Posted on January 07, 2017
The art of setting the box office alight by adapting Hollywood films to the Indian idiom

When Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park was dubbed in Hindi and released about a year later, it posed a peculiar problem to the local dubbing team. What should dinosaurs be called? There is no Hindi word for these creatures and the team had no precedent to go by. The challenge of translating English words— especially scientific terms—that do not have local equivalents still persists in the dubbing industry. This has resulted in the common belief that Hollywood’s science- fiction does not translate well for a Hindi audience, whereas other genres like action and fantasy do.

Jurassic Park, when it was eventually released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, apart from the original English language version, became a major hit in India. By some estimates, it made over Rs 20 crore in India, a record back then. The Los Angeles Times even ran a piece on its appeal in India, calling it ‘a watershed event for India’s film industry.... [that] is devouring Indian filmgoers’ rupees with the speed and appetite of a velociraptor.’

But so many years later, what is most memorable to many is that in the Hindi version, ‘dinosaur’ was translated into ‘badi chhipkali’ (literally, big lizard).

A few months ago, Mona Ghosh Shetty, who runs Sound & Vision Studios, was rummaging through the archives of the studio looking for a dubbed copy of the 1993 film. Sound & Vision Studios, established by Ghosh Shetty’s mother Leela Roy Ghosh, a well-known voice- over artist back in her day, is one of India’s most popular dubbing studios and the place where Jurassic Park was first dubbed. Ghosh Shetty, who was a child when the film was dubbed, is quite certain that the term ‘badi chhipkali’ was never used. “Trust me,” she says, a tad annoyed, “We get this question [about why the term was used] a lot.” When the copy was located, Ghosh Shetty found that the word ‘dinosaur’ had been retained. According to her, the film has been probably dubbed many times over the years, for various TV channels, and some of them probably used that phrase. “I was always sure we never did that,” she says.

For many years thereafter, terrible voice-overs and poorly translated scripts played over polished Hollywood visuals. But something has changed now. The ‘red flower’ in the original English version of The Jungle Book (2016) does not get literally translated, as it probably would have earlier; instead, it becomes something else (‘rakht phool’ or ‘blood flower’). “‘Laal phool’ means nothing for me,” explains Mayur Puri, the writer who adapted the film in Hindi. “It has none of that mystery or fear that a phrase like ‘rakht phool’ has.” The word ‘noodle’ in the animation film Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) is mercifully retained, instead of getting translated into ‘sevai’ (rice vermicelli) like it did in the first Kung Fu Panda (2008).

“Doing something like this is very fulfilling. You have a free hand and it is a bigger product than any other film around by miles” - Mayank Jain adapted Deadpool 2

The Hollywood cultural engine is now chugging along rather well in India. Hollywood films, with their superior marketing and large-scale productions, released in an army of local languages, now routinely figure among the highest grossers of the year. Like the biggest Hindi films, there are often released on over 2,000 screens. The Jungle Book, the third highest grossing film of 2016 in India, raked in some Rs 188 crore. A year earlier, Jurassic World took in more than Rs 100 crore. This year, there are three Hollywood films among the country’s top 10 earners. Avengers: Infinity War, which is still playing in theatres, has crossed a reported Rs 220 crore, second only to Padmaavat’s Rs 302 crore.

According to a report by the media consultancy Ormax, the cumulative net box-office collections of Hindi films have begun to drop. In 2017, the figure fell 9.1 per cent over the year before to Rs 2,525 crore. In comparison, Hollywood films in their various language versions drew Rs 801 crore in that period. The sum was just Rs 375 crore in 2013.

Recently, during a promotional event for his film 102 Not Out, Amitabh Bachchan highlighted this competition. “Someone was telling me that Avengers is going to take a massive opening in India. For a Hollywood film to do that and then for us to compete with it is a big challenge,” he said. “They have the money and the expertise, the quality and the quantity. We’re fighting against them.”

TWO YEARS AGO, when Disney India approached the screenplay and dialogue writer Mayur Puri for adapting The Jungle Book in Hindi, the latter sent the studio a six-page-long treatment note. Puri is a successful writer in the Hindi film industry who has written the dialogues of Om Shanti Om , lyrics for Bhajrangi Bhaijan and Raees, and more.

“I had never done anything like that (adapting Hollywood films into Hindi). And I was not interested in doing some dull non-creative thing. I was very clear I was not going to do literal translations,” he says. “I didn’t want to work on a script with my hands tied behind my back.”

“When I sit down with a Hollywood script, I don’t believe I am translating words. I am translating emotions” - Mayur Puri adapted The Jungle Book in Hindi.

Disney, after some back and forth, okayed Puri’s approach. “It was really quite remarkable that a studio like Disney agreed to have their film reworked in a way,” Puri says. “The way I saw it, it was a Hollywood production, yes. But the story, its characters and the setting was Indian.” The Hindi version of The Jungle Book has elements that didn’t exist in the original English language version. The character of King Louie, an ape, speaks Hindi with a Goan accent, for instance, while Baloo the Bear has a Punjabi accent. Puri has done several more adaptations since then, reworking the script and dialogues in all of them, the latest being the The Avengers: Infinity War.

Another writer who similarly reworks Hollywood scripts in Hindi is Mayank Jain. He has worked on the Deadpool scripts, the A-rated series whose superhero protagonist is as profane as he is funny. The latest film, voiced by Ranveer Singh, has taken in nearly Rs 60 crore already, and had a larger opening day business than most Hindi films.

“Doing something like this, creatively speaking, is very fulfilling. Because firstly you have a free hand and it is a bigger product than any other film around by miles. And secondly, you need to be very inventive. We need to keep the profanity and quirkiness of the Deadpool films while also not running afoul of the censor board,” he says.

Jain also adapted the Matt Damon- starrer The Martian (2015), a science fiction film, a kind that many believe is too difficult to dub properly. In this film, Damon’s character is left behind on Mars. And much of the film is based on Damon’s plan to return to earth. “Here was a film which is not only heavy on science, but it is also mostly about just one guy talking to himself all the time. I thought it was doomed to fail,” Jain says. He sneaked into a theatre showing the Hindi version in Mumbai one day to simply gauge the audience’s reaction. “In the first few minutes, people were a little fidgety,” he says, “But 20 minutes into the film, there was pin-drop silence. People were actually completely tuned into the film and its narration.”

“What does not get spoken about much is how much the audience has changed over time,” says Jain, “People might understand Hindi best, but so many English words have entered our vocabulary now. Some [of these] have even replaced their Hindi equivalents as the more popular words.”

Dubbed versions of Hollywood films usually contribute about 40 per cent of the film’s earnings in India. The rest is picked up by the original English version. But in the case of The Jungle Book, which until then was the top-grossing Hollywood film in India, making a total of Rs 188 crore, the dubbed versions made close to 60 per cent, even though the three language versions (Hindi, Tamil and Telugu) together only got about 600 screens of the total 1,650 the film was released on. That number of theatres is comparable to the biggest Hindi film releases. The latest Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) has, according to reports, gotten a record 2,300 plus screens.

“They made me sing (for Frozen) even though I am a poor singer because they wanted the actor’s voice, not a playback singer’s. This doesn’t happen even in a Bollywood film” - Sanket Mhatre dubbing artist

As Hollywood expands its footprint here, a smaller industry around dubbed Hollywood content with its own stars and sensibilities is now emerging. There are writers who only specialise in adapting Hollywood content into Indian languages. There are official voices that do only certain actors’ voices. Some of these voice artists have loyalists who maintain online fan pages. When the decision to use Ranveer Singh as the voice for Ryan Reynolds in the Hindi version for Deadpool 2 was made, despite Sanket Mhatre, the official voice of Reynolds in Hindi having done Deadpool 1 (2016) and also the first trailer of Deadpool 2, Mhatre’s fans were angered.

Today scripts are tweaked at times, with foreign references replaced by desi jokes, such as on Swachh Bharat in Deadpool 2. Ghosh Shetty says, “The studios have realised that to crack the Indian market, you have to do quality dubs.”

The entry of digital streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix has also given dubbing artists a new avenue. Mhatre has dubbed several films and shows for these app-based services. In the hotly-anticipated Netflix show Sacred Games, produced by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, Mhatre was made to dub his voice for a character in English. This was done, he explains, so that even if a viewer watches the show in an English language setting, the English dialogues will come with an Indian accent that does not jar with the surroundings.

In a way, the popularity of Hollywood films in India reflects the emergence of a new middle-class, people who might not necessarily get all the references, but who have the requisite curiosity.

“You just go anywhere. From a single-screen theatre in a small town to the poshest multiplex in India—say, in Juhu—they all play dubbed versions too,” Puri says. “With the internet, everybody everywhere knows about the latest films. They get all the Marvel references and jokes. To me, when I sit down with a Hollywood script, I don’t believe I am translating words. I am translating emotions. You have to respect your audience, English speaking or Hindi or Tamil speaking.”

Apart from the occasional help of dinosaurs, Hollywood has not colonised Indian theatres. But now with the superhero and franchise films format, something else seems afoot.

Jain says the best way to understand Hollywood’s inroads into India is not by looking at the numbers. “Just look at the choice of words used,” he says. “They used badi chhipkali once. Now they use ‘noodle’ for noodle.” | written by: Lhendup G Bhutia