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How subtitling supports the Malayalam film boom

Malayalam film is finding critical acclaim and increased viewership outside Kerala. Subtitles play a crucial role in building this audience

A subtitled scene from ‘Joji’
A subtitled scene from ‘Joji’

How should one accurately translate Malayalam superstar Mohanlal’s punchline “Savari Giri Giri” in the 2001 hit Ravanaprabhu? While its literal meaning implies ‘travelling’, the catchphrase is actually a nod to one-upmanship, making an appearance whenever the hero has to put someone in their place. Fans on Twitter were divided on how close OTT platform Disney+Hotstar got with its English subtitles, which read ‘Hey! Cock a doodle doo’.

The discovery of Malayalam films on OTT platforms has been on the upswing both before and through lockdown. Jallikattu’s selection as India’s official entry to the 2021 Oscars capped off a period of renewed interest. Amazon Prime Video has added seven Originals and several direct to streaming Malayalam films since mid-2020. “Films like CU Soon, Halal Love Story, Drishyam 2, The Priest and Joji were well-received by the audiences, garnering great viewership, especially from customers outside the home states—thus hugely expanding the audience base for these films,” says Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video.

Also read: 'Joji' review: Macbeth in the time of covid

Pratiksha Rao, Director, content acquisition, Netflix, cites Kapella and Maniyarayile Ashokan among non-Hindi, Indian titles occupying the Top 10 list on Netflix in India and other countries for most number of days. Mansi Shrivastav, head, content acquisition, MX Player, says there has been an increase of about 2.2 times in viewership for Malayalam films in 2020. Outside Kerala, she says, Malayalam films are catching on in Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Mumbai.

The audiences outside of Kerala are growing steadily. And subtitles have been the vital bridge for non-Malayalam speakers.

“We try to convey the beauty of the dialogue,” says Vivek Ranjit, a scriptwriter and subtitling professional who has subtitled more than 170 Malayalam films. “Being a writer myself, I try to understand what the film’s writer meant to convey while subtitling. I try to convey the inherent metre in the dialogues; it works at times and other times it does not. Mostly, it is important to convey the meaning.”

“In songs, I can’t match the rhyme or I can’t give the literal translation of the lyrics,” Ranjit adds. “I have to convey the context in its best possibility. The same with humour. There will be passages with wordplay, so that cannot be literally translated”

Rajeev Ramachandran, a freelance journalist and subtitler, outlines other challenges. “Situational humour comes with gesticulation and is difficult to subtitle. I faced this with Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25. It is also difficult to subtitle humour which is native to the language,” he says.

“In each scene, one subtitled line can only contain 43 characters including spaces and punctuation. Thus if there are two lines, the maximum is 86 characters,” Ramachandran says, adding that he focuses on the scene’s soul and mood.

References to local idioms or characters are adapted. “In Jacobinte Swargarajyam, Nivin Pauly’s character is told he has gained weight like Edavela Babu (a Malayalam actor). I replaced it with Jack Black (Hollywood actor),” says Ranjit.

In Lucifer, Tovino Thomas’ character is first introduced as someone who does not speak proper Malayalam. In the subtitles, words were misspelt deliberately to convey that, says Ranjit.

Ramachandran attempted inclusive subtitles for the hearing impaired with Virus. “The opening scene is of a telephone ringing. This is captured in the subtitles. Action subtitles capture background music, the audio track and ambient sound. It was the first time it was tried out in subtitling in Malayalam films,” he says.

It’s not just new films. SCube Films confirmed plans to add subtitles to their catalogue of yesteryear films on their YouTube channel. “I had posted a Twitter thread on Mohanlal’s old films with subtitles on OTT. It received a tremendous response among non-Malayalis. Several celebrities shared it. There are now quite a few such lists on the net,” says Ranjit. “Earlier, subtitles were considered [as a sign of] artistic merit. Now it is seen as a business proposition.”

Ramachandran says subtitles were limited to films on the festival circuit and those released abroad. Earlier, filmmakers had to be convinced to include subtitles, says Ranjit. “Now, even films with little chance of a successful run outside Kerala have subtitles,” says Ranjit. He credits subtitles and marketing for the reach of Pulimurugan and Kumbalangi Nights.

Syam Pushkaran, scriptwriter and producer on films like Kumbalangi Nights and Joji, confirms this. “For the last few films, we have put in more time, effort and seriousness to get subtitles as accurate as possible. I get feedback on Instagram from Malayalis on how subtitles can be improved, especially those staying outside Kerala as they recommend these films to others.”

Pushkaran says subtitles can be tricky. “For writers and filmmakers, nuance is critical. We have seen it being lost in translation,” says Pushkaran, adding a small loss in meaning or turn of phrase is something they have to live by. He acknowledges the role of subtitles in opening world cinema for the filmmaking community as well.

Also read: How Adoor Gopalakrishnan reinvented Malayalam cinema

There are, of course, instances where subtitles get it wrong, as one viewer discovered in the 1992 film Aadhaaram. ‘Umma’ can refer to mother as well as kiss in Malayalam. A line was subtitled, “I, too, am the one who created by kissing”. Following attention on social media, the subtitles were corrected. Older films use subtitles from DVDs which are often poor quality, says Ranjit.

Ranjit and Ramachandran confirm more people have taken to subtitling since the establishment of OTT. This includes both professionals from the film business and part-timers. “It should not be about just making a quick buck,” says Ranjit. “It is a technical craft. One must approach it in a way which benefits cinema, not as a place to show off one’s language skills.”

Annie Philip is a Delhi-based independent journalist.

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