At one time, women characters were expected to fit into the feminine stereotype, identified by soft and subdued voices.

College of four women in a blue background - Sreeja Ravi and Bhagyalakshmi in the front, and Karthika and Shobana behind themSreeja Ravi, Karthika, Shobana, Bhagyalakshmi
Flix Mollywood Friday, October 15, 2021 - 21:52

Halfway through Kilukkam, a hugely popular Malayalam comedy film, the character Nandini begins to act and sound different. Till then, she had been all hyper and annoyingly childish, convincing her two new companions that she had mental health issues. But one afternoon, she tells one of them that she never had been mentally ill. And when she does, her voice magically changes with her behaviour. So far her voice had been that of Revathy, the actor who played the role. But the moment she reveals the truth, she takes on the soft, mature voice of dubbing artiste Bhagyalakshmi.

This was in the early 1990s, and the trends of the past decade had quietly seeped in. It had somehow become a norm in the 80s that if you were a heroine you had to sound a certain way – high-pitched squeaky when emotional, soft and subdued otherwise. That was essentially considered “feminine” at the time, one would reckon. You hardly heard a young female voice that was deep, low-pitched or aggressive. Senior women actors were however excused from this rule. Sukumari, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Meena, KPAC Lalitha and the like never lost the claim on their voices.

Interestingly, if you go back a decade to the 70s and all the way back to the 50s and 60s, more women actors – especially those who knew the language – used their own voice. Sheela, Jayabharathy, KR Vijaya and the others. Sarada, coming from another land and not knowing Malayalam, needed a dubbing artiste. But in the 80s, it didn’t seem to matter if the women knew the language or not – dubbing artistes were used for Urvashi, Shobana, Karthika, along with actors from other states such as Sumalatha and Menaka. In an old interview that surfaced recently, late actor Chithra is asked by an interviewer, “So is it true that women in Malayalam cinema don’t have a voice?”

It would take many years for filmmakers to experiment with the defiant non-conforming voices of women actors – such as Annie’s in Ammayane Sathyam (she pretends to be a male teen in half the film, so that might have prompted the change) and later Manju Warrier, from her second or third movie.

Watch: Scenes from Ammayane Sathyam

“There was a standardisation and a kind of idealisation of a particular female voice, as pleasing, as conforming to certain gender norms. The irony is that it also brought in a very talented dubbing artiste like Bhagyalakshmi. It is very interesting, how the cancelling out of many voices gave jobs to many other women. It’s not just Bhagyalakshmi, there was Anandavally, Ambily, Sreeja and others. It’s a bit of a contradiction that depriving women actors of their own voice has resulted in many other talents coming to the fore,” says Janaki Sreedharan, professor at Calicut University who writes on gender and cinema.

Bhagyalakshmi, the most prolific dubbing artiste

Bhagyalakshmi, undoubtedly the most prolific dubbing artiste of all time in Malayalam, wrote in her autobiography Swarabhedhangal that in her opinion it is most ideal for actors to dub for themselves. Actors who were in that shot, in that setting, with other actors on the scene would have an advantage over dubbing artistes working alone in the recording studio, she wrote. Her opinion was however not very popular among other dubbing artistes, who felt that she was risking their livelihood.

In Swarabhedhangal, Bhagyalakshmi writes in detail about the history of dubbing in Malayalam. Cochin Ammini was the first dubbing artiste in Malayalam, she writes, who gave voice to actor Kushala Kumari for the film Seetha. The year was 1950 and Ammini was a mere teenager. Later on, more dubbing artistes came on board, especially for actors coming from other states. TR Omana, an actor, became the voice of Saradha for most of her films. Kottayam Shantha and KPAC Lalitha – both of them popular actors – also worked as dubbing artistes.

Watch: Scene from Mathilukal

“KPAC Lalitha’s voice has been one of her major strengths. People still talk about Mathilukal (in which she lent her voice for the unseen woman beyond the fence separating the men and women’s prisons). Her voice is a signature. There are actors like her who have dubbed for other actors. Revathy dubbed for Sreedevi in Devaragam,” Janaki says. And yet dubbing artistes were often used for Revathy herself, including in the last half of her most popular film, Kilukkam.

Watch: Kilukkam scene with Bhagyalakshmi's voice

‘Women actors didn’t insist’

Few women actors insisted on dubbing for themselves in those days, says director Kamal, who is also the chairperson of the Kerala State Chalachithra Academy. “There were exceptions. Srividya, for instance, though she was Tamil, insisted that she wanted to dub for herself. Later on, Urvashi too insisted. However, in those first attempts her voice was not easily accepted,” Kamal says.

In those first movies she dubbed for herself – VishnulokamMukachithramKakkathollayiram, Ulsavamelam and the like – Urvashi appeared to use a squeaky false voice, perhaps under the pressure of wanting to sound more “feminine” – or rather what was considered feminine at the time. You have to wonder about all the “less fortunate” women with their deep voices whose stories never got told in cinema.

Watch: Scene from Ulsavamelam

Actor Kavya Madhavan, who has a deep voice, said in an old interview that other actors would tease her about it, telling her she could dub for Thilakan – the renowned late actor known for his baritone. Sreeja Ravi regularly dubbed for her, except in a few films, like Kamal’s Perumazhakalathu that won her a state award.

Director Kamal admits that there was such a concept at the time, that women’s voices were supposed to sound “sweet”.  “Even if sometimes we try to use the voice of the actor, they may not be confident about it. In my film Madhuranombarakattu, Samyuktha Varma first tried to dub for her character. But she backed out because she didn’t feel confident about it,” Kamal says.

Director Sathyan Anthikad, who wrote the foreword for Bhagyalakshmi’s autobiography, also mentions Samyuktha Varma, who made her debut in Veendum Chila Veettukaryangal. Sathyan writes how Bhagyalakshmi asked him to get Samyuktha to dub for herself since she is a Malayali. It was the director who insisted that Bhagyalakshmi do the dubbing.

Watch: Sound byte from Mazha

However, Samyuktha did dub for herself in one of her most acclaimed performances in Mazha, directed by Lenin Rajendran. It was the turn of the century and a new crop of actors were establishing themselves, bringing with them new practices. Manju Warrier had just quit acting at the time and actors like Meera Jasmine, Bhavana, Navya Nair were all making their mark with their distinguishable voices. Navya Nair, in fact, was said to sound a lot like Manju Warrier in her early films.

Manju Warrier making a mark

“Manju Warrier interestingly didn’t dub for her first film as a heroine, Sallapam. Maybe they didn’t want to experiment in the first film. But her later popularity shows how she made her voice so acceptable through her very powerful acting. Her voice and mode of expression was so endearing that the audience welcomed her back wholeheartedly (when she made a comeback after 14 years),” Janaki says.

Watch: Scene from Aaram Thampuran

Film critic GP Ramachandran attributes the emergence of the two male stars – Mohanlal and Mammootty – during the end of the 80s as one reason for this treatment of women characters at the time. It is perhaps a little farfetched, but his reasoning is that the dominance of the male actors reduced the women in their films to almost an invisible presence, playing subservient characters and speaking a “valluvanadan” language. That’s the language spoken in the north of Kerala, often regarded as “superior” to other dialects. The same way sugary soft voices were thought ideal for women of culture.

“The standardisation of this female voice was a way of suppressing the women characters. It made it easier for a narrative that was favourable to the male actors. A lot of changes happened when Manju Warrier came into the picture. But she too struggled a lot to establish herself. Even an actor as important as Shobana hardly had a voice,” Ramachandran says.

Shobana and dubbing artiste awards

Shobhana, in her early days, was not comfortable with the language. In an old interview, she tells a journalist she’d prefer to speak in English. Years later, when she played the powerful protagonist in Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Thira, Shobhana dubbed for her character.

Watch: Climax scenes from Thira

When Shobhana won the National Award for best actor (female) for Manichithrathazhu, there were talks about how someone else had dubbed for her (Bhagyalakshmi) and the need to recognise that artiste as well. In her book, Bhagyalakshmi speaks feelingly about the years of indifference in the industry towards dubbing artistes. It was only after state awards were instituted for dubbing artistes in 1991 that they got recognition from the audience, she writes.

Bhagyalakshmi got the award the same year, for her dubbing for Amala’s character with mental health issues in Ulladakkam. Bhagyalakshmi was pregnant with her second child at the time, and was due for delivery only days later. She writes in detail about going to the studio to dub despite her condition because director Kamal had insisted. “She could not scream or cry out loud. So those parts were done by Amala herself,” Kamal recalls.

Watch: Scenes from Ulladakkam

Changing times

The poor treatment of dubbing artistes came from a lot of places, Bhagyalakshmi writes. In the 1970s when all the artistes stood together in front of the same microphone to dub, senior dubbing artistes would tell off juniors like her or refuse to work together. There was still great camaraderie when everyone worked together, switched off the fans and began dubbing their dialogues at the first ‘take’. Technologies changed with time when actors didn’t have to record together anymore. And much later, of course, there came sync sound and live recording of voices.

Bhagyalakshmi writes fondly of the time actor Mohanlal and director Priyadarshan came to her aunt’s place in Chennai to ask if she could dub for the heroine in their first ever film Thiranottam. This was the famous debut of Mohanlal that never made it to the theatres, made when he was a teenager. It was also Bhagyalakshmi’s first dubbing for a heroine. She had debuted much earlier, dubbing for children. In the 80s she became a much-sought-after artiste, at one time working in 120 films a year.

Bhagyalakshmi says one of the turning points came with Fasil’s Nokkethadhoorathu Kannum Nattu, when she dubbed for Nadia Moidu. The way Fasil groomed her, asking her to consider the situations the character was going through – such as running or lifting a weight – really helped. Bhagyalakshmi took it to heart. She began to run in the studio if the character did, lift a weight or drink a glass of water with the heroine.

Watch: Scene from Nokkethadhoorathu Kannum Nattu

When she dubbed for Urvashi’s character getting drunk in Spadikam, Bhagyalakshmi asked for a bottle of water. The gulping sounds and the burp you hear on the screen were real, made by the talented dubbing artiste.

Some male actors too in the game

It is true that Bhagyalakshmi and the other dubbing artistes were genuinely talented, but there’s no denying that women were simply not allowed to own their voice at that time, Janaki says. As a matter of fact, a few of the men too had to do with dubbing artistes in the 80s. Shankar famously had to use a dubbing artiste after his own voice in his first film – Manjil Virinja Pookkal – was not found “acceptable”. Perhaps in the same way that women had to fit into the “feminine” stereotype, men too may have had to sound all deep and baritone to be “masculine”.

Actor and singer Krishnachandran became the voice of young actors like Rahman and Vineeth in the 1980s. Vineeth recently said in an interview to TNM that Krishnachandran’s voice bettered his performances.

Watch: Vineeth in Aaranyakam

“This patriarchal setting could even be seen in playback singing. Why were certain voices more dominant in playback singing while many others were marginalised? Even among male singers, Yesudas’s voice emerged as the hero’s voice. S Janaki’s dominated as the heroine’s for years. These are extremely talented singers, there’s no doubt about that. But there were other kinds of voices that were sidelined,” Janaki notes. A point that GP Ramachandran too raises.

With the turn of the century, new voices emerged, both in playback singing and dubbing. Perhaps this has something to do with musicians like AR Rahman introducing base voices like Shubha’s for songs that would go on to become really popular (‘Sambo Sambo’ in Puthiya Mugham).

Janaki happily notes the “folksy music” of Sithara Krishnakumar. Vaikom Vijayalakshmi is another example, winning accolades for her unique renditions.

Watch: Song sung by Vaikom Vijayalakshmi

Similar changes emerged in dubbing. In the late 2000s, another new crop of female actors all began to dub for most of their characters – Rima Kallingal, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Rajisha Vijayan, Nazriya, Aishwarya Lekshmi, etc.

“Trends keep changing. Now all characters are supposed to speak casually, naturally, like they do at home, whereas at one time there was more drama. It’s a good move,” says Kamal.

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