The Girl On The Train, and the unsubtle art of setting Hindi remakes of foreign-language films abroad

One become strained to understand why 'Indianised' remakes need to be set outside India, especially when a majority of the cast is speaking in Hindi anyway.

Tatsam Mukherjee April 04, 2021 15:23:54 IST
The Girl On The Train, and the unsubtle art of setting Hindi remakes of foreign-language films abroad

Still from The Girl on the Train

I do not know about you but when I was watching the trailer of Ribhu Dasgupta's The Girl On The Train, and Kirti Kulhari was introduced as a Hindi-speaking cop in London, I groaned out loud.

It has been a trope in several Hindi films set abroad, especially London, where every other character turns out to be from the subcontinent. Cops, lawyers, brokers, cab drivers (duh!), so much so that the geography of the film becomes completely beside the point. Save for the odd drone sequence over the London eye or the Brooklyn bridge, which acts as a transition before a song or the climax. Much like Kareena Kapoor Khan in Angrezi Medium last year, even Kulhari tries her best to come off as a believable English cop, routinely switching between her English instruction dialogue to juniors, and Hindi exposition dialogues to the audience.

It is understandable that a mainstream Hindi film's commerce depends on how a film 'looks', and therefore pays heed to where it is shot.

But one does become strained to understand why 'Indianised' remakes (at least, the official ones) need to be set outside India, especially when a majority of the cast is speaking in Hindi anyway. 

For Sujoy Ghosh, ever since he started work on remaking Spanish thriller The Invisible Guest (Spanish title: Contratiempo) as Badla, the location of the film was always the UK. "India is incidentally warm... so many people coming in and out of a house. Your neighbour is almost like family. There's usually a security guard in the building, a maid or a chauffeur coming in or out. The life is not very independent, whereas the characters I had in Badla, were very independent. In the way I imagined the setting, there's isolation in the way the characters lead their lives. All these guided me towards (the UK)," Ghosh tells me over the phone.

Ribhu Dasgupta's response is fairly straightforward about why he chose to set his adaptation of Paula Hawkins' bestselling novel in London. "The 2016 film (starring Emily Blunt) is set in New York. However, I was very clear that I'll set it in London, because the novel was set in London."  

Interestingly, Dasgupta's directorial feature debut, TE3N (2016), was a remake of a 2013 South Korean film Montage. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and Vidya Balan, Dasgupta chose to set the film in Kolkata. Then was there ever any conversation about setting the Parineeti Chopra-starrer in India? "When I pitched the film to Aditi Rao Hyadri, she asked me why we weren't shooting this in Kolkata. My response to her was - then we'll have to call it A Girl In A Tram," Dasgupta tries to deflect the question with a joke.

But the more we talk, he hints at what seems like the more pragmatic reason. "At the end of the day, I wouldn't say that commerce doesn't come in the way when you're taking a call on the location of a film. Of course, it plays a huge part. But shooting a film abroad is as expensive as shooting a film in Mumbai these days. So it balances out."

Ghosh likes to stick to locations whose geography he is familiar with, whether it is Kolkata in Kahaani, Mumbai in Jhankaar Beats or Kalimpong in Kahaani 2. Even the setting for Badla comes from the time Ghosh has spent in the UK. Is it a struggle trying to make the overall Indian-ness in a film set abroad, not seem like a mere convenience for the storyteller? " I see where you're coming from, and one does need to find that balance. If I want everyone to speak in Hindi, then rather than taking my hero/heroine into a supermarket, I'll probably take them in a corner shop, which invariably will be owned by an Asian, and that person speaks Hindi."

Dasgupta, on the other hand, starts out with the predictable argument that neighbourhoods like Southall and Birmingham have a massive Indian diaspora population, so it is not as convenient as it looks. But then he eventually concedes, "True... true. It's a call we take, and then you live with it."

The Girl On The Train and the unsubtle art of setting Hindi remakes of foreignlanguage films abroad

Amitabh Bachchan in Badla

These remakes also highlight a very specific problem in Hindi films, where the composite Hinglish (where most urban Indians speak in English, while slipping in the odd Hindi word or vice versa) dialogue do not seem very elegant. Like this line mouthed by Parineeti Chopra, "Main usse kabhi nahi bata payi, woh main nahi thi, woh mera wound tha." Similarly, Hindi film directors seem to be struggling with even the most straight-shooting foreign character, by giving them atrocious English dialogue, thereby reducing them to unintentional comedy. Ghosh reveals his method to make a location more authentic: "If you know the kind of people who inhabit that space, the setting becomes organic. If my setting is Scotland, then the receptionist has to be Scottish. There have to be certain English dialogues. You have to make it organic or it'll be jarring."

There have been a few 'unofficial' remakes in Hindi cinema that have been Indian-ised with care. Like Shaad Ali's Bunty Aur Babli, a film that seemingly borrowed its core premise from Hollywood classic Bonnie & Clyde, made the effort of establishing the two characters as dreamers stuck in small towns like Fursatgunj and Pankinagar. Similarly, Rohan Sippy's Bluffmaster!, an unofficial adaptation of the Argentine film Nine Queens, did a decent job of setting the entire film in early 2000s Mumbai, featuring brand-new shopping malls, multiplexes, and the now-shut dance bars. Dil Bechara from last year, a remake of The Fault In Our Stars, is set in Jamshedpur, but no effort is made to differentiate it from any other tier-2 town. In fact, debutante director Mukesh Chhabra tries his level best to bring a dreamy quality to his setting, replete with fairy lights and confetti.

The remakes in the future surely need to introspect their choice of location a little more, instead of sticking to what looks nice. It does seem like a tough ask for an industry that picks commerce over art every other day. Even if they choose to set their films abroad, here is hoping the directors will be more in control of how their characters sound in a foreign environment, instead of picking five Hindi-speaking actors and exporting them to a set, in order to read their lines. In the hands of a good filmmaker, a film location can become a character unto itself.

The Girl On The Train is streaming on Netflix India.

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