Crossing the language barrier in films (Baradwaj Rangan’s Op-Ed on Regional Cinema in the Hindu)

Crossing the language barrier in films
Baradwaj Rangan

“We lost two stars from that larger-than-life era recently – Suchitra Sen and Akkineni Nageswara Rao – and the outpourings of grief have come mainly from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Only the people who spoke Bengali and Telugu (or those who follow these languages and watch films in these languages) really knew what these stars were all about. The rest of us experience a general sense of sadness, the kind that descends on us whenever an achiever passes away, but these feelings don’t become really personal. And how could they, given that we’ve seen a bare handful of their films? When asked to write obituaries, non-Bengalis keep referring to Sen’s popular Hindi films like Devdas and Aandhi and Mamta and Bambai Ka Baboo, while non-Telugus settle for discussing the small number of Tamil films that Nageswara Rao starred in, and as songs are recalled more easily than films, we end up lingering over Thunbam nergayil, the most famous of Nageswara Rao’s songs in Tamil (from the film Or Iravu), even if he was mostly just a spectator to the singing.”


14 Responses to “Crossing the language barrier in films (Baradwaj Rangan’s Op-Ed on Regional Cinema in the Hindu)”

  1. left this comment on Rangan’s blog:

    [Hear hear…!
    Unfortunately (and this is an issue I’ve struggled with for years in certain ways) I think some cultural barriers and the general absence of a film culture (in the critical sense) are huge pitfalls. In my experience (and at the risk of generalization) it is about the hardest thing in the world to convince a Hindi speaker to watch for instance a Tamil movie with subtitles. Even when they’re otherwise accessing the same director (Ratnam) in Hindi! Things are still vastly better than they used to be. Online people are a lot more aware of Southern films than they used to be but it’s still not where it needs to be to justify anything that might be spent on subtitles and so on. One should perhaps thank the diaspora for whatever has nonetheless happened on this front. On TV you get dubbed versions of awful Telugu masala! The way things are I think a government initiative might help. What if there were laws that suggested DVDs or VCDS couldn’t be produced without subs? But again probably still not a realistic alternative given the greater costs it would entail. These might seem low but we’re dealing with an audience that even outside India where they ought to be more spoiled with proper DVD releases and so forth are quite happy to watch even the grandest big screen entertainments on poor pirated transfers. So the regional cinema issue is one piece of the puzzle that then ties in with this larger indifference to questions of quality. Again a quick example — even in Hindi it’s hard to get director’s cuts of any kind done on DVD. Rakeysh Mehra has for years talked about how Abhishek dies in his original conception of D6, how it was supposed to be a dead man’s narration and how he bowed to distributor pressure on this. This cut was even shown at a few places around the world but it’s not been available on DVD and isn’t likely to be. So I think and for want of a better term there is a general absence of proper film culture that could nurture some of these trends. But yes the resistance to the ‘regional’ (which is a loaded term to begin with and part of the problem) has its own specific history. I am very glad you wrote this piece. We really do need people like yourself constantly pushing this kind of commentary.]


  2. Suchitra Sen and Akkineni are too iconic to ignore and older generations of telugu and tamil people (from undivided Madras Presidency) still have fond memories of Akkineni, NTR and Savitri who was mainly a telugu star actress. While Suchitra Sen is being eulogised for her unique beauty, exclusivity other than her acting which can be savoured only in her bengali films.
    A thought provoking writeup by Rangan.


  3. Ulage mayam, vazhve mayam was also quite famous in tamil.

    They used to say Akkineni’s Devdas encouraged drunkards to drink and whenever that film played in theatres, most of the audience were drunkards who enjoyed most. I do not know how much truth and how much gossip in these observations.


  4. “In my experience (and at the risk of generalization) it is about the hardest thing in the world to convince a Hindi speaker to watch for instance a Tamil movie with subtitles”
    So true. As a person from the country (and continent) where watching subtitled movies in foreigner languages is just a norm (as well as literacy), still amazes me that watching subtitled movies in languages you don’t know, can be so big problem not only for persons which have problems with fluent reading, but also for young, educated Indians – for me it’s just so natural (and also so illuminative) – and dubbing movies (i.e taking away the original voices of the actors -which I treat as very much part of them) so strange, that I still can’t understand why anybody literate can prefer it. And the strange (and little sad) result is, that I, a person from completely other part of the world, know more about indian cinema as a whole than Indians.


  5. ya satyam but in hindi speaking belt as you say they won’t seat on bhojpuri, punjabi, pahadi etc…marathi films are high on content and even this year good road from gujrati stream was not bad and with due respect your views on awful telgu cinema is little over top

    (see trp of dubbed versions and the recent maximum remakes from bollywood as result)..

    its upto nfdc to preserve and release subtitle though youtube and torrent has started much more awareness which is increasing only


  6. btw hearing great thing from chander pahar(bengali)


  7. why there are no dvd or vcd release as such ….it more amounts to lethargy of distributors to open up of various regional cinema….why the lethargy in preserving one’s own local industry …why so much resistence to marketing should have been to the focus


  8. Well, that strange politics of Indian distributors is very baffling to me as a foreigner and an amateur of cinema from other parts of the word. Subtitling movies is just a normal and natural practice for me and I am used to it from my earlies years as a viewer. This is how festival screenings are being prepared. And this is how you reach broad audience. It is not only the matter of getting Indians familiar with various regional cinematographies, but also way to reach foreign audience – people like me. And belive me, for European cinema goers, non NRIs, there is much more appeal in those socially oriented “local” cinematographies than hindi commercial meainstream (or mainstream from South, but this doesn’t reach us anyway). Some of regional movies are indeed very ‘local’ and may concern only audience familiar with those problems. But many of them are very universal in aspects of humanity they show. And one doesn’t need any knowledge about context to perceive the story on many levels, eg. emotional one. If I as a foreigner – without any Indian roots – am able to follow that, why not fellow national audience? Lets take Satyajit Ray. Aren’t his movies hight on context? Aren’t they deeply immersed in Bengali cultural heritage and realia? But he is still one of the most recognized and appreciated among the Indian film makers. Also mayalee Adoor Gopalakrishnan, or other Bengalis like Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Gatak, were critically acclaimed by Western festival audience. For me as a foreign viewer it is highly frustrating that I am not able to watch many classics e.g. from Kerala or Tamil Nadu, as even when there is DVD relase, it lacs subtitles. There are some many movies from different regions that got international awards and has been screened during many international festivals. But still – no relases or no subtitles or both. (And problem concerns not only regional ones – I tried hard, but NEVER found subtitled DVD of Chetan Anand’s “Neecha nagar” which was the first Indian movie that gained international recognition and won the very first prestigious Cannes festival). But I also don’t understand the policy of not subtitling commercial movies – both in cinemas or DVDs. As was rightly put by someone – why someone from different state, speaking different language can’t watch a movie from his own country? And while dubbing a movie is indeed costly, subtitling – for a distributor – is not a problem at all.


  9. I couldn’t agree with BR more about the need for sub-titling. But it is highly unfair to say that Hindi speaking audience or people from the north who are more familiar with the Hindi terrain and its off-shoots are uninterested in watching Tamil films or generally, films from the south. This goes BOTH ways; make no dime of a mistake about it. The South is as ‘ghettoised’ (for lack of a better word in my limited vocabulary) as the North or West or East when it comes to this.

    I still remember the days I used to screen Hindi movies (with English sub-titles of course, turned on), every Saturday, as ‘cultural ambassador’ (LOL) of the ISA at the US university (don’t worry; it was quite a famous university with a high cross-section of students from Indian states) I studied in. Not more than 2-3 students from Tamil Nad used to show up to watch the movies, irrespective of whether it starred Amitabh or ShahRukh or Ashmit Patel. It was always populated with people from Karnataka (the ones from the ‘city’ areas) and some from Hyderabad. One fine day, as I didn’t get any new movie, I decided to fetch HUM from the store and screen it. The show was to begin at 6 pm but the auditorium was jam-packed by 5:45 pm. More than 70% of the Indian faces were new. What the heck? For a 13 year old movie, this aud is full! Then it struck my Suppandi brain: Man this one has Rajnikanth! From the next week, as usual, after my Ghajini moment for a week, it was back to seeing all the familiar faces! For the life of me I couldn’t understand this. Most of the HUM-Rajnikanth audience was supposedly from Madras, which, even though limitedly, had access to Hindi films. The Tamilians that used to come to watch Hindi movies were the ones who had been all over the place; 2 years in Bhandup, 3 in Chandigarh, et cetera. And remember, I saw this ‘reluctance’ to watch Hindi films with sub-titles in an environment far away from home, where anything remotely connected to the motherland is supposed to flood you with ‘emotions’; where Idli-Sambar and Chole-Paranthe supposedly indulge in more than foreplay.
    And not to remember that unforgettable moment in my life when a group of friends were watching KKKG (with sub-titles) and at the juncture when all the separated members of the great family in this film meet in some fancy mall in London; my Tamilian friend got up and started wearing his shoes. He was so sure that the film was about to end. ‘Everybody met na, film vower!!’ Or that wonderful moment when we were watching BAGHBAN’s Amitabh deliver a soliloquy marvelously (sub-titled) and my Tamilian friend from Madras was getting so restless with the ‘talk’ going on that he ejected the DVD and put in a Captain’s flick (we had to watch what he wanted; he ‘paid’ for the DVD player part of the movie watching).

    Now one might say, hey, you didn’t like ROWDY RATHORE in Telugu or Tamil, but you made it a 100 crore hit in Hindi!! Well, Duh! As a population, we are used to picking up the ‘bad’ things from anywhere fast! What should we learn from those Hollywood movies? Using cuss words and showing skin of course! (Don’t be surprised if you get the fortune of watching TWOWS ‘inspiration’ ‘Byculla ka Bhediya’ with Sunny Leone and Sachin Joshii in the near future). Seriousness in a narrative, more value, and more money to screen-writing? Erm, what are these ‘alien’ concepts? They won’t work in India. The Telugu masala films are one of the worst I have seen in my life. But these are picked up by Hindi film industry as regularly as SRK wins awards! The problem is not that these films exist [it would be highly elitist of me to expect these films to go away; they have their own cultural back-stories and ‘need’ an audience]; the problem is ONLY they exist (don’t give me examples of 1 or 2 stray exceptions). For the last 20 years, it is the SAME story recycled and recycled and recycled; a heroine imported from North (No Siree, we do not want Priyamani or anymani; Tamanna or Kajal will do enough to satisfy our ‘gora’ fetish – to heck with ‘local culture.’);beat up a few villains with punch-lines; then a climactic fight. Lo and behold, Sohail and Salman are on the next flight to Hyderabad to buy the ‘rights.’! Chiranjeevi goes down with an imaginary Veena in a song in one film; in the next film, he comes up with the same imaginary veena. (What goes down must come up.) Take that Hollywood. This is what we call a ‘sequel.’ And the Hindi film industry is more than willing to copy such juvenile stuff from anywhere and turn this into a hit thanks to its larger base and the wallets that open up automatically to such stuff. Equal opportunity offender the Hindi film industry is, for sure.

    For that matter, how many ‘non-discerning’ non-Bengali people watch Ray’s films? How many of the Indians in US check out Ray’s movies which are available in almost ALL county libraries in the US? They seem to be reserved only for nostalgic Bengalis and film-studies students. How many non-Bengalis watched CHANDER PAHER (that was with sub-titles)? For that matter, how many watched DEDH ISHQIYA? Some bit of high Urdu put off a friend of mine from Orissa! Dude, that one has sub-titles! No thanks. But he watched Aamir’s D!@k3 twice, cursing all the time!! The point is people who are willing to watch movies from other languages or countries or states will watch no matter what. These are the people needing sub-titles. And it is the job of the industry to provide it. It is completely impractical to expect a sizable population to show interest first and then put in the sub-titles as a reaction. It is NOT a big cost to put in these sub-titles and make them accessible to speakers of other languages. Don’t crib. Put in the sub-titles and release it in non-Tamil or Kannada or Malayalam speaking places. People that are interested will watch; people who are not, won’t, even if you provide them with free pani-puri in those exorbitantly priced multi-plexes. (Saurabh is a good example here; am amazed at the extent of knowledge he has about current Tamil film-dom; I don’t know where the heck he gets to watch these movies with sub-titles in a place like Sangli of all places which is not even 1/4th of Kolhapur!)

    In the US, except for those BIG CINEMAS/RELIANCE theaters or whatever, NONE of the mid-level theaters have sub-titles for regional films. There have been umpteen instances during my stay in Minneapolis when I went to the theater to watch a Tamil film and had to switch thanks to the lack of sub-titles. The Tamil film industry has the budget to compete with Hindi film industry shoulder to shoulder, fly to Alaska if need be for 3 months to shoot 3 action sequences, but doesn’t have the money to arrange for a guy who could write sub-titles? Give me a break. The Hollywood honcho in Burbank doesn’t sit on his ass wondering why the family in Patna is not interested in watching MAN OF STEEL. They dub it in Bhojpuri with Ravi Kissen and release it – however rudimentary, however chuckle-worthy.


    • Very interesting observations. The people of karnataka and andhra are more open to other language films compared to their tamilian brothers. They are somewhat too culturally isolated from the rest of South India. There are exceptions of course but too sparse.


    • omrocky786 Says:

      Great comment AnJo… how are you ???


  10. The esoteric myopia

    The problem with this Rangan piece and the ensuing comments is that it assumes that all viewers of cinema are avid connoisseurs of cinema aka cinephiles of similar degree as those inhabiting film blogs or frequenting film diploma courses in NYC…
    The truth is far different –not less than 95% of cinema viewers watch it for entertainment and a break from mundane life besides some escapist fare peppered with (pseudo)intellectual stimulation.

    Films form a usually small subset of their lives—so obviously stuff that’s easily accessible, tantalising and basically involves minimal ‘effort’ is preferred.

    ‘Joanna’ makes some good points and im glad she enjoys world cinema and other languages even with subtitles/dubbing…

    I personally don’t mind either provided they tick the above boxes for eg I enjoyed ‘jeune et jolie’ & ‘blue is the warmest color’….

    So trying to extrapolate ones esoteric arguments onto the unsuspecting masses seems an interesting argument but is based on a faulty premise…

    Only a certain small subset of humans watch movies —
    To prove a point….


  11. omrocky786 Says:

    This film industry was marked by the energy , audacity and speed , so cherished by this gun loving sugar belt . And it refused to feel inferior to Bollywood . Infact, in a newspaper interview Uttar Kumar , the hero of the run away hit film Dhakad Chhora, claimed that Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara has actually copied them !


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