How Subtitles Break Language Barriers in Regional Cinema
Lucia was one of the first Kannada movies to be released with subtitles embedded. 
Lucia was one of the first Kannada movies to be released with subtitles embedded. (Photo Courtesy:

How Subtitles Break Language Barriers in Regional Cinema

Kiran Jacob, a techie from Bengaluru, doesn’t understand a word of Telugu; but over last few weeks, he has been raving and recommending a Telugu movie - Arjun Reddy.

Jacob is a Malayali who speaks only Malayalam. However, he was particularly impressed by a scene in the film, where the protagonist speaks in front of his classmates in pure Telugu so that the teacher doesn’t understand what he was discussing.

Like Jacob, there are several non-native regional movie-lovers who are regulars at regional movies, despite not knowing the language. This is the subtitle cult of Bengaluru.

The larger audience pool enticed by subtitles has encouraged several filmmakers to make subtitles an essential part of the movies’ post production. However, despite this new wave, the technical incompetence and sheer ignorance of several theatres make subtitles an inconsistent feature at cinema halls, leaving many fans disappointed.

Movies Get Their Due

Earlier this year, Anurag Kashyap went on Twitter calling Angamaly Diaries, a Malayalam movie, his favourite film of the year so far. The movie, which had 86 debutants, told the story of gang rivalry through the culture of Angamalay, a town in Kerala. He is said to have asked the directors of the movie to ensure the movie ran with subtitles, so that it reaches audiences beyond the language barrier.

Similarly, Sandeep Reddy Vanga director of Telugu movie Arjun Reddy was approached by Karan Johar, asking for a subtitled version of the movie.

We had released the movie with subtitles, but the theatres in Mumbai didn’t have them. When we provided a subtitled version, he was all praise for the movie.
Sandeep Vanga, Director

The Cosmopolitan Effect

Bengaluru has been a melting pot of different languages and cultures because of the IT boom. Through the word of mouth, at office spaces and hangouts, regional cinema has picked up fans from these cultural pools.

“I was aware of the Malayalam and Tamil industries, but I never saw any movies from these languages, because I didn’t understand the languages. But during one of the conversations in office, a friend recommended a Malayalam movie Bangalore Days and insisted I watch it,” said Maneesh Gowda, a marketing executive with a media management firm and a Kannadiga.

Gowda went for the movie, convincing one of his friends to translate the movie for him, but to his luck there were subtitles. “I loved the film and it became a thing for me to watch movies in all south Indian languages,” Gowda said.

Subtitling Not Just Grunt Work

Pawan Kumar, director of two noted Kannada films, U Turn and Lucia, was one of the first in the Kannada industry to incorporate subtitles for Kannada movies.

When I made these movies, I knew it would appeal to a metro audience, so we decided to incorporate the subtitles to the movie. It was not just the movie, but we made sure that even the posters had subtitles in them. The response was amazing.
Pawan Kumar, Director

This is one of the reasons many directors are actively involved in the subtitling process, rather than giving it to an agency. While the agency might be able to provide subtitles, to get the nuances of the story, filmmakers insist on spending time to get the text right.

“I spent around one week to get the right subtitles for my movie, because some parts of the movie had very deep meanings and the words needed to perfect,” Vanga said.

Missing Subtitle Syndrome

Photo for representational purposes only. 
Photo for representational purposes only. 
(Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

Despite the best effort of the filmmakers, several theatres across the city don’t screen movies with subtitles. Recently, several viewers walked out of the screening of a Malayalam movie in an East Bengaluru multiplex as there were no subtitles. These viewers had come for the movie after their friends told them there were subtitles in the earlier shows.

According to filmmakers, this inconsistency is due to the lack of technical expertise among the multiplexes and single-screen theatres. Even though the subtitles are provided by filmmakers, they must be externally plugged in during the screening. Owing to lack of technical knowledge or enthusiasm from the technicians at the theatres, filmmakers lose out on their extended audience pool.

But There’s a Catch

The inconsistency of showing subtitles in theatres has forced filmmakers to embed or burn-in the subtitles in the movie so that they can’t be removed. Anup Bhandari, director of Kannada blockbuster Rangitharanga, which had subtitle issues during release, is planning on having embedded subtitles in his upcoming project. “There is a certain audience who want the subtitles and to ensure these subtitles are shown, we are burning them in,” he said.

However, the embedded subtitles aren’t problem-free. A perception among rural audiences that any movie released with subtitles will be a niche film sometimes even results in walk-outs.

So how do filmmakers deal with this problem? Some, like Bhandari, opt for embedding subtitles only in some prints.

Any movie with subtitles is called an ‘award movie’ in the rural parts, a kind of movie that will be shown in the panorama section of Doordarshan. So it’s not ideal to have embedded subtitles in all prints of the movie.
Anup Bhandari, Director

But others, like Kumar and Vanga, go all out and embed subtitles in all prints of their films.

In Bengaluru at least, it seems subtitles are going a long way to opening up audiences to regional cinema.

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