Never mind ‘Tickled pink laughter’: Subtitled ‘Kabali’ proves the need to spread the net wide

English subtitles have expanded the box office business of Tamil cinema beyond its shores, spoofs and memes notwithstanding.

When Rajinikanth says “Magizhchi” (happiness, cheers, wonderful in Tamil) in Kabali, we know that yet another punchline has been added to the ever-expanding lexicon of Rajniisms. When he says ‘”Bahut khoob” (very good) in the dubbed Hindi version, it doesn’t quite have the same effect. And that’s where subtitling comes into play.

Rekhs (as Rekha Haricharan likes to be known) has written the English subtitles for the Tamil Kabali, and she is responsible for accurately translating filmmaker and writer Pa Ranjith’s thoughts into English as well the spoof-worthy ways to describe Kabali’s various laughs in the movie and the use of smileys.

While Rekha turned down several requests for an interview with, Ranjith justified the strange use of smileys in the subtitles. “My assistant was sitting with Rekhs, who subtitled the movie and we approved the final copy,” he said. “We have been getting a good feedback for the same.”

Have the “magizhchi” emoticons in the subtitles aided Kabali’s roaring business? The movie has reportedly totted up close to Rs 300 crore in the domestic and international markets. English subtitles for the Tamil film have provided the bridge to comprehension and appreciation for second- and third-generation Tamil audiences as well as non-Tamil speakers.

Kabali is the latest feather in Rekha’s cap – she has 333 movies under her belt. She entered the field in 2007 with Thoovanam, made by her filmmaker husband Haricharan. Her big break was Vinnaithandi Varuvaya in 2010, followed by Endhiran. Her formidable list includes A-list productions such as Nanban, 36 Vayadhinile and Theri. She is among a handful of individuals involved in the valuable post-production skill that helps local films cast a wider audience net.

Subtitling can be literal-minded and amateurish, thus completely missing the flavour and texture of the source language. A sophisticated, respectful and well-considered subtitling job, on the other hand, can communicate a movie’s intent and impact and help it widen its viewer base. “Younger directors are very keen on taking their movies to international audiences and they insist on the language being clean and simple without grammatical errors,” said Kaarthekeyen Santhanam, who has set up the subtitling division, company Benchsubs along with director Karthik Subbaraj. “Directors like RS Prasanna, Ramesh who did Thegidi, Nalan Kumarasamy, Karthik Subbaraj and Arun Vaidyanathan have audiences abroad and they spent a lot of time and effort on overseeing subtitling,” Santhanam added.

One of the keys to subtitling is to avoid explaining screen actions, said filmmaker Arun Vaidyanathan. “People don’t at times – for example, you don’t need to say in your subtitle that ‘The door is opening with a creak.’ It’s hilarious when they translate songs at times, like Kanne Maniye (a Tamil endearment) becomes ‘Eye balls and ringing bells’ and that’s when people start creating memes,” he said. “It’s better to avoid translating them altogether.”

More time means better subtitles

If subtitlers had more time to work on films, they would do a better job, said Nandini Karky, who has worked on Thangameengal, Pisasu and Yennai Arindhaal. “It’s only towards the end of the filming process, generally, only a week before the movie is about to hit the screen, you are given the work,” Karky said. “You have to put your thoughts into it, you have to look at it again and again to know that a line is sounding all right or it’s too literal. Or you go with your first version of the work. The pressure may affect the quality of work. Ideally, we should be given at least a fortnight to finish the work.”

Karky made the distinction between subtitling for non-Tamil audiences and for the hearing impaired. “Audio descriptions should be done more carefully, even then it’s never about stating the obvious,” she said. “It’s about describing sounds that one can hear in the backgrounds. Such subtitles take a lot more space on screen.”

Benchsubs tries to beat time constraints by working with a pool of professionals. “Subtitling has always been done by an individual, not a corporate or a group of people,” Kaarthekeyen said. “Being good at English does not necessarily deliver the final technical product: for example the way time-coding is done. We brought out a new tool and we have a five-member team who can do the job in four days or less.” A year since its inception, Benchsubs has subtitled about 90 films, primarily made by production houses owned by Karthik Subbaraj’s friends such as CV Kumar’s Thirukumaran Entertainment and KE Gnanavel Raja’s Studio Green.

Director’s cut

Some directors like to involve themselves with the subtitling so that non-Tamil audiences can benefit from the fruits of their labour. Mani Ratnam goes over his subtitles several times to make sure they are concise. “I work with him as his assistant, so I’m involved in the post-production as well. I take anywhere between two weeks to a month to subtitle a film,” said Shalini Shankar, his subtitler. “Mani sir tells me to keep it shot and simple. While subtitling for an audience in the rest of the country, he tells me to italicise words like Anna [brother] and Appa [father], because he feels the audience will be able to read it in the context of the film. But while presenting the film abroad, we take care to say Uncle Ganapathy instead of Ganapathy Uncle, so that the audiences there understand it better.”

National Film Award winner Vetrimaaran, who has made Aadukalam and Visaaranai, gets his movies subtitled by his long-time assistant, Varsha Mohan. “It is an integral part of filmmaking now, especially when you want to cross countries,” Vetrimaaran said. “Subtitling is not just about getting the text right. It’s also about getting the context right. It’s not just about what’s spoken, what’s inferred is also important. I take about 9-10 months in post-production. So all this time, I spend on subtitling. We write about 10-15 drafts before we lock the final one.”

New-generation Tamil filmmakers who are conversant with Tamil and English might even help subtitlers by writing their scripts in English, as was the case with Indian-American director Arun Vaidyanathan’s Acchanmundu! Acchamundu! (2009). “I wanted the songs like Acchamenbadu Madamaiyada [It’s foolish to be scared] to make sense to international audience as well, so I gave the job to a lady in Los Angeles,” Vaidyanathan said. “She did a good job and the movie also went to a lot of international festivals. For Peruchazhi [his 2014 Malayalam movie], there was an Italian actor in the movie. We did the subtitling in English and made sure that that guy understood it.”

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.