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Not lost in translation: Why the Hindi dubbed versions of South Indian films are in demand

There is a growing interest for Hindi dubbed versions of Tamil and Telugu, prompting film distributors to satiate an audience deprived of ‘masala content’

The lockdown might have allowed film buffs to discover regional films on digital platforms, but interest in dubbed cinema from the South, particularly Telugu and Tamil films, too, has been mushrooming in parallel.

This is not a recent phenomena. The 2018-19 report published by Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), India, about the viewership percentage for films from the South on television, states that Hindi channels relied on dubbed films for “at least 11% of the viewership”. The report adds that films in Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam languages “clocked at least 135 billion hours” of viewership.

Love for the masala

What explains the growing audience for dubbed content up North? Umesh Gupta, managing director of Aditya Movies, goes back 14 years to recollect how dubbed content only had a “small theatrical market” then. Today, his company uploads dubbed Hindi movies to its YouTube channel. “We now have the advantage of satellite, television and digital platforms,” he says.

There was a time in the ‘90s and early noughties when Bollywood churned out ‘masala films’ starring the likes of Sunny Deol and Sanjay Dutt. These films, which occupied prime time slots, gradually diminished in numbers with the emergence of content deemed ‘multiplex-friendly’.

It is this dearth of commercial potboilers that prompted distributors like Aneesh Dev, managing director, WAM India (a pioneer in film distribution) to venture into the dubbing business. He bought the rights of sought-after Telugu and Tamil films, dubbed and presented them to non-native speakers. That was until Rajinikanth’s 2005 film, Chandramukhi, whose dubbed version was lapped up by the Hindi speaking audience, woke Aneesh up to the untapped potential of ‘masala films’.

Television channels used to screen old movies of Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna in the 2000s. But the major shift happened with Chandramukhi, whose Hindi rights we had bought. Thereafter, we started looking at Telugu and Tamil films more,” says Aneesh, over phone from Mumbai. He observes that the popularity of dubbed movies from the South has grown at such an exponential rate that when presented with an opportunity, he launched an exclusive streaming platform for such films. Called Dollywood Play, which went live in July this year.

Plus or minus

According to Aneesh, dubbed movies are categorised in two verticals: A plus and A minus. The former includes star vehicles while the latter category features films headlined by mid-tier actors.

“We don’t opt for A plus because it is difficult to recover the money. A minus is a safer zone and the price will not fluctuate,” he adds. In most cases, distributors acquire the Hindi dubbing rights from a producer and dub on their own, as opposed to buying the rights of an already dubbed film. They have a team of writers — who work on the script and dialogues — and dubbing artists, which has become a separate industry altogether.

“We prefer it this way because we are able to supervise quality. Dubbing into vernacular languages is a market that is emerging,” says Aneesh.

One of the contributing factors to this preference for ‘masala films’ among the audience is the way action sequences are choreographed in South films, says SR Prabhu, partner, Dream Warrior Pictures production firm. “Action scenes in our movies are superior to the ones you would find in Bollywood. In fact, when a distributor approaches us for the Hindi rights, the first question he asks is: ‘how many action blocks does the film have?’,”he says.

Umesh Gupta shares a similar train of thought. “The Hindi-speaking audience love the one-liners that we call ‘punch dialogues’, the comedy and action sequences,” he says, adding that recent years have witnessed a demand for non-action films as well, such as Telugu director Trivikram Srinivas’ A… Aa, starring Nithiin and Samantha Akkineni. “The dubbed version of A… Aa got 200 million views,” he adds.

Same with the Tamil social-drama, Raatchasi, which was dubbed and released as Madam Geeta Rani by Goldmines Telefilms on their YouTube channel. In under a month, it had amassed 100 million views. Prabhu, who is Raatchasi’s producer, says that the film performed better on digital platforms than during its theatrical run. Its dubbing rights fetched his company nearly the same revenue as satellite and digital streaming rights.

Aneesh explains that there are two types of market; original and the other language market. A critically-acclaimed film that has done decent business in the original market does not necessarily mean it would do well in the dubbed market and vice versa.

Take the Telugu film Srinivasa Kalyanam, for instance. The film elicited a lukewarm response in theatres, but found more takers online. Director Satish Vegesna admits that he was pleasantly surprised when the film crossed 135 million views: “During the lockdown, families were homebound; people looked for content without cuss words and vulgarity. When we released in Telugu, the younger audience didn’t like the film; some said that it looked like a wedding video,” he reasons, “However, going through the comments on YouTube I learnt that those in the northern states were looking for movies that reflected Indian culture.”

Thriving business

What is the demography of the audience watching dubbed movies online? Aneesh brings in a Bharat–India analogy to explain this phenomenon, “In marketing lingo, we have something called Bharat and India. The latter is for the urban audience, which has an upward mobility and which can shell out ₹600/700 for an OTT subscription,” he says, adding, “Bharat is where the majority of population is and that is our audiences, who are primarily from tier-2 or 3 cities.”

The class difference should also be taken into consideration. Prabhu says that dubbed films resonate more with people from economically-backward sections, who prefer watching movies in their vernacular languages.

“There is a whole section of the audience that does not watch movies with subtitles. When someone from an underprivileged background watches a dubbed film, (s)he is able to relate to the emotions, even if they don’t know understand the film’s original language,” he says.

Localisation is also one of the reasons why streaming players have started to dub their content now. Netflix dubbed the Spanish show Money Heist into English for those who did not want to read subtitles; the South Korean Academy Award-winning film Parasite is now available in Hindi on Amazon Prime whilst a host of Marvel movies on Disney+ Hotstar is available in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.

Lately, YouTube has opened a new source of revenue for producers and distributors, whereby the latter monetises the viewership numbers based on the ads generated for the content. Prabhu, however, feels that this revenue is meagre. “If your movie crosses 100 million views, you might end up making ₹1 crore on YouTube; it is a small model,” he says, and adds: “That is why producers prefer selling the Hindi remake rights because it fetches more money.”

Aneesh, however, believes the dubbing industry is here to thrive. “In our country, 80% of the audience likes masala and the remaining watch all kinds of content. It is not a question of what is sensible, but what works. So, when it comes to business, I am only concerned about what the majority likes because that is only bringing money.”

Source : The Hindu

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