Sunday, May 22, 2016


The Diary of a Frustrated Indian Film Buff

Hollywood has tapped India’s non-English viewers for years, but domestic industries remain half-hearted in their bid to reach viewers outside their home states

By Anna MM Vetticad

This is not so much a column as it is the diary of a frustrated, furious Indian film buff.

March 2016: I note that Marathi director Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat will be in theatres in April. The wait for his second film began the day his first – the much-acclaimed inter-caste relationship saga, Fandry – was released in 2014.

April 29: Sairat is here and as usual, booking websites and newspaper listings do not specify whether it has subtitles. I do what most viewers clearly cannot – I phone Manjule, who confirms it has English subs everywhere outside Maharashtra.

April 29 evening: I am at a PVR for another film, so I decide to book a ticket for Sairat. I am cautious as always since there have been occasions when I was informed by directors and senior multiplex chain staffers that a film was subtitled, only to find no subs when I watched it. So I double check with the booking counter executive. Sairat is not subtitled, he replies.

I tell him what the filmmaker told me. No subs, he insists. Could he ask a senior? Please? None is available, he says, adding that if a show of the film were on at that moment, he would have dashed in to verify this himself. Bizarre. He should not have to do that, I say.

Could you return tomorrow, he asks? No, I cannot spend an entire hour on another day driving all the way here and back, for information that should be on his computer right now. Time is not a joke.

I ask for a phone number I can later call. He manages to locate a senior and confirms that this hall is indeed showing a subtitled Sairat. Whew! I book, after 30 minutes wasted over this inexplicable inefficiency.

April 30: I am moved by Sairat’s inter-caste romance with its remarkably light touch despite the grim subject. I recall the previous day’s casual multiplex employee and wonder, for the nth time in my life, why it takes such an effort to be a committed viewer of films across Indian languages.

Rewind to February: Tamil director Vetri Maaran’s Visaaranai is out. I’m still drowning in my love for Kaaka Muttai, the film about two little Chennai slum dwellers that he produced last year, and I have been looking forward to this one. Again, no mention of subtitles anywhere. I am swamped with work so I avoid the rigmarole of calls to Maaran and so on.

May 8: I catch a subtitled Visaaranai at Delhi’s Habitat Film Festival. I am floored by this gut- wrenching story of police torture. It has just won the National Award for Best Tamil Film. It deserved Best Film. Sadly, most of India does not know that.

Over a decade since Holly
wood made it standard practice 
to release Hindi, Tamil and Telugu dubbed versions of all their
 big-budget, sci-fi/fantasy action adventures and thrillers simultaneously with the English originals, India’s industries are still waffling in their efforts to reach out to audiences outside their home states.

Bahubali’s well-strategised pursuit of a pan-India viewership in 2015 was unusual. S.S. Rajamouli’s film was made in Telugu and Tamil, dubbed in multiple languages and aggressively marketed across the country, not just in southern India or to Telugu expats. Result: Rs 500 crore domestic gross collections, the highest ever for an Indian film (source:

That said, Bahubali was inherently mass-oriented. Many makers of low-budget, niche and/or indie projects say crowds are unlikely to flock to dubbed versions of their films, and their natural viewers tend to prefer subtitles over dubbing anyway.

Fair enough, then subtitle. And if you do, let the world know you have!

May 16: Exasperated by this long-running problem, I phone Maaran to vent some steam. My questions to him apply equally to Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and India’s smaller industries.

First, is subtitling expensive? Answer: the cost of subtitling the average Tamil film is about Rs 50,000.

Not a forbidding figure, which makes you wonder why all Indian films are not subtitled outside their home territories. The clich├ęd response from producers is that collections beyond a film’s traditional audience are minuscule.

Most producers lack the vision to see that subtitling makes their films accessible to non- traditional audiences, which could translate into their stars becoming more familiar and thus more attractive to audiences and producers outside their home turf over time, which in turn would lead to more inter-regional exchanges of acting talent, more pan-India audiences for all Indian films and ultimately, a better spread of all languages outside states in which they are usually spoken. Unless you reach out to others, how will you reach them?

As puzzling as those who do not subtitle their films are those who do. If you made the effort, you are obviously interested in new markets. Why then would you not let the public know your film is subtitled?

“It is a simple matter of communication,” says Maaran, “but most exhibitors (theatre owners) don’t do it and distributors don’t push them since they are targeting the diaspora. Any non-diaspora audience that comes in is a bonus. What can producers do?” At least talk to them, please.

It is hard to believe that distributors have to move mountains or spend millions to convince exhibitors, e-booking sites and listings collators to merely mention that a film is subtitled. It is hard to fathom unenterprising exhibitors, since every ticket sold benefits them. And it is hard for a tormented film buff to understand why common sense does not prevail.

(This article was first published in The Hindu Businessline on May 21, 2016)

Original link:

Previous instalment of Film Fatale: Wherefore Art Thou, ‘Madrasis’?

Photo captions: Posters from (1) Sairat (2) Visaaranai

Photographs courtesy:

Friday, May 20, 2016


Release date:
May 20, 2016
Omung Kumar

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Randeep Hooda, Richa Chadha, Darshan Kumaar 
Hindi and Punjabi

Once upon a time there was Sunny Deol’s dhai kilo ka haath, which uprooted a hand pump to scare off the entire Pakistan Army. Today there is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s index finger.

To be fair, Sarbjit is not the unrelenting screamfest that Gadar was, but Deol’s film came to mind as the former Miss World held up her famous slender digit to intimidate an armed Pakistani security official. She did this right after delivering a loud speech to a Pakistani mob about how Pakistanis stab us Indians in the back while we bravely fight them face to face. As expected, the gun-bearing Pakistani meekly moves aside, and she proceeds to grandly walk past him as only Indian movie stars can when up against the dreaded dushman from across the border.

This embarrassingly tacky, populist scene of high-decibel, chest-thumping patriotism is the low point in a film that never quite takes off anyway.

August 25, 1990: a farmer from Bhikhiwind village in Punjab crosses the India-Pak border in an inebriated state, is mistaken for a terrorist and jailed in Pakistan, returning 23 years later in a coffin after he is allegedly murdered by fellow prisoners.

The true story of Sarabjit Singh Atwal is a tragedy of gargantuan proportions that is enough to move a rock to tears. Yet director Omung Kumar somehow manages to make a curiously unmoving film out of this inherently heartbreaking story.

A large part of the reason for this is the writing by Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri, which places Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur rather than Sarabjit at the centre of the plot. This might have been an acceptable writing choice if they had focused on the nitty-gritty of this brave woman’s battle to free her brother. Instead we get broad brush strokes which induce a sense of detachment rather than involvement with this real-life crusader and her unfortunate sibling.

The writing is not the film’s primary problem though. The primary problem is the casting of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Dalbir. Try as she might, the actress cannot get under the skin of her character. She does not have the look or the body language of a Sardarni from rural Punjab, but her effort to get there shows in every studied gesture, every laboured expression, every step, every word spoken, until that effort becomes so distracting that it eclipses all else in the film.   

This is particularly unfortunate because the rest of the cast is formidably gifted, but the entire project seems designed to ensure that they do not overshadow the central star. Rarely has Bollywood witnessed such a self-defeating approach to filmmaking.

Despite this, Randeep Hooda – one of the industry’s most under-rated talents – shines as Sarabjit to the extent that it is possible given the limited writing. His physical transformation from a healthy, happy-go-lucky young farmer and wrestling enthusiast to a scrawny, ragged, filthy prisoner is remarkable, a combination of his own scary dedication (he reportedly lost 18kg for the role), SFX and his makeup artist Renuka Pillai’s ability to understand the requirements of a character. In his skinny body and decrepit face here, it is hard to spot the actor’s naturally sexy persona or the hot physique he has happily displayed in earlier films.

Commendably though, Hooda does not use the bodily makeover as a crutch. His performance is greatly handicapped by the fact that the camera rarely dwells on his face when it is in the light in India, and in the shadows in his Pakistani prison we see his countenance with clarity pretty late into Sarbjit’s running time. Further diverting attention from him, quite senselessly, are pictures of the real Sarabjit on posters and placards being held up by campaigners in the film – serving to repeatedly remind the audience that the guy we see on screen is someone else.

Hampered in so many ways from so many directions, Hooda still immerses himself in the role, making it possible to sometimes forget that he is but an actor playing a part.

Richa Chadha as Sarabjit’s wife Sukhpreet is mostly on the margins, but in the one scene where the spotlight is firmly on her, she sparkles. The situation is a confrontation between Sukhpreet and Dalbir. Without raising her voice even a single notch, without seeming to try at all, Chadha delivers the only scene in the entire film in which I found myself crying.

Darshan Kumaar is the new chameleon of Bollywood. As the zealous Pakistani lawyer Avais Sheikh who takes up Sarbjit’s case he is a far cry from the heroine’s soft-spoken, supportive husband he played in Mary Kom (2014) or the frightfully evil fellow he was in last year’s NH10.

Omung Kumar debuted with Mary Kom in which, despite the grievous offence of casting Priyanka Chopra as a Manipuri woman, he pulled through on the strength of Saiwyn Quadras’ solid script, Chopra’s acting talent and his own firm directorial hand. Here though, he seems scattered and star-struck. It is as if he zeroed in on a star and built a film around her. Big mistake.

When you watch Sarbjit, you must accept it as a given that the makers believe Sarabjit Singh Atwal and his family’s version of events, not the Pakistani authorities. The reason why that is okay is because the film is not pretending to be a journalistic exercise telling all sides of the story; it is open about its stance that it is a feature recounting one side of the story. Besides, unlike the Akshay Kumar-starrer Airlift released earlier this year, the fictionalisation here does not amount to outright, blatant lies revolving around a protagonist who never existed in reality.

The news occurrences in Sarbjit are more or less faithful to Indian media reports, with certain self-serving omissions such as the real Sarabjit’s reported admission to a Pakistani judge that he was involved in cross-border liquor smuggling (not spying and terrorism) or the controversies surrounding the real Dalbir. Even if these exclusions were to be excused as cinematic licence, the problem remains that this film fails to flesh out the people at the heart of this true story.

Statistics flashed on screen right before the end credits inform us that there were 403 Indians languishing in Pakistani jails and 278 Pakistanis in Indian jails as on July 1, 2015. Like Sarabjit, they are not mere numbers, they are living breathing human beings, many of whom (though not all) are innocent victims of the long-running political enmity between India and Pakistan. 

Sarbjit is a lesson in how not to tell their story.

Rating (out of five): **

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
132 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster courtesy: Team Celeb Studio Talk