During a recent exchange with Ramsu, it occurred to me that I devote a lot of time and attention to subtitles—both while watching and while writing about Hindi movies. They are integral to my Hindi cinema experience, the overriding thing being of course that I NEED them. I wish I didn’t, but I do. I have learned to understand basic Hindi, but my brain is such that I will never speak it and understand it fluently unless I live in India for a while.
Believe me, if I could find a practical way to do that, I would—in a heartbeat!
The quality of subtitling in Hindi cinema varies widely, to say the least. At their worst—when subtitles lag behind what’s happening on screen, or are missing for long periods of time, or appear randomly—they can render a movie practically unwatchable. If the film seems otherwise like a good one, it can really enrage me: after all, something I could have really enjoyed is inaccessible. Ditto for movies which don’t even contain subtitles—sadly, there are plenty of those.
At their best, subtitles reflect nuances of dialogue and elegance of language which make the film experience even richer. A great example of this is the Munna Bhai movies. I don’t know who subtitled them, but the subs are good enough to make the difference between Munna and Circuit’s way of speaking clearly different from the other types of people they interact with. The first time I saw MBBS, I was acutely aware that the subtitles were helping me laugh at the same things an Indian audience would laugh at. Maybe not with the same depth of understanding—but close enough!
Part of the humor of course is the dialogue delivery and body language of the actor, but when you don’t understand the subtleties of accent—the final frontier of fluency!—a lot can be lost. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke is a good example of that for me. Since a great deal of the humor lies in the way the characters speak, it’s not as funny for me. I’m not saying that all non-Hindi speakers will feel the same way; some (like Carla) are clever enough to hear the difference between Urdu and Hindi, for example. But try as I might, I cannot.
The majority of movies naturally have subtitles which fall in the middle somewhere between excellent and horrible. That middle ground is quite vast and it’s full of potholes. Sometimes subtitles miss the mark in an extremely funny way. There is no way I can stop myself from laughing and wanting to share it, but condescension is not my intent. It’s just funny! and part of the charm of Hindi films for me.
I would likely do no better!
When I met Boman Irani he asked me if I knew any filmi dialogue, so I jokingly said that all I knew was “Bhagwan ke liye, chhod do mujhe!” Unfortunately my pronunciation was such that I said “For god’s sake, f**k me” instead of “For god’s sake, let go of me.” Now Boman was polite enough not to fall off his chair laughing (at least in front of me) but he did smilingly correct me (thank goodness)—and although a little horrified, I did find it funny too.
One of my biggest problems is song subtitles (specifically, the lack thereof). They are largely missing from older films, and were even more necessary back then than they are now. Songs these days seem to be largely mindless filler (I know, I sound like an old person); but older films contain songs with beautifully poetic lyrics that carry the story narrative forward, and I know that I’m missing a lot without song subs.
Reason enough to work on my Hindi! I am trying!
One of my favorite product lines is that of Anne Taintor. She has taken old advertising images from the 1950’s (picture-perfect happy housewives) and put her own captions on them.
What a difference the subtitles make!