I saw March of the Penguins (Marche de l’Empereur) shortly after its US release two years ago. It had a small opening, but suddenly swamped the box office and topped it off with an Oscar for best documentary in 2006. My first reaction after watching the movie was: “How did they do it?”
As a filmmaker, it was a stupendous experience, especially the effort of the film crew, which spent seven years putting the documentary together, against tremendous odds and in terrifying weather. On a personal level, it also served as an eye-opener and spiked my interest in documentaries. Today, I have a large collection of works like Nanook of the North, which documents a year in the life of an Inuit family, and Hearts and Minds, on the Vietnam War. It is a pity that in India we dismiss documentaries as boring, even though no feature filmmaker engages with his subject the way a National Geographic documentary maker does. And documenting nature, especially, requires massive stores of resilience, patience and commitment.
My association with the film began about a year ago, when distributor Sunil Doshi asked me to translate it into Hindi and English for the Indian audience. An English version—meant for the American/European market—featuring the voice of Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman is in circulation, but it’s been criticized as a clinical, straight narration, totally cleansed of the emotion that went into the French script. (I hear the French producers were unhappy with it for this same reason.)
Right at the onset, we knew things had to be different here. For one thing, French film-lovers are exposed to cinema from across the world, so they don’t have to be led into a documentary. And then there was the issue of the plot. Much of our local audience have no idea of the facts about the terrain in the film, and it was possible that the contents of the film would intimidate our target viewer. So, we knew we had to simplify the plot. And once that was done, we could do more than just translate the lines; we could recreate the voice-over from scratch.
Our next big decision was the choice of narrator: Amitabh Bachchan. (We didn’t believe anyone else could pull it off with the same finesse.) And unlike the original, which has three speaking characters, we decided to stay with just one, with Bachchan playing himself, and narrating the plot like a story—the love story of a family of penguins. As the opening titles roll, he gives a brief introduction of Antarctica, citing the fact that it shares a tectonic history with India, having drifted apart from the Gondwana mass at the same time. (I must confess that much of my research borrows heavily from my six-year-old daughter’s encyclopedia and the National Geographic.) The final script flowed like a love-story-cum-adventure—what happens next, who does what?
But formulating the script was probably the easy part. The recording proved a much longer and harder job. At the time, I was fairly preoccupied, brooding over the fact that three of my films were in the can. I was also working on Mixed Doubles. In fact, I was in such a state that I couldn’t work with Bachchan on the recording, leaving it to Doshi and sound recordist Rakesh Ranjan. Bachchan was very unhappy about this and, to make matters worse, I’d handed over a hastily-drafted script wrought with spelling mistakes and colloquial grammar (since the lines were to be addressed to the viewer, I wanted to keep the language informal). In fact, he was upset enough to ask me: “Are you sure about this?”
And that was the least of our troubles. The hurdles kept piling up when together with his mother’s continuing illness, Bachchan also fell ill and dubbing was delayed by a year. The final touches were done only late last year.
But despite everything, Bachchan worked with great sincerity, and it shows in the result. He is not just the voice of the film. He brought a lot of himself to the project, even ironing out glitches I missed in the story. There was a place where the narrator is talking about an inexplicable sequence in this ritual march of the penguins and he has to say: “Why do they do this? How would I know? After all, I’m only Amitabh Bachchan.” I wasn’t sure how he would react to the line. But he did it so well, adopting a suitably self-deprecating tone. It was not the baritone of his macho films or the promotional ads for UP.
Bachchan’s voice has a warmth and quality that the French crew loved. The film was made with a lot of passion and this, they said, was the emotional appeal they were seeking.
March of the Penguins is being released by Adlabs on 13 April.
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