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.

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“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.”

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