Subtitles break the barriers of language and culture and make films accessible to a wider audience. Subha J Rao talks to people from the city who make it possible

June 2011. Shanghai International Film Festival. An audience that is primarily Chinese watches a Tamil film. They laugh and sigh at all the right moments. When the end credits roll, they rush to speak to the hero. The movie is Kaavalan, the hero Vijay. The other hero of the evening is the sub-titling, in English and Chinese.

Rekhs, who did the English sub-titles, still remembers the rousing reception the film got in a foreign country. She’s a veteran in the field, and has worked on about 125 Tamil features and 500 short films.

Until recently, sub-titles were more of an after-thought. Now, a growing number of filmmakers actively get their films sub-titled, so that it reaches a larger audience, cutting across language barriers.

Nandini Karky, who has sub-titled eight films, beginning with Moondru Per Moondru Kaadhal, says it is time people gave sub-titling a serious thought, because of its immense potential. “When a story is just in one language, its reach is limited. You must amplify it, so that it is heard across the world. Sub-titles help you achieve that,” says Nandini, who has been trained in the field.

Sub-titles take a culture places and explain nuances that might be otherwise lost. At the same time, they expand the market for a movie. Says Nandini: “Once a film is sub-titled in English, it can be cross sub-titled in so many other languages.”

Director-producer Arun Vaidyanathan, who has lived in the U.S. and made films there, says sub-titles encourage a family to watch a film together. “Many South Indians living abroad are married to people from other parts of the country, or locals. What if they want to watch a film as a couple?” When he made Achamundu Achamundu, a film set in the U.S., he got a local professional to sub-title the film. “The script was in Indian English; the sub-titler set it in a local context — non-Indians could fathom the intricacies.” When his production Kalyana Samayal Saadham (KSS) was screened with sub-titles for the Bollywood set, they loved it, though it was set in a milieu far removed from theirs.

That local context is something Kaarthekeyen Santhanam, director and chief marketing officer of Stone Bench Creations, swears by. His company has done sub-titles for KSS, Nedunchalai, the just-released Thegidi and the forthcoming Jigarthanda. “When we take up a film, we do one reel, sit with the director and decide what style (American English, etc.) the team wants the sub-titles in. Accordingly, we change the context, humour and metaphors,” he explains.

Sub-titles also add commercial value to a film. It takes it to newer markets, helps it figure in international film festivals and opens doors for collaborations. Rajeev Kamineni, executive director, PVP Cinema, which has produced several big-budget entertainers, says distributors abroad specifically ask for sub-titles. “They say it translates into 20 per cent extra business.”

But, are directors and producers listening to what the market wants? Not really, say sub-titlers. Rekhs started her career with Thoovanam in 2007, but waited for three years before she got to work on Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya. “Soon after, I approached many directors. No one took me seriously,” she says. It was Shankar’s Enthiran that opened the floodgates. Rekhs, who works closely with many international film festivals, says it used to upset her that festivals featured films in Swahili but none in Tamil. “For them, Indian films meant Hindi films. It is time to take Tamil films to the big stage.”

Sahitya Akademi winner Nanjil Nadan, who wrote the dialogues for festival circuit favourite Paradesi says the quality of sub-titling needs improvement. “The person must understand the historical and cultural background of a film. You need apt words. You must convey the emotion. Else, the work of the dialogue writer and the director will be lost in translation,” he says. He says that in an ideal situation, someone as talented as the original writer must be given charge of sub-titles.

While many directors leave the job entirely to the sub-titling team, some are an intrinsic part of the process. Director Ram worked with Nandini for Thangameenkal, another festival favourite. “I wanted simple sentences. I did not want mere translation. Dialogues have many layers; I wanted that effect in the sub-titles too.” He pays attention to sub-titles, because he believes that for film lovers, sub-titles work best, breaking the language barrier without interfering with the visuals unfolding on screen.

At a time when people across the world are interested in exotic stories, we must go in for sub-titles, says Nandini, who has also worked on Madha Yaanai Kootam (MYK) and Nimirndhu Nil. “That enables people from different backgrounds to experience a land and its culture.” Which is why, she loved recreating the Chennai humour of Idharkuthaane Aasaipattai Balakumara and the Theni slang of MYK. “People abroad don’t understand the concept of marrying cousins. The trick is to not dumb down our culture, but explain it in a way they understand.” In IAB, the line, “Annachiye thookiralamaa?” “Annachi enna kulandhaiyaa da thookarathukku?”, was sub-titled thus: “Shall we take out brother?” “Is brother a girl to be taken out?” “Thookardhu means both finishing someone off and to lift something. A literal translation would have fallen flat,” explains Nandini.

To those who still believe sub-titles don’t matter, Arun has this question. “Would we have all enjoyed the lyrical innocence of the Iranian film Children of Heaven the way we did without the sub-titles unfolding on screen?”