This month, Lucifer became the first Malayalam film to gross Rs. 10 crore outside Kerala, to quote the Twitter handle @KeralaProducers. Kumbalangi Nights made more than Rs. 4.2 crore in the ‘Rest of India’ market — about 10% of its overall collection of around Rs. 40 crore. Earlier in the decade, films like Angamaly Diaries , Premam and Drishyam saw big releases outside Kerala. This trend, of movies being successful outside their core territory, applies to many Tamil films as well, especially Rajinikanth starrers, from Sivaji to Kabali to Petta .
So what has helped these films expand outside their primary market? A good part of the answer is, simply, subtitles. With 23 official languages, every film here is a ‘foreign’ film to a vast proportion of audiences, and subtitles are the windows.
From being limited to festival screenings and overseas releases to reaching the homes of viewers, first through Doordarshan in the 80s and 90s, then via DVDs in the 2000s, and then through online portals now, subtitles have come a long way. In the past five years, they have become somewhat common even for commercial releases, especially when they travel outside its main market.
Does subtitling enhance the viewing experience? Or does it hinder it for someone rooted in the film’s milieu? How much is lost in translation?
Writer-director Vasan Bala says that subtitling caters to a “sophisticated audience, which is anyway watching world cinema and is open to engaging with a film with subtitles.” You have to be “really quick in reading and also adept enough to understand the emotions. But I don’t think it’s for mass experience,” he says. “When you are going for spectacle, style and masala, like in a Rajinikanth film, I don’t think there is nuance or space for subtitles. But for a film like Super Deluxe , it makes more sense... ”
As columnist Sreedhar Pillai says, Rajinikanth now probably has a bigger market outside Tamil Nadu than inside. “ Enthiran broke language barriers, through both its subtitled and dubbed versions. Markets like Mumbai and Delhi have improved by leaps and bounds for Tamil cinema because of multiplexes [which show films with subtitles].”
Madhu C. Narayanan, director of Kumbalangi Nights , understands the value of subtitles. “We have had tremendous response — even an American viewer reviewed our film on YouTube. This was only because of subtitling.”
Kochi-based writer Vivek Ranjit has subtitled over 100 Malayalam films, including Angamaly Diaries and Lucifer . He says the trend of Malayalam films being captioned and released outside Kerala on the same day started in 2014 with Bangalore Days . “Subtitling has helped films get same-day releases and audiences in non-traditional markets.”
Rekhs has subtitled over 500 Tamil and Telugu films, including big-budget ones like Enthiran , Baahubali 2 and Kabali . She has fine-tuned and developed her own software to enhance readability. Her golden rules include: no use of full stops; stanzas in a song should rhyme; and subtitles should be in yellow. As someone who conveyed the many laughs of Kabali with a dozen different phrases, from “indulgent chuckle” to “contented laughter,” Rekhs thinks even the use of emoticons can help interpret scenes.
Filmmaker Srijit Mukherji has made many films that have had big releases outside Bengal, most notably Rajkahini . “My recent film Vinci Da ran for four weeks in Bengaluru, despite clashing with big-budget films like Avengers: Endgame and Kalank . Subtitling played a major role in this,” he says.
Marathi cinema has been exploring such distribution possibilities only in the last 8-10 years, says Paresh Mokashi, whose fourth film, Khatla Bitla , is set for release later this year with subtitles. “Marathi films don’t have mass appeal in other States. A Rajinikanth film or a Baahubali attracts even Marathi and Gujarati audiences. Sairaat made a little noise. But we haven’t reached that stage yet.”
Ironically, while it’s easy to find subtitles for international films through portals like opensubtitles.com, it can be nigh impossible for some Indian language films, especially those that haven’t been screened at film festivals.
Another issue crops up when a digital service provider sometimes doesn’t include the subtitles because he hasn’t been paid. Or sometimes theatres don’t turn on the subtitle file. Mumbai-based producer-distributor Sethumadhavan Napan says subtitles can be hardcoded into the track, “but that will create problems when the film is sent for captioning in a third language, say Arabic, for an overseas release.” He says that online streaming portals like Netflix and Hotstar have made it mandatory for newer films to be subtitled, but older films are acquired in bulk from companies who may not be bound by this rule.
Mukherji says Kolkata-based Angel Digital has acquired the rights to older Bengali films and is digitising and releasing them on YouTube with subtitles. In Malayalam, Hotstar has bought Asianet’s entire library and has now included subtitles for most of the films, according to Ranjit.
These efforts notwithstanding, many old films remain alien to a wide section of Indian cinephiles. That’s why Rekhs is planning to caption older Tamil films and upload them on her website for free.
A major proportion of the Indian population is bilingual and a lot of it is trilingual. In such a scenario, an open source subtitling website, such as Rekhs's, if it attracts participation from cinephiles who speak multiple languages, could become a rich repository that makes a lot of 'foreign' films intelligible.
“We have had a tremendous response — even an American viewer reviewed
our film on YouTube. This was only
because of subtitling,”
Rekhs, who conveyed the laughs of Kabali using phrases from “indulgent chuckle” to “contented laughter,” thinks even emoticons can help interpret scenes