Readers Write In #263: Tamil cinema wrestles with its dubbing woes, and Darbar is a vexatious demonstration of it

Posted on September 8, 2020

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(by Alex John)

Finally, I managed to bring myself to sitting down and writing about something that has been squirming in the back of my head for quite a long time. If you are a filmmaker, the films that you make are viable means of expressing yourself, and something that makes you some money. So, the question is, how long can you keep tampering with something that establishes you as an artist and pays your bills? I kept asking this to myself while I was watching Darbar, a dubbing debacle in which almost every supporting actor is allowed to speak his/her mind. I could believe there was actually somebody who directed that film. I know, the dubbing aspect of Tamil cinema hasn’t been the best in the country for some time. Its audience, including me, has been unjustifiably subjected to non-Tamil speaking heroines and villains speaking their own languages and get their parts ADR-ed later. But for a non-Tamil speaker, it all added to the exoticism. I could ignore it even if it grew more annoying over the years, but Darbar was a totally different beast that irritated me to no end. The level of laziness brought to the lip-sync part of this film made me wonder how could they do something which does gross disservice to their art, business, language and audience.

Darbar has its first 30-odd minutes that seems like a Hindi film dubbed in Tamil. Lips move in Hindi, and we hear Tamil spoken by them. This is, of course, ignorable if done in a limited fashion, but we are bombarded by the desultory dubbing efforts which makes the film a painful watch. Think about it; if you are in the business of make-believe, and the most elementary thing you do with your film is utterly unconvincing, how qualified are you as a filmmaker? Besides that, isn’t this a lackadaisical treatment of your own language? You are making a film and showing your viewers you are willing to resolve a triviality like the unavailability of the Tamil speaking actors in an utterly obvious manner, even if it makes your language look ugly and delivered in a perfunctory fashion. But wait, Tamilians are known for worshipping their language, aren’t they? Yes, they are. But a lot of directors in Tamil industry are not exactly in line with this adoration of language. They are sometimes so dependent on the most obvious technologies that they don’t seem to care to present their audience even with half-decent products, let alone art. What gives them the audacity to hoodwink their viewers? Why don’t they follow their legendary predecessors who gave their all to the films they made?

Okay, that’s a lot of questions. I’m not going to sit here and say everything is perfect in other language film industries. I am from Kerala, and I know Malayalam cinema also ‘imports’ actors from other states. But Malayalam films, in general, at least make sure the lines are delivered in a serviceable way. I would say things are far better in this part of filmmaking in Malayalam than it is in its neighboring state’s cinema. I remember an incident that had the actress Richa Pallod delivering a long, emotional dialogue in a mechanical way in the 2009 Mammootty flick Daddy cool, and creating quite a commotion in the industry for that. Critics, filmmakers and the public were having lots of discussions back then, weighing the necessity of hiring non-malayali actors just because they have proven themselves good somewhere else. This also brings to mind the actor Jayaram giving a funny account of the makers of the 2011 film Chinatown’ trying for hours to make Pradeep Rawat say one word in Malayalam and failing hilariously, and yet not quitting until getting him to recite 2 pages of dialogues. Alright, enough about my own places’ films. I have exposed myself to a reasonably diverse world of movies, and I find it sadly ironic that the dialogues are done in the most delinquent manner in the films made in one of the most revered, adored and the oldest languages in the history of humankind.

Another case where the dubbing has annoyed me monumentally is that of the old Italian giallos that often landed in cultural no man’s lands. Usually shot in one place and bafflingly dubbed back and forth in different languages, even the good ones among those films had be check out of the experience in a few minutes into them (I admit a few of them were so good that I could overlook the weird language choices). But they were truly international films that were the products of an era that had counter-culture, communism, anarchy and open border doctrine at its core. None of the Indian film industries carry a burden of similar magnitude, yet we sometimes fumble with the most basic of filmmaking aspects, which is the point I am trying to make in this entire write-up. Now, if you think I am coming from a different part of the country and picking on Tamil cinema, that doesn’t hold true. I grew up watching Tamil films, and were thrilled by the unpretentious delights offered by them, until the mainstream Tamil filmmakers started to perceptibly compromise on the conversational quality of those films since the beginning of the last decade or so.

This is really saddening and could be the harbinger of an impending devolution of Tamil cinema. I have lived in Chennai and (especially) in Bangalore for a considerably long time, and am familiar with a new generation of Tamil movie lovers who aren’t quite in love with the fiddling mainstream trends of Tamil cinema (I don’t like Rajinikanth, macha).They are the kinds of youngsters who look up to likes of filmmakers like Karthik Naren and Karthik Subbaraj. The ones who want gritty and realistic entertainment. If you keep feeding them with your half-hearted attempts at filmmaking like Darbar, well, things are likely to go south sooner than you think. Any doubt? Think where the reputation of Tamil cinema stands now. To the northerners, south cinema is no more the occasional Rajini film watch for the guilty, snobbish pleasure of savoring southern stereotypes. Our nation today has no other choice than taking the ebullient Malayalam, dynamic Telugu and the ever-improving Kannada films much more seriously than it ever did. Tamil industry that used to be the face of south cinema on the other hand, to put it mildly, seems to be sort of playing catching up with them. I believe this is the time for mainstream Tamil filmmakers to bring the change their cinema needs so badly. They should, at least, know that if you take your intensely passionate audience for granted, well, where are those giallos anyway?