Over 420 films and counting: Meet Rekhs, the subtitlist who takes south Indian cinema to the world
If you’ve watched more than a handful of south Indian films recently, you’ve almost surely run into Rekhs’s work. But it’s likely that you’ve not given her work a second thought, though it’s thanks to her that you and thousands of others get to enjoy films across barriers of language.
A pioneer in the art of subtitling films, Rekhs and her team have helped hundreds of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films find a national and even global audience. Since foraying into the field in 2007, Rekhs and her team have subtitled over 420 films.
But her foray into the field of subtitling was quite by accident. She made her debut as subtitlist for her husband and director Haricharan’s film Thoovanam in 2007. A short film called Bimbangal took her further into the field when it won the first prize at the 2009 Paris International Film Festival.
However, it was Gautham Menon’s Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya that gave her the first big break into what was then a nascent, almost unknown profession down south.
“I realised that there were no proper subtitling facilities in Chennai. One had to go all the way to Mumbai,” she says.
“After VV, I got a huge response from the audience. I established my brand name ‘Rekhs’ in 2010 and got into full-fledged subtitling,” she adds.
But audience appreciation notwithstanding, Kollywood was far from ready to accept the need for subtitles, till Rekhs found success with a major blockbuster. “When I approached Tamil film producers to subtitle their films, they looked at me like I was from another galaxy. Director Shankar asked me to subtitle Endhiran. Due to the immense response to it, everyone wanted their films to be subtitled,” recalls Rekhs.
While she initially stuck to Tamil cinema, Rekhs assembled a larger team and branched out to other languages following an invitation from no less than Mammootty.
“Mammootty sir called me and said ‘Why are you doing only Tamil? Why not Malayalam?’” she says. Soon she was subtitling the Mammootty-starrer Thappana.
Today, her dedicated subtitling team consists of linguists in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. From commercial blockbusters to films for the festival circuit to National Award nominees Rekhs has seen it all. She has even developed her own subtitling software, together with AP International, which makes subtitles much more readable for audiences. Her company boasts of an enviable client list including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play and Hero Talkies.
Most gratifying though has been the acknowledgement of her work by directors and audiences, she says. “Directors have called and complimented me for my team’s work. Foreign viewers have also watched my films and told me they enjoyed the subtitles”, she says.
Rekhs says that it is the language barrier that has often kept south Indian cinema from finding the kind of audience that Bollywood has managed to build for itself. “South Indian films are not inferior to Bollywood. The latter has flooded the market and people now prefer pan-Indian films. We have open horizons and a worldwide audience for our films. After Baahubali, more people are aware of my work.”
For those sceptical of the power of subtitles, Rekhs says it could sometimes even mean losing out on awards for a great film.
“The National Awards jury prefer subtitles. Unless the jury members understand your film, they won’t like it. They prefer a mediocre film with good subtitles rather than a good film with bad subtitles,” she says.
Rekhs points out that recognition of the importance of her work has come about because of the effort she and her team put into making subtitles natural and audience-friendly.
“Previously, subtitles were verbatim translations and used poor English. Western audiences don’t have any idea of our traditions and customs. These get lost in translation. Subtitling is not only about one's command over the language, but also about readability and presentation. It is an art and requires proper training,” she explains.
One of the big areas that she has focused on is how to translate songs into subtitling. She says, “Songs are an ethnic factor of Indian movies. We have a rich culture of music. I make it a point to make songs rhyme while subtitling, as it helps to differentiate between dialogue and lyrics.”
Having just wrapped up the subtitling for the Vijay-starrer Mersal, which is her hattrick with director Atlee, Rekhs points out that her work isn’t all fun movie-watching. The subtitling process can be an intense exercise.
“After writing the whole subtitles, we put a marker in deficit areas. Mostly this is due to inaudible dialogues. At such instances, we take help from Assistant Directors. The subtitling time period depends on multiple factors. We finished subtitling the National Award-winning film, Joker, within 72 hours, whereas the trilingual film, VIP 2, took us 35 days,” she explains.
Indeed, she says, subtitling a film you don’t like can be a gruelling task. “To ensure quality, we watch every film three to five times. Just imagine if it’s a bad film, how terrible it can be,” she laughs.
But all of the effort feels worth it, when she sees new audiences discover the films she’s worked on, says Rekhs. “At the end of the day, you smile when a non-regional speaker understands the film using your subtitles.”