Chennai: He has mastered Shah Rukh Khan’s voice: his pitch, his laugh, the pause for effect, the shakiness during soliloquy. And all in Tamil.
To speak like Khan “is quite a task,” concedes P.R. Shekar, 34, the voice artiste who “plays” the Bollywood actor for movies and television shows dubbed in Tamil.
From the boyish banter of Khan, Shekar easily moves to translate into Tamil the gruff aliens in the animation series, Ben 10: Secret of the Omnitrix, and the villain Zorban in Dragon Ball Z.
In sync: Dubbing artiste K.N. Kaalai, at work in a studio of Seventh Channel Communications in Chennai. (Photo: Sharp Image)
Once the bastion of has-been or failed actors, Tamil Nadu’s dubbing industry is booming thanks to growth in entertainment, a lack of native Tamil-speaking actors and a relatively recent reduction of taxes that attempts to keep the language alive through arts and entertainment.
Exactly two years ago, the state’s commercial taxes department fully exempted new Tamil films from entertainment taxes “in order to encourage passion for Tamil language”, but slapped a tax on films dubbed in Tamil at a whopping 50%. At the time, movies rushed to benefit; even the already Tamil Jillunnu Oru Kadhal shed one letter, the “ja” sound largely perceived to be Sanskritized, to Sillunnu Oru Kadhal.
In quick response, the South Indian Dubbing Film Producers’ Association filed a case, saying the tax was too high considering their movies were still in Tamil. Their efforts led to a stay on the decision and the current rate of 15% tax; so if the ticket for the Tamil version of Jab We Met is Rs100, the tax would be Rs15, the same as the tax when it is shown in its original Hindi.
“We want to treat movies of other languages at par,” says J.V. Rukmangadhan, president of the association.
Today the dubbing industry in Tamil Nadu boasts an estimated 1,500 artistes, but 50 of them get the lion’s share of lead roles. Whereas initially dubbing thrived on translating Telugu films, or the occasional Bollywood movie, in Tamil, production houses in Chennai have increasingly started dubbing for Hollywood (The Mummy, Titanic and many Jackie Chan flicks) and cartoons. As television reaches the state’s interiors, the Powerpuff Girls has become a big hit in Tamil, for example.
Shekar got his start with Khan’s Swades released in 2004, where he was handpicked by director and producer Ashutosh Gowariker. After this, came his big break: Kaun Banega Crorepati, earlier hosted by Amitabh Bachchan and later by Khan.
“I was quite elated, especially when Shah Rukh personally congratulated me and appreciated my efforts after KBC’s Tamil version was aired on Star Vijay,” Shekar says, referring to the channel owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s Star Group Ltd. “He promised to meet me when he comes to Chennai next.”
As many dubbing artistes have begun to do, Shekar also wrote the scripts for the Tamil KBC. Their work is not limited to just films from outside, since some actors in Tamil films do not speak Tamil at all, or well enough for “Kollywood,” as the film industry is known after its base in the Kodambakkam section of Chennai.
Of course, Hindi films also have seen dubbing artistes flourish for the same reason; foreign-born actress Katrina Kaif has just started recording her own voice in Hindi movies, for example.
Notably, in nearby Karnataka, dubbed movies are banned by the government, while Kannada movies are exempt from entertainment tax, said Thomas D’Souza, secretary of Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce.
Shekar says writing the scripts in Tamil can be very tough. “You need to use such words that match the English phrases and also, they should be simple and catchy so that the kids can understand easily,” he says.
He began his career as a child actor in theatre and started dubbing at the age of 6. With more than 1,500 stage plays as a theatre actor and around 500 movies as a dubbing artiste to his credit, Shekar believes that “one’s voice can act.”
“Pause and emotions are two important aspects of dubbing,” he says. “One should know when and where to pause and should know how to modulate his or her voice according to the movie scene and the actor’s expression.”
In the 1950s, a Telugu movie called Ramarajyam was the first movie to be dubbed in Tamil. After that, many Telugu mythological movies started being dubbed in Tamil, receiving a great response from the Tamil audience, says M.A. Prakash, a senior dubbing artiste and dubbing coordinator.
It grew even more in the 1980s, said K.N. Kaalai, 73, who has been dubbing for more than two decades.
“I entered this industry with the hopes of getting into acting, but did not get enough opportunities. Therefore, I ended up with dubbing for other actors,” he says. “In fact, most of the artistes who joined the dubbing industry aspired to be actors, but in today’s case, youngsters opt for dubbing directly.”
The earnings of a dubbing artiste vary movie to movie depending on factors such as the movie’s budget and the production house undertaking the dubbing work. The artistes say they make anywhere between Rs25,000 to Rs1 lakh per movie for a lead role. For those in supporting actor roles, it is between Rs7,500 and Rs10,000 per movie. But the voice actors negotiate and rates are getting better, says Shekar.
Another category of artistes called “crowd” or “murmuring” artistes speak for people doing small roles in the movies. For example, it could be for the role of a doctor or a shopkeeper who delivers a couple of lines or phrases in the movie. Such artistes earn around Rs1,000 per day.
Quite a few playback singers also double as dubbing artistes for lead actors. For example, S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, a leading playback singer in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and other regional languages, dubs for actor Kamal Hassan in Telugu.
“Singers would find it easy to dub,” says Shekar, “because they know how to modulate their voices, they know how to emote.”
Chinmayi, a playback singer who recently started dubbing on a recommendation by composer A.R. Rahman, says it’s not quite so easy. “I don’t really look at dubbing from a singer’s shoes,” says Chinmayi, who dubbed for a lead actor in Sillunnu Oru Kaadhal. Chinmayi looks at it as “a learning experience” but says day-long dubbing schedules take a toll on her vocal chords.
“There is mental as well as physical fatigue,” she says. “You have to cry, scream, keep on repeating the same dialogue till you get it right.”