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: forbes.com).
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 clichéd 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)
Previous instalment of Film Fatale: Wherefore Art Thou, ‘Madrasis’?
Photo captions: Posters from (1) Sairat (2) Visaaranai