Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A lover in another language”

Thoughts from re-watching a Hindi hit in Tamil, and the inevitable issue of (and issues with) dubbing.

The first viewing of a film is so spent on who the people are and what they do and how the plot thickens and how it all ends that the little oddities escape our eyes, the details that exist beyond who did what to whom. When I watched Raanjhanaa again – in its Tamil-dubbed avatar, as Ambikapathy – I caught the red piping on the hero’s orange-and-gold wedding suit and the slab of Amul butter in the heroine’s hand as she walks past a group of college kids singing about America. And I heard, properly, the background score that plays over the portions after an unfortunate scooter is steered into the Ganges. This film is so filled with songs that grasping them and their part in the narrative consumes all your energies the first time around, and it’s only now that I noticed the lingering unease in the piano strains as the hero comes to grip with the bitter reality that his love will never be reciprocated.

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Some films surrender everything they have during a first viewing. There’s nothing left to discover when you watch them again. The political portions in Ambikapathy seemed as silly and amateurish as they did while I watched Raanjhanaa, but in the rest of the film, there wasn’t a boring moment. What a strange and complex anti-romance this is, making you want to call up the director the minute it’s over and ask: After the scooter incident, why did Zoya go back to Kundan, knowing how unhinged he can get? What is she doing embracing him after meeting the CM? What, exactly, is running through her mind? Why does Rashmi introduce Kundan to her parents as the one who saved her brother, when all he did was find him by the railway tracks and haul him to a hospital? In my review, I noted that Raanjhanaa was like a Selvaraghavan film, but I forgot to mention the aspect that makes it most like a Selvaraghavan film: it keeps gnawing away at you.

In some films, when we encounter “flaws” or “lapses,” we simply attribute them to bad writing – but here (as in Selvaraghavan’s films), we’re unable to turn away. We know the characters could be better, the scenes could be better, and yet, even amidst these imperfections, we’re compelled to keep staring at the screen. One reason is surely Dhanush, whose performance is magnetic, if not quite revelatory. Just watch him after he’s spit on by an angry Zoya, the mix of emotions than runs across his face. Dhanush has something beyond mere technical mastery, a rawness that reaches out and touches us, like an essay whose ideas are so powerful that the spelling and grammatical mistakes don’t matter. And the fact that he’s now speaking Tamil made the performance stronger, even though his name doesn’t sit well in a Tamil milieu. Inga vaa, Kundan. Nope. Doesn’t sound right. Neither do Zoya and Bindiya. Should the names have been changed, like how Aligarh was changed to Agra, a city more familiar to Tamils?

But niggles apart, there’s little to complain about the Tamilisation. (And oh, it’s amusing to see a “Tamil” film whose hero is an Iyer boy, a turn of events that can come about only through the miracle of dubbing.) I thought I’d be in for something as ludicrous as those Telugu movies dubbed in Hindi that play on TV at hours no one watches TV – but the dubbing is exemplary. The dialogues (by John Mahendran) –and, given the preponderance of music, also the lyrics (Vairamuthu) – aren’t an exercise in Junoon-Tamil, where the word-for-word translation can hurt the ear, but wise approximations, knowing that “Rooh Afza” – a drink more popular in the north – is best rendered as “juice.” Why, though, is the swearing beeped out? Why is the colloquial coarseness of the Hindi slang for one’s posterior allowed to ring out, loud and proud, while the Tamil equivalent has to hide like a coward?

Because of the inbuilt “Tamil”-ness of Raanjhana – its hero; its plot – it was easy to slip into the Tamil-dubbed version, and I wondered, later, if I’d have felt so much at ease with a dubbed version of, say, Lootera. This never happens to me with English films, which, from the Cold War era, for instance, never required a leap of faith. Take Hitchcock’s Topaz. It moves from Copenhagen to the US to Cuba to France, and everyone speaks English with a unique accent. We hear English even in a room filled with Frenchmen, and though we know they should have really been speaking French, the clipped vowels and the softened consonants keep us from questioning this falsity. Had I watched the same film dubbed in Hindi or Tamil, I’d have balked. I think it’s because English is so widely spoken in the West that we have no trouble tolerating its presence in that room filled with Frenchmen. Another reason, I think, is that we have been trained by “dubbed” literature to accept José Arcadio Buendía and Raskolnikov as English-speakers, and maybe if I’d grown up reading these novels in Hindi or Tamil, I’d find the juxtaposition less suspect. Any thoughts?

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2013 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

11 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A lover in another language”

  1. “After the scooter incident, why did Zoya go back to Kundan, knowing how unhinged he can get?”

    I think this is her selfishness(or helplessness) that is compelling her to use kundan for her purpose. she must have known that kundan’s craziness is getting fueled by her presence. so she needed to make a distance but she also needed to convince her father regarding wedding with akram. but what exactly did kundan do? just stalk her father and making hero out of her? this, i guess, is plot weakness.

    “What is she doing embracing him after meeting the CM? “

    i guess she is trying to fake goodness to kundan so that he falls in trap and goes to meet his death. but again, there wasn’t anything much to convimce him. he would have gone anyhow. so, this again, i believe, is plot weakness.

    “Why does Rashmi introduce Kundan to her parents as the one who saved her brother, when all he did was find him by the railway tracks and haul him to a hospital?”

    but kundan did save jasjeet by bringing him hospital because by just lying there, he would have died. moreover, this is perhaps her way of trying to make kundan guilt-free. because she thinks that zoya and jasjeet themselves are more responsible for jasjeet’s condition than kundan is. she believes that they shouldn’t have faked the identity. she even says this to zoya when she is telling other party-members about kundan’s identity. but their conversation is overshadowed by the commotion outside.

    but i wonder why did rashmi have to take help from kundan. were all other sources of help blocked? i mean couldn’t she have brought police to help? this again, i feel, is a plot weakness.

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  2. regarding translation, i feel, identity of visible objects should be retained. if it is rooh-afza, say so. please don’t make it juice. afterall, we are telling the audience that the story is in agra (even this should have been aligarh only, we shouldn’t consider the audience any less intelligent). when a story from a particular location is shown, its cultural identity is bound to reflect. and audience can pretty much understand that it must be some of their drinks. 2morrow somebody may say JNU is not that common, let’s change it to DU. i really wonder how could they change aligarh to agra. AMU is a famous historical university there.

    problem comes when impact of a sentence is lost in translation. like ‘i will not bite you.’- ‘main tumhe kaatungi nahi’ (talaash, as a reader on this blog pointed out), when it should have been ‘main tumhe kha nahi jaungi’

    u once said- ‘vada pav’ should be translated to ‘hot-dog’. i again object. audience can very much understand that it is a local product. infact calling it a hotdog would be a distarction,as people can easily see that it’s not a hotdog!.2morrow some may say, ‘vada-pav’ is not a north-indian dish, lets translate it to samosa. or maybe momos for chinese.

    would u suggest in english-to-hindi translation, changing ‘hot-dog’ to ‘vada-pav’? i believe no.

    in dubbed versions the main problem i have is that of accent or the unmatched voice. by unmatched, i mean, a lean girl having such a heavy voice,etc. it’s sounds so real fake. even a damn serious scene makes me laugh.

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  3. doctor saar,

    matter yenna? namma oorla araichhu, oosi pona maava, velioorla dosa-suttu, pera maathi, namma oorukkey tirumba parcel potlam anuppittaangannu-daaney sutthi-valaichhu solla varreenga?

    paavam, namma Selva-saar-daan, tambi Pirabu-koodavey “indi”-pada chance-a cycle-gap-ley kottey vittutaaru.
    um-umm, nadakkattum….namakku iduvum venum, innumum venum. :(

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  4. I did not read the entire piece since I am planning to watch the movie so wanted a virgin experience. But having read the first para, I think most of the details I catch on repeated viewings are after them mentioned in your articles. Thank you for that and looking forward to revisit your past analysis for such details so that I can catch some films just to spot and appreciate them.

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  5. ramitbajaj01: IMO the whole point of dubbing/subtitling etc. — i.e. whatever you do to make the movie accessible to those who don’t know the language — should take into consideration cultural factors. I do think that, in a Tamil milieu, “juice” is better than “Rooh Afza,” and if I were American, I would understand “hot dog” better than whatever you want to translate vada pav as. The sense, the placing of something in its cultural context, is more important than what you say, i.e. “identity of visible objects should be retained.”

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  6. one of the major turning point from plot development point-of-view is when Dhanush talks to the Tamil IPS officer, which allows inadvertently makes him the de-facto leader of the political party. however, the reason he is able to score a point is coz he talks to the IPS officer in Tamil, which no one else around him could manage. How has this scene been shown in Tamil version? is the IPS officer of some other state of which Dhanush knows the language?

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  7. i just watched rango (2011 oscar winning american animated film) in hindi. it had references to karan-arjun, mahabharat, raksha-bandhan, shahrukh khan, sanjay dutt.. i got so perplexed that i downloaded the english subtitles and watched some of the bits again. to my surprise, apart from the main storyline, almost everything has been changed. all western references and extras replaced by indian ones. i am overwhelmed. so much pains are taken to translate a movie so as to make the movie-watching experience wholesome for audiences. i really appreciate this. And i accept that if they retain the originality, the target audience won’t be able to enjoy fully.

    and even the voice cast was perfect in hindi. any idea who did the voice-overs?

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  8. Rahul: Ambikapathy (the poet Kamban’s son) is the Tamil equivalent of Ranjha/Majnu/Romeo — the hero of a star-crossed romance. His name is local currency for “besotted lover,” much like those other names.

    Satyendra Jha: No, that scene is in Tamil all around. “Roja” had the same problem. In the Tamil version, Roja speaks in Tamil and Wasim Khan (in jail) speaks Hindi, so we get his inability to get across. But in the Hindi-dubbed version, they both speak in Hindi and the point of the scene was lost.

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  9. “Had I watched the same film dubbed in Hindi or Tamil, I’d have balked. I think it’s because English is so widely spoken in the West that we have no trouble tolerating its presence in that room filled with Frenchmen. Another reason, I think, is that we have been trained by “dubbed” literature to accept José Arcadio Buendía and Raskolnikov as English-speakers, and maybe if I’d grown up reading these novels in Hindi or Tamil, I’d find the juxtaposition less suspect. Any thoughts?”

    I’d agree more with the latter half than with the former, ie the effect of dubbed literature is what makes it easier for us to accept situations such as those in Topaz. That and the fact that we speak and read (and possibly even think) in English. I doubt that a person who didn’t speak the language (or read books in English) would have any problems with a Hindi dubbed version of Topaz.

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