How subtitling supports the Malayalam cinema boom
How to accurately translate the punchline of Malayalam superstar Mohanlal “Savari Giri Giri” in the 2001 hit Ravanaprabhu? While its literal meaning implies “travel,” the tagline 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 over how close the OTT Disney + Hotstar platform was to its English subtitles, which read âHey! Cock-a-doodle Doo’.
The discovery of Malayalam films on OTT platforms has increased both before and during the lockdown. JallikattuThe selection of India as India’s official entry to the 2021 Oscars closed a period of renewed interest. Amazon Prime Video has added seven originals and several live streaming Malayalam movies since mid-2020. “Movies like CU Coming Soon, Halal Love Story, Drishyam 2, The Priest and Joji were well received by the public, garnering a large number of viewers, especially from clients outside the home states, thus considerably expanding the audience base for these films, âsaid Vijay Subramaniam, director and responsible for content, Amazon Prime Video.
Read also: ‘Joji’ review: Macbeth in the time of covid
Pratiksha Rao, Director, Content Acquisition, Netflix, cites Kapella and Maniyarayile Ashokan among the non-Hindi Indian titles occupying the Top 10 list on Netflix in India and other countries for most days. Mansi Shrivastav, head of content acquisition, MX Player, said the number of viewers for Malayalam films had increased by about 2.2 times in 2020. Outside of Kerala, she said, films in malayalam spread to Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Mumbai. .
The audience outside of Kerala is steadily increasing. And the subtitles have been the essential bridge for non-Malayalam speakers.
âWe try to convey the beauty of dialogue,â says Vivek Ranjit, screenwriter and captioning professional who has captioned more than 170 films in Malayalam. âBeing a writer myself, I try to understand what the writer of the film wanted to convey by captioning. I try to convey the meter inherent in dialogues; sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t. Above all, it is important to convey the meaning.
âIn songs, I can’t match the rhyme or I can’t give the literal translation of the lyrics,â Ranjit adds. âI have to convey the context in its best possible way. The same with humor. There will be passages with puns, so it cannot be translated literally “
Rajeev Ramachandran, freelance journalist and captioner, describes other challenges. âSituational humor comes with posturing and is hard to caption. I faced this with Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25. It’s also hard to caption the humor that’s native to the language, âhe says.
âIn each scene, a captioned line can only contain 43 characters, including spaces and punctuation. So if there are two lines, the maximum is 86 characters, âsays Ramachandran, adding that he focuses on the soul and mood of the scene.
References to local idioms or characters are adapted. “In Jacobinte Swargarajyam, Nivin Pauly’s character is said to have gained weight like Edavela Babu (a Malayalam actor). I replaced him with Jack Black (Hollywood actor), âexplains Ranjit.
In Lucifer, Tovino Thomas’ character is first introduced as someone who does not speak Malayalam properly. In the captions, the words have been misspelled on purpose to express this, Ranjit says.
Ramachandran attempted inclusive subtitles for the hearing impaired with Virus. âThe opening scene is of a ringing telephone. This is captured in the subtitles. Action captions capture background music, audio track, and ambient sound. It was the first time it had been tried in subtitling in Malayalam films, âhe says.
It’s not just about new movies. SCube Films has confirmed its intention to add subtitles to its catalog of old-fashioned films on its YouTube channel. âI had posted a Twitter thread about old Mohanlal movies with subtitles on OTT. He received a tremendous response among non-Malayalis. Several celebrities have shared it. There are now many such lists on the net, âsays Ranjit. âPreviously, subtitles were considered [as a sign of] Artistic merit. Now that’s considered a business proposition.
Ramachandran said subtitles were limited to films on the festival circuit and those released overseas. Previously, filmmakers had to be convinced to include subtitles, says Ranjit. âNow even films with little chance of success outside of Kerala have subtitles,â says Ranjit. He attributes to captions and marketing the scope of Pulimurugan and Nights of Kumbalangi.
Syam Pushkaran, screenwriter and film producer as Nights of Kumbalangi and Joji, confirms it. âFor the last few movies, we put more time, effort and seriousness into getting the subtitles as accurate as possible. I’m getting comments on Instagram from Malayalis on how the captions can be improved, especially those who stay outside of Kerala as they recommend these movies to others.
Pushkaran says subtitles can be tricky. âFor writers and filmmakers, nuance is essential. We’ve seen it get lost in the translation, âPushkaran explains, adding that a little loss of meaning or turn of phrase is something they have to experience. It also recognizes the role of subtitles in opening up world cinema to the film community.
Read also: How Adoor Gopalakrishnan reinvented Malayalam cinema
There are of course times when the subtitles go wrong, as one viewer discovered in the 1992 film. Aadhaaram. ‘Umma’ can refer to the mother as well as the kiss in Malayalam. One line was captioned: âI too am the one who created by kissingâ. Following the attention on social media, the captions have been corrected. Older films use DVD subtitles which are often of poor quality, Ranjit explains.
Ranjit and Ramachandran confirm that more and more people have turned to captioning since the inception of OTT. This includes both film industry professionals and part-time workers. âIt shouldn’t be about making a quick buck,â says Ranjit. âIt’s a technical job. You have to approach it in a way that benefits the cinema, not as a place to show off your language skills.
Annie Philip is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.