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Recognising ‘behind the voice actors’

In the recently released Neerja , there’s a scene in which Sonam Kapoor asks her boyfriend: “You hate my voice, don’t you?” Perhaps that was the actress being sportingly self-deprecatory, I thought, given that it’s her vocal quality (immature, singsong… okay, irritating), aggravated by bad dialogue delivery, that really does her in. Yeah, though it’s ironic that the dialogue should have come in the one movie where both she and her voice are reined in.

Around the same time that I saw Neerja , I happened to catch a television rerun of R Balki’s Shamitabh , a film that’s as wildly implausible as it gets. The concept, however — that of a talented mute actor who ‘borrows’ the baritone of an aged alcoholic to taste runaway success — reinforced an incontestable truth. Namely: The quality and emotive power of a voice can make or break a performance; and a borrowed voice, if good, can greatly enhance an actor’s presence in a film. The tussle that follows — who should get greater credit since voice and dialogue delivery undoubtedly amount to half the performance — is what the film goes on to explore.

Shamitabh instantly reminded me of Hindi film industry’s regrettable record in this regard. Bollywood has rarely, if ever, given proper credit to the invisible artistes who voice lines for actors in need of this service (the latter are mostly newbies who can’t emote, sometimes established actors doing a film in an unfamiliar language). Worse, in a few cases, even the fact that the lines were voiced by someone else has been churlishly and unfairly denied not only by actors but also, incomprehensibly, the directors of the film in question.

Two examples of the ‘Of course I/my actor said his/her own lines’ syndrome come to mind. The famous one, of course, is Om Shanti Om , where debutant actor Deepika Padukone’s lines were dubbed by voiceover artiste Mona Ghosh Shetty, but stridently denied by both Padukone and the film’s director Farah Khan. A more obscure instance of completely pointless deception came out of the Marathi film Samantar , where director Amol Palekar and actress Sharmila Tagore gave detailed pre-release interviews on how the latter was apprehensive about speaking Marathi but worked at it and managed wonderfully well, even doing a “three-page soliloquy”. I happened to see the film, and Tagore has just one bit of dialogue – clearly dubbed. Why the elaborate charade was put up is anyone’s guess.

By far the most damning example, however, was in the Anupam Kher-produced Bengali film Bariwali . Here, Kirron Kher’s dialogue was dubbed by a Bengali actress Rita Koiral, but the form filled out by the Khers when the film was submitted for the National Awards claimed it was Kirron’s original voice (dubbed performances are not considered for an acting award). An upset Koiral came out of the shadows to set matters straight but to no avail — although the chairman of the jury Gautam Ghose did go on record later to say it was clearly not Kirron’s voice, at that point the jury members took the stand that it was “difficult to prove”. Kirron Kher went on to win the National Award for her admittedly great performance but Koiral was done out of even her basic credit.

True, not all performers and production houses, especially in the last few years, are underhand or indifferent about dubbing credits. Some stars have even publicly acknowledged their voice counterparts (John Abraham would mention in interviews that half the credit for his early performances should go to dubbing artiste Viraj Adhav). But this kind of generosity, heartening as it is, isn’t what voice artistes are looking for. They want professional acknowledgement in the form of a screen credit (even a general one) as a matter of policy. That’s yet to come — even as film stars, who have lately started lending their voices to animation films, are heavily publicised.

Bollywood ought to take a cue from the southern part of the country which actually has State awards for dubbing artistes (it’s a full-fledged industry here, with films from one state almost invariably being dubbed into the other southern languages). In the West, entire award functions centre around dubbing: the BTVAs (Behind The Voice Actors), where Hollywood actors are feted for voicing characters in animated films and television shows; or Germany’s Annual Dubbing Awards, where voice artistes who dub Hollywood films into German are mini stars themselves, and known as the voice of, say, Daniel Craig or Leonardo DiCaprio. Of course, suggesting dubbing awards for Bollywood is far-fetched, given that this industry is loath to even acknowledge voice artistes — so it could begin by giving due credit first. Decades ago, a young woman fought a spirited battle against the invisibility accorded to the voice actor by the then nascent Hindi film industry. The year was 1949 and she’d just rendered a song that had taken the country by storm — but since credits for playback singers were not the norm then, she was merely mentioned as ‘Kamini’, the name of the character in the film, on the record cover. (Perhaps there’s a clue here as to why Bollywood still disregards the contribution of voice — it subconsciously continues with the process of mythologising the hero/heroine of a film as an omnipotent, multi-faceted entity even in an age that has no use for such anachronisms). Anyway, the young singer put her foot down and paved the way for credits for playback singers not only on record covers but on screen as well.

The song I’m talking about was the iconic “Aayega, aayega, aayega aanewaala”… from Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal . The name of the young woman was Lata Mangeshkar.

Approaching the celebration of World Voice Day on April 16, it’s time the other kind of voice artistes also got their due.

The author is a freelance writer and editor

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2022 10:31:49 am |