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Rajinikanth in a still from ‘Kabali’
Rajinikanth in a still from ‘Kabali’

Kabali dubbed in Hindi misses the subtext

Watching the Rajinikanth-starrer has a lesson: Don't watch Hindi-dubbed versions of South Indian potboilers

In a crucial, histrionic-soaked moment in the Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali, the ageing gangster who has spent 25 years in prison finds out that his wife, Rupa Devi (Radhika Apte), thought to be dead, is actually alive. She miraculously survived a deadly assassination attempt and is slowly recovering from the shock, a character reveals to Kabali. You can’t help but laugh at this piece of schmaltz, routine in Indian potboilers. The laughter is provoked by this badly-dubbed Hindi line: Kaam karte karte woh freeze ho jaati thi. Accompanying it are visuals of Apte breaking into a dramatic pause while washing dishes.

In another scene meant to be emotional, when a younger Kabali announces his revenge to rival gangs, his mentor’s bloodied body on his arms, I laughed again. This time, a nahi chhodunga echoes into the sky. Close your eyes and these lines could be straight out of a Telugu masala film with B-grade level Hindi dubbing for TV—the likes of Tiger-Ek Warrior that have made sure we abandon the TV. The Hindi lines of Kabali are close, in spirit, to those that go with telebrand commercials that sell nazar raksha kavach and fat-melting vibration massage belts.

A 2016 Rajinikanth production that talks about labour rights, caste divide and has a death metal track of a theme song, ought to update its standards of dubbing.

Also read:

Film review: Kabali

Rajinikanth doesn’t age much, nor do his co-stars

A second viewing of Kabali in Tamil with English subtitles confirms the suspicion that the film is far more simplistic in Hindi than it actually is, its political subtext and cultural details lost in translation. You can’t dumb down a Rajinikanth movie, already designed to cater to the lowest common denominator, and expect people to like it.

Ideally, regional films should be watched with subtitles—English or Hindi or any other language. To sample how much the phonetics matter, without understanding a word, one should simply listen to the electrifying Neruppu Da, mutilated by lines such as Aag hun main, aa takkar le, dum hai.

The Hindi dubbing of Kabali doesn’t even get the basics right, a jarring mismatch of voice and facial expressions that can drive the most undemanding of urban audiences away. The two South blockbusters, Bahubali and Robot, that had a great run at the box-office across India, were much more entertaining (and more visual) movies that got away despite bad dubbing. But a weaker film like Kabali—distributed across theatres in Hindi with the original version playing only in South Indian pockets of cities—suffers. Interestingly, many Hindi film critics didn’t take note of the film’s portrayal of the lives of the Tamil slave-labour diaspora in South East Asia, the word Tamilnesan replaced by the more generic “aawam" and “kaum", the championing of a low caste hero who wears his Ambedkar ideals with his suit. These are rather unusual features in a Rajini film that I felt came across better in the subtitled version than in Hindi.

Watching movies with subtitles in India has been associated with foreign cinema and regional ‘art’ film. The distribution chain perhaps feeds on that perception. But if producers and film-makers want their movies to be experienced as they are meant to be, they will have to dramatically improve the dubbing standards or promote viewing with subtitles.

Because when Rajinikanth says, Magizhji, it sounds way cooler than Bahut khoob.

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