×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

English Subtitles Can Make or Break an Indian Film

Subtitles are important but still a last minute job

In 1977, the world premiere of “The Chess Players” by Indian great Satyajit Ray at the London Film Festival was in danger of being canceled because the print wasn’t subtitled. Lead Saeed Jaffrey stepped into the breach and read aloud all the roles in English while the audience listened on headphones.

India has come a long way since then, but subtitlers have to deal with last-minute jobs and almost impossible deadlines.

Nasreen Munni Kabir is one of the vets, having subtitled more than 600 Hindi-language films in English and French since the late ’70s. “If it’s a new release, you never get enough time,” Kabir says. “Too much post-production work is left to the very last second; I mean hours before the film is released, the film can still be a work in progress. Sometimes I have had to subtitle a film before the final audio mix and that can lead to problems if some dialogue is dropped from the final sound mix while the subtitle is not removed.”

The last-minute scenario is also prevalent in the South Indian film industry (comprising the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam languages). Rekhs has worked on some 150 films across these languages, including “Adam’s Son Abu,” India’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar category in 2012, and 2010’s “Enthiran,” the first Tamil-language film to break into the U.S. box office top 10.

“In the South we have a large group of filmmakers and producers who are not as open-minded to English as a language or fluent in it,” Rekhs says. “So they feel intimidated and English subtitling is not priority. … Most of them are not even aware that subtitles are not just in English. But English acts as a bridge for the movie to be subtitled in other foreign languages as well.”

However the southern scene is improving. It helps that the country’s top subtitling facility is in the southern filmmaking center Chennai, operated by India’s National Film Development Corp. (NFDC), also a leading producer of arthouse films. The process costs range from $830 to $1,400 depending on the length of the film and subtitlers’ charges.

NFDC m.d. Nina Lath Gupta calls subtitling, “a key tool since our films travel to international festivals and markets.”

In the commercial filmmaking sector Disney UTV is among the most aggressive in marketing across the world.

To Disney UTV’s Amrita Pandey, “it isn’t just about the language, but also the essence of the spoken dialogue and its cultural relevance to the audience. What’s important is also the timing of subtitles appearing onscreen, font, size, color.”

As Kabir sums up, “Good subtitles can’t save a bad film, but bad subtitles can ruin a good one.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Germany's Leonine Buys ‘Dark’ and '4

    German Indie Studio Leonine Buys ‘Dark’ and '4 Blocks' Producer W&B TV

    Leonine has acquired “Dark” producer W&B TV from Endemol Shine. Fledgling German studio Leonine had already bought Wiedemann & Berg Film and established itself as a Munich-based movies, TV, and digital production and distribution group. It has now added the W&B TV unit to its roster. The production company is behind several big German dramas [...]

  • iHuman

    Cinephil Acquires AI-Themed Political Thriller Documentary 'iHuman' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Tel Aviv-based Cinephil has acquired worldwide rights to Tonje Hessen Schei’s (“Drone”) “iHuman,” a political thriller documentary about artificial intelligence, power and social control. U.S.-based sales agent ro*co films is representing North America on the film, which will have its world premiere in the Frontlight section of Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival. “iHuman” follows the [...]

  • 'Feast of the Seven Fishes' Review:

    Film Review: 'Feast of the Seven Fishes'

    Early on in “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” two characters debate the optimal way to decorate a house for Christmas. One favors an “understated” approach, with white lights and little more; the other argues that the holidays are no time for subtlety, advocating green, red and gold sparkle as far as the semi-blinded eye can [...]

  • Queen & Slim

    AFI Fest Film Review: 'Queen & Slim'

    Going to the movies can feel a lot like agreeing to a blind date: It’s normal to feel a little wary — but also a bit excited — at the potential before agreeing to spend two hours with characters you don’t know. If the film is any good, it wins you over early on, enough [...]

  • Steven Spielberg Branko Lustig

    'He Left Me Speechless': Steven Spielberg Remembers Branko Lustig

    Steven Spielberg has offered a touching remembrance of Branko Lustig, the Holocaust survivor who produced “Schindler’s List” with Spielberg and Gerald Molen and died Thursday in Croatia. “I was heartbroken to hear of Branko’s passing and my thoughts are with his family and friends,” Spielberg said. “When we first met to discuss ‘Schindler’s List,’ he [...]

  • Dylan Brosnan and Paris BrosnanGolden Globe

    Pierce Brosnan’s Sons Paris and Dylan Brosnan Named 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors

    Pierce Brosnan’s two youngest sons, Paris and Dylan Brosnan, have been named as the 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced on Thursday evening. Paris and Dylan are also the sons of journalist and author Keely Shaye Smith. The ambassador(s), a title that typically goes to the son or daughter of a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content