“Anthena? Inkem kavali? Veelaithe nalugu maatalu. Kudirithe cup coffee?”
When Bommarillu came out in 2006, this dialogue was all the rage. So much so that close to three lakh people had set these lines as their ringtone/caller tune.
Genelia’s perky expressions on-screen, complemented by the squeaky, highly enthusiastic voice, rendered the character an immediate hit among the masses.
But not many know that it was Savitha Radhakrishnan and not Genelia herself who delivered the dialogues, behind the screens.
We’ve heard their voice in many films, we’ve even memorised dialogues and mimicked the exact intonation in which they’ve said it but most times, we do not know their names or their faces.
The identity of a voice artist in India remains behind screens, and is often reduced to “the voice” only.
The history of the voice
When the silent era progressed to the talkies, the need for actors to use their own voice became imminent.
During the initial days, most actors spoke their own dialogues and many even sang their own songs - M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, K B Sundarambal were well known for their vocal prowess.
It was AV Meiyappan, the country’s most lauded pioneer in cinema, who set the earliest stage for dubbing. Randor Guy writes in The Hindu, “A milestone was crossed in 1943 with the making of Harishchandra, dubbed from Kannada to Tamil. AT Krishnaswamy wrote the dialogue to match the lip movements of the actors. Sri Valli, a folk mythology, the favourite story of Tamils, hit the bull's eye.”
He goes on to add:
“A revolution of sorts happened at this time. On hearing feedback that the singing of Rukmini lacked pep, Meiyappan made a bold move and roped in Periyanayaki to sing playback. Pragati technicians worked round the clock to synchronise voice and lip. Reels were recalled and new ones rushed to theatres in cars and trains. AVM had done something no producer would dare to do after the release of a film.”
This perhaps laid the first stone for dubbing in the industry as we know it. Today, there’s a union for dubbing artists called South Indian Cine, Television Artistes and Dubbing Artistes Union (SICTADAU) formed almost 30 years ago and is currently headed by KR Selvaraj.
The voices behind the big names
The role of a voice artist was quite unknown among the audience during the eighties and the nineties.
“Even back then, we had several voice artists dubbing for actors like Radha, Amala and Kushboo. However, when more north Indian actors started acting in Tamil and Telugu films, that’s when people realised that there should be someone else dubbing for them,” says Savitha.
“I gained a lot of attention only after director Shankar’s Jeans when I dubbed for Aishwarya Rai. People wondered how Aishwarya Rai spoke so fluently in Tamil,” laughs Savitha.
While talking to her over the phone, several faces of her on-screen characters flashed before this writer's eyes: Simran from Priyamanavale, Laila from Pithamagan, Nayanthara from Boss Engira Bhaskaran, Meera Jasmin from Sandakozhi… before I could steer my attention to her words alone.
Having dubbed for over a thousand films for several actors including Jyothika, Simran, Hansika Motwani, Kajal Aggarwal, Amy Jackson, etc., Savitha remains one of the most adaptable and sought-after voices in the industry.
Savitha Radhakrishnan felicitated by director Ameer at JFW event
“When it comes to dubbing, there’s a lot of observation involved. Even laughter differs from person to person. Then comes memorising the dialogues. If you were to keep reading from the paper, it’ll affect the quality of the output,” explains Savitha.
A very shy person in real life, Savitha says she prefers the dark room with no-one inside while recording.
“Some people stand and move to emote while dubbing. I always sit, two inches away from the mic, in a dark room,” she says.
Priya Anand, on the other hand, was someone who challenged the notion of the soft-spoken, chirpy female lead. With her bass voice, she rattled the industry that was slowly introducing female leads with strong tonality.
Having first dubbed at the young age of five, Priya thanks father Mohan who introduced her to the world of recording.
“My father was a yesteryear actor who used to act along with MGR. When he went for recordings he used to take me along and that’s how my journey began," she recounts.
To this day, the biggest compliment she has received, which she considers to be an achievement, remains a comment registered by writer Sujatha in Kalki magazine.
“In an interview, writer Sujatha had said that although he doesn't watch Tamil soaps on TV, he watches Mandira Bedi’s Shanti just for the ‘sweet voice of that unknown girl’. I was overwhelmed when I read that,” she reminisces.
Priya rose to become the dubbing director of the Madhavan starrer Amazon Prime series - Breathe. Her big break, however, came in 2004 with Selvaraghavan’s 7G Rainbow Colony.
Priya Anand with her friends - actor Sonia Agarwal and actor Pooja
“Bass voice is now sought-after but back then not many preferred it. In that regard, I’d say all of Selvaraghavan’s female protagonists have strong, bass voice," she says.
The industry now, however, is saturated with many RJs, VJs, singers and even artists dubbing for themselves.
“Today we have many youngsters coming in to dub and the technology has become easier as well. That’s where the association comes in as a regulator,” explains Savitha.
SICTADAU has a membership fee of Rs. 1,50,000 for those who wish to dub in feature films. The field, however, is open for those who want to do voice-overs for commercials and documentaries.
“If someone’s voice happens to be approved after voice test, they can go ahead and dub just by paying a small amount of 20,000. But from the second film onward, they cannot dub without the membership. This makes sure that only those who are serious about the career can dub,” shares Savitha.
But have things changed with more actors choosing to dub for themselves?
“I really appreciate it when an artist comes forward to dub for their own characters. It gives them a complete experience. But there are those who simply cannot pick up a language. Here again, actors like Asin, Tamannaah and Nithya Menen have huge potential to dub for themselves,” says Savitha.
Changing with the times
Every industry has had its fair share of advancements and so has the recording industry.
“At first there was a loop system that had just a single track. Everyone had to dub at the same time. There was one mic for the men, one for the women and a stool for the children to stand on when it was their turn. I was 10 when did my first recording in 1990. If someone made a mistake, everyone had to redo it again!” recounts Savitha.
From there, it progressed to the track system that had several tracks - one for the main actors, one for character artists, one for bit artists (small parts), one track for the crowd/atmosphere, etc.
“Now we have all the latest technology that has made recording very easy. You can make your voice sound thinner, baser. Earlier, syncing was the biggest challenge. In your head you should have timed your sentences accurately. But now there’s absolutely no need for that,” she adds.
While it is the women actors who usually do films across industries, the dubbing industry also has a good number of male voice artists. A good example to recall is actor Mohan. The star who was at his peak during the eighties and the nineties had most of his films (75 films) dubbed by singer and voice artist SN Surender.
With the coming of many bilingual, trilingual and dubbed films, the scope for dubbing artists has increased. The industry also expanded itself with dubbed cartoons and soaps that are now very common on TV.
Having entered the field by chance, Azam found his big break in 2015, dubbing for Rana Daggubati’s character in Baahubali.
Azam with director SS Rajamouli
“When I was asked to dub for Baahubali, I went in thinking that it’d be for a small character. I was shocked when they played Rana’s scene on screen,” he says.
Cinema is known for casting a huge shadow on the many hands that actually help propel it. Junior artists, technicians, stunt actors, body doubles, lighting crew and many such roles are under-appreciated.
So how do the voice artists feel about the recognition they’ve got so far?
“I cannot lobby enough for our recognition,” says Priya. “We are treated very well by the team, the directors I’ve worked with have always held us very respectfully. Actors I’ve worked with - Soniya Aggarwal and Pooja are my best friends. But I still believe more can be done when it comes to recognition.”
Ironically, dubbing artists had their first award only in 2000. Savitha who received the first ever Tamil Nadu state award for Best Female Dubbing Artist for the film Priyamanavale says, ”It was a hope-giving improvement for us. But I do hope we get to receive national awards as well. 50 percent of the life to the character on screen is attributed to the voice.”