Some time ago, English TV channels started the trend of subtitling their shows, even if the show is in English. The thing with subtitles is that they are distracting, but after some time, our eyes get used to them. I used to hate subtitles but of late, I have started to love them. Subtitles, actually, not only help us understand the language better but the cultural slang, cliches, and colloquialisms, which might not be familiar to a non-native person, can be understood better by them. Take for instance any episode of Friends. We all must have seen its episodes a bazillion times, yet in every episode, there are a few phrases, which we just ignore. I have been watching some Friends' episodes with subtitles, and now, I am able to understand some jokes even better. The subtitles in one of my favorite shows—Orange Is The New Black—are so good that I don't know if I would be able to understand even half of the show, if there were no subtitles. A bunch of American women from different socio-economic classes, ghettoed in a prison, and talking in different accents of the English language — how can someone like me understand them? There is a belief that the entire US speaks in American English but the fact is that there are various accents of English. Like we can instantly recognize which part of India is a person from by the way he speaks Hindi, people in the US have different regional accents. People from the Southern USA (Atlanta, Georgia, Mississippi, etc.) have an altogether different accent called the Southern. And, there are many others. There were some classmates of mine from the South, and sometimes, I could not comprehend what they were saying. I, actually, prefer watching all TV shows and movies with subtitles. Not only the cultural slang, but the punctuation and the grammar of Orange Is The New Black's subtitles are so perfect that I rewatch some episodes just to learn and improve my grammar skills, and I have learnt such nuances of punctuation from that show that I never realized that I was using an incorrect form since childhood. I just hate any grammatical error in my writing and I can bear someone calling my content as trash but having even one grammatical error or any malapropism makes me livid. As usual I digress, but the basic point I am trying to make is that subtitles can accentuate our grasp of a movie or a TV show.
That goes for the English TV shows, but what about watching Hindi movies with English subtitles? In the last two years, I have been to theater only about five-six times, and I have watched only three Hindi movies in a theater — Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, and Queen. Gone are the days when I used to watch a Hindi movie every Saturday morning. I miss doing that, and now, I have to wait about three months to watch a movie. Even in Seattle, there are no Hindi movie theaters nearby (in any post, I digress so many times — apologies). All Hindi movies are played with subtitles in the US. The essential thing with subtitles is that they have to convey the meaning as desired. The subtitling in Hindi films is, generally, of low quality. Most of the film subtitles simply transliterate them whereas the actual purpose of having subtitles is translation. One of the two movie reviewers whom I idolize—Beth Watkins (the other being Baradwaj Rangan)— maintains this terrific blog called Paagal Subtitle, where she collates the idiosyncratic subtitles in our movies. Nuance is lost in transliteration, but of late, our film producers have been paying enough attention to these subtitles. When movies make more money overseas these days, film directors have to take care that the audience understands the colloquialisms in the film. Will the foreign audience understand an Anurag Kashyap film talking about some of the choicest of abuses in Hindi? Will they understand what thulla, katta, or khokha mean? For instance, take Dil Chahta Hai. In a scene, Aakash (Aamir Khan), Sameer (Saif Ali Khan), and Sid (Akshay Khanna) are having a discussion on Sameer's love life. At one point, Aakash says to Sameer that he should forget Pooja (Sonali Kulkarni) because after three months, he will fall in love with someone else. He says, "Aaj Pooja, kal koi dooja." A native Hindi speaker can appreciate the hilarity of the remark, but if transliterated, it would be read as, "Today it is Pooja; tomorrow, it would be someone else," and the entire meaning of the dialogue would be lost. The actual subtitle used in the movie says, "Today it is Pooja; tomorrow, it would be some Ahuja." This is the right way of doing subtitling where the original intended meaning is not lost while, simultaneously, maintaining the situation of the character's expressions.
In other instance, take Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. At one point, when Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) and Adi (Aditya Roy Kapoor) are fighting, Aditi (Kalki Koechlin) comes and says to them, "Karan-Arjun." Again, a Hindi film watcher would understand that she meant Karan and Arjun from the iconic Rakhee-mere-Karan-Arjun-ayenge-starrer Karan Arjun. In the film, they show the subtitle calling them as Beavis and Butt-head, which are characters from a famous American animation series. At another instance in the film, they translate the word Madhubala as drama queen. If I had not watched the movie with subtitles, I would never have known the cultural significance of these characters. Unrelated trivia: In Wake Up Sid, Sid (Rabir Kapoor) wears a T-shirt with these characters. Perhaps Ayan Mukerji loves Beavis and Butt-head.
What I also love about the subtitles is that they help us understand meaning of the lyrics. I remember when I watched Jab Tak Hai Jaan, it was the first time, I, actually, understood the meaning of the song Heer. I know, even after coming from a Punjabi family, it is a shame but I did not understand the lyrics in Punjabi. I knew it is about Sahib and Mirza but watching the song with the subtitles explains the lyrics making the song even more fabulous.
"Ohde je hi, main te oh Mirza mere varga"
I understood the brilliance of Highway even more when I watched with subtitles enabled. As I wrote in my review of Highway, there is a leitmotif of a journey in its songs. Veera (Alia Bhatt) moves from a state of vulnerability and ignorance to a state of spiritual enlightenment, depicted by Tu Kuja Man Kuja and Tu Saath Hai, Din Raat Hai. The subtitles of the songs enriched me with the complexities of the film. That is why these days, the first time when I watch a movie, I, typically, keep them off but when I am re-watching some parts to research or when the songs are coming, I make it a point to switch them on, and this is why I wait for DVD. Not only for a good print to see the details of the scenes, but the subtitles, too, that come with the DVD. When Highway's end credits were rolling, it credited subtitles to Nasreen Munni Kabir. I heard about Nasreen this year only when her book Conversations with Waheeda Rehman came out. Seeing her name pop-up again for subtitles made me curious and I researched more on her. Typically, I have never seen credits for subtitles. In fact, Nasreen is one of the most reputed subtitlers of Hindi film and has done subtitles for over more than 400 films. She is said to be the first person to be credited for subtitles in a movie which was Jodhaa Akbar, according to Philip Lutgendorf (heartening to see that Philip is also from the University of Iowa — cosmic connections!).
Baradwaj Rangan, in a splendid note on how to be a film critic, writes, "...stop trying to figure out what the director intended. Only he knows. Besides, there’s no guarantee that what he wanted to make is actually what he’s ended up making. Trust the tale, not the teller." Even though I agree with this statement given my ability to analyze (and over-analyze) movies, the subtitles help us give some clarity on the director's viewpoint, as well, which I think is not too bad a thing to get a perspective on what he is trying to say. But there is a caveat as explained here. "The subtitles of the Lage Raho Munnabhai ambitiously overextend themselves, often to lame effect. They so often make up new material that they seem to construct an entire (irrelevant) parallel literature: For instance, where in the original ‘Circuit’ politely explains at knifepoint to the professor that they should help each other in life, and that in exchange for information on Gandhi, he’d be perfectly willing to impart knowledge on “Shakeel Heda, Dagdu Dada, Afzal Tonda”, the subtitles mention “Franky four-fingers, Bullet-tooth Tony, Boris ‘the blade'”. This seems less an intentional tribute to Guy Ritche’s Snatch (nowhere present in the original) than simply a failure of imagination in coming up with gangster names, and distracts from what’s happening onscreen. The moral, I guess, is that though “cultural translation” can be better than literal translation in conveying the intended effect, and is always worth attempting, it is not the point in itself, and must be carried out only so far as the result is palatable, and the translation does not draw undue attention to itself." By this logic, some people might find Karan Arjun as Beavis and Butt-Head to be too conspicuous. This is, then, the whole conundrum, where do we stop? Eventually, again, it becomes a film director's call and the audience he wants to target. To sum it up, as Nasreen says perfectly, "Good subtitles can’t save a bad film, but bad subtitles can ruin a good one."
Maybe I should become a subtitler in films given that I don't have talent for any other aspect of film making. There is a lot to learn from our movies. Some day, I will write a post on some interesting beginning and end credits. For example — Jab Tak Hai Jaan had a bomb consultant in its credits. Highway credits Ashley Lobo as a body language consultant, apart from crediting someone as a dialect supervisor. Till then, if you like me love to analyze our films, or are one of those who says Hindi films are not made with detail, read this terrific blog — Taking Credit, The Fabulous Art of Indian Film Titles — that finds such intricate layers in the beginning and end credits of some of our popular Hindi films.
Dialogue of the day:"Usne kabhi mudke nahi dekha aur maine intezaar bhi nahi kiya."
— Naina, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani