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.

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 Raanjhanaa — 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?

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