Time constraints to convincing film makers, subtitling Malayalam films isn't easy

Despite its popularity, Malayalam cinema has not yet seriously set standards for subtitling or even considered it significant for decades.
Still from 'Virus'
Still from 'Virus'
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Last year when the Malayalam film Virus got released, critic Anna Vetticad wrote a whole paragraph on its subtitles. Rajeev Ramachandran, a journalist who did the English subtitles of the film, was appreciated for his work, which was not merely a translation of the spoken word but even the sounds heard, viz., a bucket falling into the well, bats flapping wings or people mourning.

Anna wrote that the film has appreciably taken into consideration people with hearing disability. Months later, in October 2019, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a directive to the Central Bureau of Film Certification (CBFC) to use audio description and closed captioning as part of making cinema more accessible to persons with disabilities.

Around the same time, the Bombay High Court upheld the CBFC move, asking film producers to submit the subtitles separately for certification, after the movie itself was certified. The order spoke only about the movies that used subtitles but it produced the effect of many filmmakers and producers rushing to get subtitles done, thinking it was now mandatory.

“A blessing for people like me who do subtitling as a profession,” says Vivek Ranjit, who has finished writing English subtitles for 150 Malayalam subtitles in a little more than five years.

Despite its popularity, Malayalam cinema has not yet seriously set standards for subtitling or even considered it significant for decades. The first subtitling work in Malayalam cinema would have been done in the 1970s, reckons critic and occasional subtitler CS Venkiteswaran. “It has connection with the (then) new wave movement when Malayalam cinema began enjoying a pan Indian audience. Very few Malayalam films travelled outside then, and those that did were art houses.”

TMP Nedungadi alias Nadir Shah, one of the earlier critics of Malayalam cinema, used to do subtitles for movies of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, says Venkiteswaran. “He was then Bombay-based and it was a cumbersome process, fitting the words into a certain space – the words were burnt into the negative then, and the number of letters in a frame was limited.”

TMP Nedungadi / Courtesy - m3db.com

The process became easier when the switch to digital happened.

Venkiteswaran did his own subtitling for a TV Chandran movie sometime in the late 1990s. In 20 years, he has done about 150 films, but has differing views about the process. While he acknowledges the need to make cinema accessible for people with disability, Venkiteswaran feels that subtitles should be used sparingly. “People can make sense out of context. They’d understand the body language, the gestures. Otherwise they’d end up reading the subtitles more than watching what goes on in the film,” he says.

Subtitling does not end with writing words to a dialogue or sound, you also need to have technical skills and expertise. Some people get help with the technical part but others like Vivek do both. Even with all of that however, he has struggled in the last five years, trying to convince producers of the need for subtitles.

On August 18, Vivek wrote a series of tweets about the time he started out, when subtitling "was mostly considered a waste of time and irrelevant in Malayalam cinema."

Vivek Ranjit

His tryst with it began when he worked with director VK Prakash for the film Beautiful, soon after graduating in scriptwriting from the Film Institute in Pune. Beautiful was going to be sent to compete for the National Film awards that year and needed English subtitles. Vivek got on the job and found it interesting.

“That was a time when it was mostly films which went to film festivals or competed in awards that used subtitles. It was not taken seriously in commercial cinema. I am sure that if a film like Drishyam had come with subtitles it would have broken many box office records. But perhaps they didn’t want the subtitles since the film was being remade in other languages anyway,” Vivek says.

After doing subtitles for a few movies by VK Prakash, Vivek got the subtitling work of Kunjiramayanam, directed by Basil Joseph. That was a movie of friends, Vivek having earlier written the script of Kili Poyi and working with many of them. But from then on he began to seriously market himself, putting out Facebook posts, asking for work, and convincing filmmakers and producers about the importance of subtitles, which could take their films to so many different audiences.

Even as friends in the industry brought him work, big films with the big stars were still not being subtitled. Dulquer Salmaan, Nivin Pauly, Fahadh Faasil and other young stars were meanwhile growing popular in other cities like Bengaluru and Chennai where their movies with subtitles ran successfully. Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days, starring all three of them along with Nazriya and Parvathy, was one of the earlier films to make use of subtitles in reaching out to a wider audience.

Now with increased interest in the Over-the-top (OTT) platforms, demands for subtitling are likely to be higher. “Yes, but it is important to highlight that subtitling is not merely a literal translation of dialogues,” says Ashley Sam Alexander, who has been at the job for a year now.

He entered the field after noticing some disastrous subtitling carried by otherwise well-made movies. Ashley doesn’t want to point them out but makes up an example. “Say there is a line like ‘ponnu mole’ (darling), it gets subtitled as ‘golden daughter’. A proverb for instance will not make sense if you do a literal translation of it. What is needed is not an ‘equal’ translation but an ‘equivalent’ one. It should be able to invoke the same emotion.”

Ashley Sam Alexander

The trickiest part is in subtitling songs. “If it is good poetry and if there is a sub layer to it, then it is easy. Otherwise literal translation would sound gibberish. Random words that make up a song might gel well with the music but taken separately and translated, it may make no sense,” Ashley says.

Some filmmakers or producers finish the process like a job that has to be done with, without taking any interest in seeing the final product. A person is considered for the job depending on the quantity of work they have done and not the quality. “This is not always the case of course. In my case, there have been filmmakers who took a serious interest in it, especially those who would like to send their films to festivals, like Jayaraj and Vidhu Vincent, whom I have worked with,” says Ashley who did the subtitles for Vidhu’s Stand Up and Jayaraj’s upcoming film Backpackers.

Ashley's subtiting work for Gaudhamante Radham

Time is another issue. After the editing is locked, all they get are a few days to finish the subtitling before the film is sent to the censor board. Sherylene Rafeeque, a freelance writer who has subtitled over 15 films, says that one can do quality work if one gets at least seven days to do the job. “I came into this field by chance last June-July, doing the subtitles of the film Sathyam Paranja Viswasikkuvo. It took time for me to get more work since I am not on any social media by principle and have to rely on word of mouth. Right now I am working on the films Thuramukham and Kurup,” Sherylene says.

Sherylene Rafeeque

Like Ashley, she points out the importance of understanding the context and retaining the emotion of a film. Vivek too mentions the importance of cultural references. A ‘chetta’ (a word to address older men or elder brothers but used casually) cannot be simply translated to ‘sir’ or ‘mister’, he says.

He also mentions the issue of payment. Now that there are more players in the game, a problem faced by the senior lot is the underquoting of fees by newcomers. As it is, subtitling is not a highly paid job, says Vivek, who has set a standard price after settling into the job. “I try to get the amount before the release but there have been instances when I was cheated and not paid a dime,” he says.

Sherylene however has not faced such an issue. It’s been fair play for her so far. And with the lockdown forced by the coronavirus and movies being in no hurry for a release, Sherylene is happy to have more time to do the subtitling work properly.

However, with the lockdown on movie theatres likely to last longer, there would also be a reliance on OTT platforms. “With or without theatres opening, the movies would have a bigger audience outside the state and the country. Filmmakers and producers should understand the importance of this,” says Ashley.

Watch: Trailer of Virus with English subtitles

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