hindi.

Belawadi says vehemently that the ban is wrong and dangerous, because, “If this commercial aspect of allowing dubbed content in Kannada is not accepted, then a lot of other content and information can get lost. This information needs to be made available in local languages because it automatically allows more people to access this global content. There is no other cultural argument to this - if your aim is to protect the market, then you also have to allow it to grow.” He goes on to say that it is unfair to stop Kannadigas from watching films like Kabali, just because of an agreement.

KM Chaitanya, filmmaker and theatre person, splits the argument along ethical and economic lines - he says that while the court has declared that banning dubbed movies is illegal, dubbing should be banned from an ethical point of view. He argues that except for Kasthuri TV, there is no Kannada channel that is owned by a Kannadiga-Udaya TV is owned by Sun Network (based in Tamil Nadu), Zee Kannada is owned by Zee Network (based in Mumbai), Suvarna TV is owned by Star Network (based in Mumbai) - “For a smaller market like Karnataka, they don’t see it as necessary to produce original content. This is what happened in the Telugu industry when they dubbed Balika Vadhu. It was a huge success, and it killed their industry, because now people make and watch only dubbed content. The problem is the same for films in the Kannada industry,” he says. While Chaitanya also argues that movies are a cultural product, and so the resistance to dubbing cannot be legal, he says that dubbing homogenises a culture, making mass production more important than new content.

A poster of the film Naanu Nanna Preeti...

But perhaps it can also be argued that audiences are more discerning than Chaitanya gives them credit for. For instance, Bangalore-based student Karthik Shanker watches a lot of Kannada and Tamil movies. He thinks dubbed movies are important because they allow different audiences to get to know different industries, and argues that filmmakers shouldn’t treat audiences as though they are passive viewers who will watch anything. He says, “Take Kabali, for instance. The movie is by far the worst movie,” he says airily. “Everything is only being held together by Rajinikanth, and it’s like the director knows this but doesn’t care.”

While 20-year-old Nidhi Yelburgi, who works at a start-up and watches a lot of Kannada films, says that in her experience remakes run very successfully, filmmaker Pawan Kumar argues, “Dubbing will begin to force people to make original content, and the pressure to learn and speak the language will increase. Directors will be forced to look for new actors because there is more space to produce new content and more people will hear the language.”

Kumar also argues that with more dubbed movies, filmmakers will stop remaking movies from other languages. In 2014, for instance, there were 20 Kannada films that were remakes, and in 2015, there were 11 remakes (including Sudeep’s Ranna, which was a big hit). This year, so far, we have seen 6 remakes of various Tamil and Telugu movies, like Jigarthanda, Kalpana 2, and Bhale Jodi. In these three years, most have been remakes of either Tamil or Telugu movies, or occasionally Malayalam movies.

The costs involved in dubbing a movie are also much lower than those involved in remaking a movie: Pawan Kumar says that the approximate cost involved in dubbing would be around Rs 25-30 lakh, while the costs for a remake would be much more, since money has to be spent not only on making the movie, but also on buying the rights to the original story (this cost will vary depending on how well the original film did). Even the story rights to Kumar’s crowd-funded film Lucia were sold to remakers for Rs 50 lakh. The costs involved in dubbing are only studio costs and actor fees - “In India, though, very often the actors whose voices you hear in dubbed movies are not made known in the same fanfare as in the case of Hollywood,” Kumar says. Ask him what he would have spent if he had got to dub The Jungle Book, and he says it would have cost him nearly Rs 50-60 lakh, simply because he would have wanted good actors.

Vasuki Raghavan, a software engineer by profession, who writes extensively about Kannada films, says that he doesn’t think anything drastic will happen when movies begin to be dubbed into Kannada, but we absolutely must let the audiences decide and have options.

Even for audiences, this controversy is as much about culture as it is about economics and rights, where each of these are not as easily separated as they are made out to be. And a dubbed Shakti Kapoor film is a prism through which a great deal of Karnataka’s history and present can be viewed.

(In arrangement with GRIST Media.)