Seeking unity in diversity

Posted on January 29, 2014


In a country as diverse as ours, how do we prevent the ghettoisation of the regional film industries? Subtitles could be a start…

When an Elizabeth Taylor or a Paul Newman dies, all of America grieves. One reason, of course, is that these stars belonged to a time when we had to go to the movies, like devotees seeking a darshan. They could only be glimpsed on big screens in big theatres. Had these stars been today’s stars – when the movies have come to us, on our laptops and on tiny TV sets screwed to the back of airline seats – their mystery might have been eroded by the time they reached the end of their careers, and they may have been remembered merely as entertainers, not as screen gods and goddesses. But there’s another reason these stars were mourned by all of America – not just by the people in Kansas or Nevada or Florida – and that’s because they acted in films made in the language the whole country spoke and understood.

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We lost two stars from that larger-than-life era recently – Suchitra Sen and Akkineni Nageswara Rao – and the outpourings of grief have come mainly from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Only the people who spoke Bengali and Telugu (or those who follow these languages and watch films in these languages) really knew what these stars were all about. The rest of us experience a general sense of sadness, the kind that descends on us whenever an achiever passes away, but these feelings don’t become really personal. And how could they, given that we’ve seen a bare handful of their films? When asked to write obituaries, non-Bengalis keep referring to Sen’s popular Hindi films like Devdas and Aandhi and Mamta and Bambai Ka Baboo, while non-Telugus settle for discussing the small number of Tamil films that Nageswara Rao starred in, and as songs are recalled more easily than films, we end up lingering over Thunbam nergayil, the most famous of Nageswara Rao’s songs in Tamil (from the film Or Iravu), even if he was mostly just a spectator to the singing.

We could go online and order DVDs of the films made by these stars, but the prints are almost guaranteed to be grainy and patchy, and they won’t come with subtitles. About the former, nothing can be done. We don’t have the kind of film culture that actively preserves older films, and even the works of Satyajit Ray were restored only due to the championing of, among others, the Merchant-Ivory duo and Martin Scorsese. But that happened because Ray was an internationally renowned filmmaker. Who’s going to undertake similar efforts – expensive and time-consuming – to refurbish the films of stars largely known and loved only in specific states?

But bad prints we can still live with – if they came with subtitles. I have spoken about this many, many times, and that’s because it cannot be said enough: If we want to prevent the ghettoisation of our regional film industries, we must insist on subtitles. We don’t live in the Doordarshan era anymore, where on sleepy Sunday afternoons, we could still tune into an old Assamese or Marathi film, which we followed through the subtitles. (And many of those prints were terrible, but did we complain?) We don’t have a Chitramala anymore, where, at least for a half-hour every Monday, we’d be exposed to songs from long-ago films made in other Indian states and languages. We live in an age that celebrates only the new, and where the likes of Ilayaraja and RD Burman are consigned to the “classics” section on the FM channels. (I wonder how those RJs would label the music of a G Ramanathan or a Naushad. Palaeolithic?) How, then, can someone like me, from Chennai, hope to get at least a glimpse of what stars like Suchitra Sen or Akkineni Nageswara Rao were like in their prime – and in their best films, made in their own tongues?

But if subtitling older films is too much effort, if there are no funds, if there is no interest, then let’s look at subtitling the new ones – not just the “classy” movies, the ones that win National Awards, but also the commercial love stories and the masala movies, so that if a Gujarati speaker who’s just moved to Chennai wants to check out a Vijay movie or an Ajith movie (just to see what the fuss is about), then he needn’t be intimidated by the prospect of not understanding these films (even if you could make the argument that there’s not much in these films to understand, in the first place). Why is this important? Because regional films reflect regional sensibilities and by watching these films, we open ourselves to tiny transfusions of culture. We see not just what kind of stories our neighbours from other states like to watch but also what kind of lives they lead, what they do for work and play – and in a country as diverse as ours, the importance of this cannot be emphasised enough.

And there’s no major cost involved. The arty films are subtitled in any case, for screenings at film festivals and for National Award jury panels. As for the commercial films, the expense involved wouldn’t be a fraction of the heroine’s wardrobe. All films, in other words, must ideally be subtitled, so that anyone, anywhere can watch any movie. It’s a terrible situation when we can slip into one of the various International Film Festivals across the country and see and understand films from France and Korea and Romania, but the new and much-lauded Mohanlal movie Drishyam is being shown (in Chennai) without subtitles. I was told that all I needed “was a working knowledge of Malayalam,” but what if that’s not there? Besides, who wants to see films and get just a general idea about the goings on, without cottoning on to the specific undertones that define and describe every culture?

There’s still a problem. I’m only talking about English-language subtitles, so a large number of Indians who don’t read English (or who don’t read, period) aren’t going to benefit from subtitles unless the text is in a local language. (Maybe dubbing is an option, in this case. Hollywood films are routinely dubbed in European languages, and now even in Telugu and Tamil.) Nor does the addition of subtitles automatically broaden a film’s appeal to a large audience. Many viewers are happy seeing films in their language – the opening of a brand-new pizzeria isn’t a guarantee that patrons of the local Udupi restaurant are going to switch loyalties. But it’s worthwhile even if it’s only for a small set of people. It’s at least a start, a way to know what’s happening in cinema around India, cinema that is not from Bollywood. We keep reading about how great this film is from this country and that film is from that one, and how we don’t make anything like this in our own country. But maybe we are making good films. It’s just that the people who don’t speak the language don’t know anything about them.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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