The Hindi word for dinosaur is a mouthful. One suggested phrase is “ek dirghakaya rengnevala janwar jo ab nahin paya jata” – a long-tailed reptile that is extinct. The usage that has lingered in popular imagination has been contributed by the televised Hindi version of the first Jurassic Park movie in 1993: “badi chikpali” or giant lizard.
Dubbing producer Ashim Samanta detests the coinage, and describes it as an example of the early amateurishness that characterised the rendering of Hollywood films in Indian languages. “The Hindi version [of the film] had the word dinosaur, but in those days, TV channels used their own dubbing artists at low costs and quality, and this created a bad impact on audiences and threw the market for dubbed films,” Samanta said.
That tackiness is now a thing of the past. The mini-industry that has sprung up around dubbed Hollywood in India has its own rules, brand names, and star system. A-list Hollywood releases, especially the franchises, are almost routinely released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, and the Indian language versions can contribute up to half of the domestic box office. There have been attempts at new languages, such as Bhojpuri for Spider-Man 3, Bengali for Jurassic World, and Malayalam for Exodus: Gods and Kings. The comic book adaptation Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which opens on March 24, has been dubbed, as will be the upcoming Kung Fu Panda 3 (April 1), The Jungle Book (April 8), and Angry Birds (June 3).
American movie studios want to expand the market for their produce in India in the same way that dubbing has conquered the lucrative Chinese territory. A dubbed version of a Hollywood film can contribute anything between 40%-55% of the Indian box office profits, said a studio head on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the media.
Dubbed content is in greater demand by television channels, the studio head added. “The market for dubbed films is incremental, and the audiences have been growing over the years, but there are limitations in terms of the genres. Films with cerebral content, like Inception, historicals and sci-fi films don’t perform that well, for instance.”
The Hindi version of The Jungle Book, which opens on April 8, is making every effort to be seen as a Hollywood production with local talent rather than yet another dubbed film. The live action adaptation is based on the popular animated film by the Disney production company in 1967, which in turn was based on the books by Rudyard Kipling. The new version stars American child actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli and top-line Hollywood talent as the voices of the animals who are Mowgli’s friends and foes, including Idris Elba as Shere Khan the tiger, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the python, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, and Bill Murray as Baloo the bear.
Rather than using voice artists for the Hindi version, Disney India has signed up Nana Patekar as Shere Khan, Priyanka Chopra as Kaa, Irrfan as Baloo and Om Puri as Bagheera. The dialogue for the Hindi version has been written by Mayur Puri, in a departure from the convention of merely using a rough translation of the original script.
Disney has also appropriated the title song of the version that Indians are more familiar with, which is the animated series broadcast on Doordarshan in 1993. The catchy song that was composed by Vishal Bhardwaj and written by Gulzar will feature in The Jungle Book. (Patekar was also the voice of Shere Khan in the TV series.)
Still, the use of celebrity voices is the exception rather than the rule in India. Hollywood studios have occasionally used big names as marketing hooks for animated films, a genre that remains underdeveloped in India. Sony Pictures roped in Shah Rukh Khan as the lead character for The Incredibles in 2004, while Fox Star Studios used singers Shaan and Sunidhi Chauhan for Rio in 2011. The celebrity endorsement did not reel in audiences for these films.
Besides, the absence of prominent names behind the microphones has not prevented Indian moviegoers from patronising Hollywood’s lavishly produced and visual effects-heavy extravaganzas in more familiar tongues. Movies such as The Karate Kid, Furious 7 and Jurassic World were big hits in the Indian versions.
“There is initially a disconnect between the language and the colour of the skin, but that wears off after a few minutes,” said Samanta, who has worked on several franchises, including Jurassic Park, Transformers, The Avengers, Iron Man, Mission: Impossible and James Bond. “Once you get involved with the story, it doesn’t matter. Many people who speak both English and Hindi prefer the Hindi version because the English accent is often difficult to follow.”
Dubbing producers cannot get too imaginative with the translated versions of the original dialogue. But efforts to localise American pop culture references and play with accents have reduced the gap between Hollywood and a country that sways to Bollywood. “There is very little flexibility in terms of the content, obviously, but we do play with the Hindi dialect – for instance, instead of plain Hindi, we use a Punjabi accent or a generic South Indian one,” Samanta said.
Sometimes, the nature of the film allows for creative liberties to suit local sensibilities. Eliza Lewis, who works closely with Warner Bros and whose most recent effort is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, gave the example of the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum (2006), which was released only in Hindi in India. “We didn’t stick to the script and made it as filmi as possible,” Lewis said. “I got a lot of feedback from parents who went with their kids for the movie in Hindi and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Of course, the success of a dubbed movie in an Indian language depends on the strength of the original narrative. If a movie is poorly written and acted, it won’t even work in its original language, as proven by the failure of recent releases such as Fantastic Four and Gods of Egypt in India.
Action movies, superhero spectacles and fantasy adventures featuring the singular ability of Hollywood to conjure up unseen worlds work best with Indian audiences. “Dubbed action films have a very good market, but love stories, dramas and romcoms don’t work,” Samanta said. “I remember that Universal in India wanted to dub Forrest Gump, but when we watched it, we advised against it.”
Dubbing producers double up as directors to ensure that a movie is as effective in the local language as in the original. Mona Ghosh Shetty works closely with Samanta in creating the perfect match between what is being seen and what is being said. “The audiences we are catering to don’t really know the Hollywood actors, and all they want is to understand the story and enjoy it,” said Ghosh Shetty who is also a voice artist, having dubbed for Cameron Diaz, Milla Jovovich, Angelina Jolie, Katrina Kaif and Jacqueline Fernandez.
“Depending on the movie, we either spice it up or simplify it,” she added. “We need to match the original character to some extent and maintain his or her personality traits.”
Ghosh Shetty is especially proud of Deadpool, the smash hit comedy starring Ryan Reynolds. An irreverent takedown of the superhero genre, Deadpool posed challenges for the dubbing artists. “You are dealing with adult content and abusive language and stuff that we are not familiar with in India,” Ghosh Shetty said. Sanket Mhatre voiced the cheeky anti-hero, while Mayank Jain wrote the Hindi script. “It did very well and is one of the most successful Hollywood films to be dubbed in Hindi,” Ghosh Shetty said.
Each film poses its own obstacles. When The Walk, which reconstructs French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s aerial stunt between the Two Towers in New York City in 1974, was being dubbed, there was a debate about retaining the French dialogue from the original movie and running it with subtitles. Sony Pictures eventually dubbed the whole film in Hindi.
And how do you translate “I am going to science the shit out if it” from The Martian, which refers to the efforts of Matt Damon’s astronaut character to grow potatoes on Mars in a manure made up of human refuse? “We went with something on the lines of ‘Ek dhansoo tarkeib nikalni hogi,’” Ghosh Shetty said.
Dubbed Hollywood has become entrenched enough to create an alternate star system. One of the most popular voices of Hollywood in Hindi is actor Shaktee Singh, who has performed for every Bond character and George Clooney. “Good language and enunciation makes the film easier to understand,” said Singh, who has also appeared in films and television serials. “I am not trying to praise myself, but my voice in the Bond movie Spectre was very close to Daniel Craig’s original. You have to give a sense of the personality of the original character and actor.”
Dubbing vastly expands a film’s market beyond the metros and brings new worlds closer to the small towns of India, he added. “Only if a film is well-made do people remember the dubbing,” added Singh, who was the voice of Arvind Swamy in the Hindi versions of Mani Ratnam’s Tamil films Roja and Bombay.
Also immensely popular is Rajesh Khattar. He is a familiar face as one of the villains in Don (2006) and the much-loved voice of Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man and Michael Fassbender in the X-Men reboot. Khattar has also voiced the wolf Akayla in The Jungle Book. Khattar said he was touched by the efforts of his fans to list his achievements as a voice artist. “When I saw the Wikipedia page on myself, I said, shit, even I don’t know how much work I have done,” he said.
Khattar’s other life, as an actor in plays and films, feeds into his voice artistry. “Since I am also an actor and I have a command over many languages, it helps me when I am doing any character,” he said.
Despite the fandom, voice actors mostly labour away in anonymity, with their achievements restricted to the end credits. Disney’s experiment with using celebrities poses a challenge to the careers of professionals like Khattar, Singh, Samay Thakkar (the voice of Bane in The Dark Knight Returns and Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman) and Viraj Adhav (the voice of Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible movies). “The big difference lies in the pay cheque and the billing in the credits,” Khattar said. “I have been voicing for a decade, and if you don’t get good billing, it does hurt.”
The preference for big-name voices is part of a general obsession with film celebrities in all aspects of popular entertainment, Shaktee Singh pointed out. “Film stars have come into TV serials, they are at all the awards nights, and now they are dubbing too – you have to demarcate these things,” he said. “Nobody will watch The Jungle Book only for the voices. You need professionals to make it work, and I don’t think it is necessary at all.”
Hollywood works closely with voice artists from a movie’s inception, rather than calling in celebrities after the production has been wrapped up, pointed out Khattar. “For an animated film, for instance, they voice and animate the script together, while here, we add the voices to the animation,” Khattar said. “Animators animate the voices that have already been recorded, and that is why the films look so real.”
Disney’s gambit with The Jungle Book is easily understood: here is a potential blockbuster with an Indian setting and characters and top-of-the-line visual effects. The Jungle Book is being released in India a week before America, and its strongest marketing ploy is the return-to-sender quality of the project. Although the Jungle Book series was written by Rudyard Kipling when he was in the US, they drew from his childhood in colonial-era India. Made popular by Hollywood through the animation movie in 1967, The Jungle Book has inspired several adaptations the world over, but no Indian filmmaker has attempted to present a local perspective on Mowgli’s adventures in the forest and his subsequent absorption into the human world.
Until that happens, a dubbed version of a Hollywood vision will have to serve the purpose.