Dubbing, subtitles and clever casting: Is the web really creating pan-India content?

Ranjani Krishnakumar

Oct 02, 2019 09:49:48 IST

Serial Chiller is Ranjani Krishnakumar’s monthly column about all things Tamil television. Read more from the series here.


In the Amazon Original series The Family Man, there is a heated interaction about language between the families of Srikant (Manoj Bajpayee) and his wife Suchitra (Priyamani). If you watch it in the show’s original language — Hindi — you’ll see Srikant’s mother, a Hindi speaker tell Suchitra’s father, a Tamil speaker, that he should talk in Hindi, because it is the national language and the only language we need to know.

Suchitra’s father doesn’t take it well. He argues that there is no such thing as a national language in India and Hindi, like Tamil, is one of our several official languages. After a verbal scuff about Sanskrit, Tamil and their respective ancientness, the scene fades into more pressing issues.

 Dubbing, subtitles and clever casting: Is the web really creating pan-India content?

Manoj Bajpayee in The Family Man. Youtube screenshot

Except, I watched the series in Tamil, my native language. And in that version, this conversation was rather bizarre. Srikant is shown to be a Tamil-native, and Suchitra, a Telugu-native. Srikant’s mother now says, “As long as they know Hindi and Tamil, it’s enough to survive here," which makes absolutely no sense, considering ‘here’ in that sentence is perhaps Mumbai! In the Telugu version, Telugu just takes the place of Hindi in the original dialogue, which is only marginally better. But best is the English version — just like all Twitter arguments on this topic — they all speak to each other in English, but argue about the greatness of their respective native tongues.


Language plays a very important role in any story being comprehended by the audience — if you understand the language, you understand the story, right? But language, especially in India, goes much beyond that, in defining the context and culture of cinematic endeavour. Which is why the Malayalam film Drishyam (2013) didn’t get alternative audio languages. It got remade in four Indian languages and in Sinhala, for good measure.

But television doesn’t have that kind of money. So, they often resort to dubbing, which works almost as well. Estimates say that nearly half of television slots in Tamil are occupied by dubbed programming. In spite of strikes and protests by the Tamil television industry, dubbed programs often occupy premier slots.

But in this case, dubbing is an afterthought, a fiscal convenience. In a fraction of the production cost, one can buy and dub a serial episode, making it attractive to channels across the board. Moreover, only successful shows get bought and dubbed, further minimising risks — like Sun TV recently bought Aladdin, a Sony SAB serial, which previously aired on Polimer.


For web content, however, language appears to be part of a considered strategy — one that is aiming for pan-Indian reach, even with content made in Hindi and located in Bombay. For starters, most OTT platforms today make it a practice of advertising and releasing their shows in multiple Indian languages, right from the start. Hindi, Tamil and Telugu are most popular, while Hotstar and Zee5 often also dub in Kannada, Malayalam, Bangla and Marathi also. Depending on which platform you’re watching, there are also subtitles in some or all of these languages.

But, the endeavour to create pan-Indian content goes beyond dubbing and subtitling. Amazon Prime chose Madhavan, a pan-India star, if you will, for its show Breathe. Its more recent show The Family Man has a deliberate cast of people from across the country, playing characters also from across the country — Priyamani, Neeraj Madhav, Sundeep Kishan, all of whom are recognisable actors from the South, even if not stars, bringing with them local press coverage and audiences. Most of these shows are also conveniently named in English — ‘City of Dreams’, ‘Breathe’ and the like, just in case anyone is having trouble pronouncing them, in their native languages.


For web content, language appears to be part of a considered strategy — one that is aiming for pan-Indian reach

While there are a lot of Hindi shows dubbed into Tamil, Telugu and other languages, it would be unfair to argue that the other way is non-existent. The Tamil web series Vella Raja, featuring Bobby Simha, was also duly dubbed in Hindi and released — an apt revenge, I am delighted to say.

Zee5 has so far commissioned more work from the South than other regions, employing local actors and technicians — actors Prasanna, Amala, Lakshmi Manchu etc. and producers like Vishnu Vardhan and Anu Vardhan, and Karthik Subbaraj, among others. In fact, they also pan-Indianise South Indian content, dubbing and subtitling it into Hindi, Marathi, and Bengali, among other languages.


Yet, without a considered adaptation, the expectation that the dubbed version will work as well as the original is naïve. For something to work across languages, it needs to be rooted everywhere, which is in essence nowhere, bearing the risk of being distant and unrelatable. Barring that, there will always be the problem of original context, from the original language and the adopted context, from the language it’s dubbed into.

However hard one tries, there is a limit to how much a show can be re-contextualised into another language. Like the scene in The Family Man about languages I quoted at the beginning — other than in the Hindi version, that conversation just does not work.

Even if you’re willing to forgive them for the unfortunate situation of logical dissonance like that, any show not watched in its original language is invariably jarring. Voices don’t match, idioms don’t work, translations are literal, but most irritatingly, when the voice language is localised and subtitles aren’t, it feels like parallel tracks of dialogue. The timbre and tone of the show in its original is lost in translation.

We might never really know if this whose-father-what-goes approach to dubbing in as many languages as possible is actually widening the audience base — nobody declares show-wise viewership data. But, Netflix has research to prove that we only say we prefer subtitles, but in actuality, we are more likely to finish watching a show if it were dubbed.


Ranjani Krishnakumar is a writer, obsessor and a nascent Chennai-vasi. You can reach her at @_tharkuri

Updated Date: Oct 04, 2019 09:53:48 IST