Mumbai: The re-emergence of a film about dinosaurs is an occasion to celebrate a film-watching culture that is slowly fading out of view.

Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park opened in India on 15 April 1994 at a time when single-screen theatres walked the Earth, movies ran for weeks, people queued to beat “Housefull" boards, and popcorn and cola didn’t burn holes in wallets.

The mega-budget, computer-generated marvel came to India 10 months after its original release date—unthinkable today—but there was an excellent reason for the delay. Jurassic Park was the first Hollywood film to be dubbed in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, a feat that contributed in no small measure to its remarkable 25-week run and 19 crore box office takings.

A poster of the new 3D version of the film.
A poster of the new 3D version of the film.

“It was a landmark release for us. The Hindi market was huge, the Hollywood space was limited, and only a few cinemas in the cities screened English movies," said Jacinto Fernandes, marketing head at Universal Pictures International India, the studio that distributed the movie. “We felt we needed to grow as a company as well as grow the market, and the best way was to reach out to audiences who could watch the film in their own language."

Universal rustled up further curiosity in the film by heavily airing trailers of the dubbed versions on the government-run Doordarshan and DD2 channels, issuing advertisements in newspapers, and tying up with the Eveready battery brand to run contests and marketing events. The response, Fernandes said, was “immediate".

The Indian box office response to American cinema is significant enough to warrant a sustained local presence by leading Hollywood studios, but it pales in comparison to the demand for movies in Hindi and other languages. In southern states, for instance, “Hollywood has a small but decent market share, on par with Hindi cinema, but not as much as local cinema," said Swaroop Reddy, director of SPI Cinemas, which operates multiplexes in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. “We estimate that the Hollywood share of the box office in Tamil Nadu is about 5%."

Ever since Jurassic Park’s stupendous success, effects-laden Hollywood titles have been routinely dubbed into Indian languages and screened with subtitles in cinemas and on television. So it’s ironic that scepticism initially greeted the decision to dub Jurassic Park. “We did get some negative feedback because the movie didn’t have identifiable Hollywood stars," Fernandes said. Test screenings of the English version to audiences who didn’t speak the language revealed that the movie’s bravura effects made up for the absence of marquee names.

It was time for Ashim Samanta’s Aradhana Dubbing Studio to make its entry. Samanta teamed up with his father, filmmaker Shakti Samanta, and veteran dubbing artist Leela Ghosh to enable Americans to speak in Indian languages. Easier said than done—the dialogue had to sound authentic and match the lip movements of the characters as closely as possible.

Mir Muneer wrote the Hindi script, including the memorable badi chipkali line, which was referenced in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya made four years later. “There is no word for dinosaur in Hindi, so I couldn’t use anything else," explained Muneer, who has written extensively for television. The English screenplay initially foxed him, he said. “There were many things that I simply couldn’t understand, and I had to refer to the dictionary every now and then." He watched the film several times on a video cassette player to sync the Hindi lines with the English dialogue.

Established dubbing artists were roped in—Gautam Adarsh voiced Sam Neill, for instance. “It was a lengthy process to put the script together," Samanta said. “We put in a lot of hard work, which is why the movie turned out to be so fantastic. We watched the movie recently after 20 years, and we realized that we probably did a better job back then." Muneer and Samanta subsequently worked together on a few more dubbed projects, including the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, Schindler’s List, and True Lies.

Based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale about the perils of tinkering with nature. The spectacle of genetically re-engineered dinosaurs at an amusement park that are accidentally turned loose spawned two sequels. Part 4 is being produced by Spielberg and directed by Colin Trevorrow, and is expected to hit cinemas next year in June.

Jurassic Park’s success in India was minted entirely in single screens. Nimisha Trivedi, associate vice-president of film distribution and acquisition at Krian Media Ltd, who lived in Pune at the time, watched the English version four times at the movie theatre Rahul. “That was the time when you had mile-long queues for advance bookings and you would only get four tickets per person," Trivedi said. “I had to wait for two weeks before I could watch the movie the first time round."

The sight of dinosaurs running amok—and their victims screeching in a local language—seemed perfectly suited to large single-screens such as the triplet theatre Pooja, Madhuban and Tilak in Dombivali, a Mumbai suburb. “The Hindi movie ran for close to four weeks at two of our three cinemas, which is a very good response for a Hollywood movie," said owner Nilesh Vira. “English movies wouldn’t run for more than a week in those days. The concept was novel, and even though it was fiction, people could relate to it."

The special-effects-laden story was entertaining as well as educational, pointed out R.K. Mehrotra, general manager at Delhi’s 980-seater Delite, where the Hindi version ran for 15 weeks. “The market expanded for Hollywood after Jurassic Park," Mehrotra said. “Nowadays the response is huge for films like King Kong, Titanic and Jurassic Park." The 3D version of Titanic, released by Fox Star Studios on 5 April last year, ran for six weeks, while Ang Lee’s man-versus-tiger fable Life of Pi is still going strong at Delite, he pointed out.

Jurassic Park might have filled the coffers of single screens, but many of them are not technically equipped for the 3D version. Universal is targeting 350 of 600-odd 3D screens, which is more than the roughly 230 prints that were released in 1994, most of them in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. “The original Jurassic Park was a blockbuster, and there is a lot of interest in the 3D version," said Swaroop Reddy. However, Jurassic Park’s technological advances have also altered the nature of its reappearance. It will be released only in Hindi and English, since neither Tamil Nadu nor Andhra Pradesh have enough 3D cinemas to justify the cost of upgrading the Tamil and Telugu language versions.

It’s not just cinemas that have changed since 1994. Multiplexes are rapidly replacing single screens across the country, while digital screening technology is steadily making film projection obsolete. Universal hopes that the re-release will bring in new audiences—those who were too young to know what the fuss is about, who might have missed Jurassic Park during its initial run, and who might have only watched the movie on television. “Jurassic Park was the future" at the time, said Fernandes. “The dinosaur hasn’t aged."

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