Sandalwood’s dubbing woes

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Language divide The Kannada film fraternity hold a protest against dubbing
Language divide The Kannada film fraternity holds a protest against dubbing. Photo: KPN

Sandalwood isn’t doing too well. Struggling to eke out a living, Bollywood’s distant cousin in the southern state of Karnataka has found an enemy that is leeching its coffers dry: other language movies dubbed into Kannada. With cash-strapped producers dubbing box office hits in other languages into Kannada instead of producing local cinema, a section of the local film fraternity has now come out in open revolt against dubbed cinema, calling it an “attempt at corporatising the industry” and a “threat to Karnataka’s culture”.

Many junior artistes, spot boys, film stars and directors of Sandalwood came out in protest against dubbing on 28 January by holding a massive rally in Bengaluru. Fighting for the common cause of protecting Kannada cinema from the onslaught of other language films, they demanded that the state government draft a cultural policy banning dubbing of other language films into Kannada.

Their biggest stumbling block has been the powerful Karnataka Film Producers Association (KFPA), which has been vociferously campaigning for dubbing, arguing that it helps audiences reach out to other kinds of cinema. “Legally they cannot enforce the ban as there is no constitutional provision for that. Audiences would be deprived of rich cinema in other languages if we do not allow dubbing,” argues producer and director SV Rajinder Singh Babu, the most prominent face of the pro-dubbing lobby.

“Kannada movies are routinely dubbed into other languages, sometimes earning crores. There could be a parallel industry running and earning money. Why can’t they understand that?’’ asks Babu.

While the protesters aren’t demanding a blanket ban on dubbing other language cinema or screening them, they are opposed to teleserials and commercial films being dubbed into Kannada. The debate raging in Sandalwood is whether cinema and television are creative spaces of cultural significance, with the KFPA arguing that they are consumer products.

It is this onslaught of spaces on the part of big channels that they claim to resent and resist. “We are not opposed to UGC programmes, BBC documentaries or even cartoons being dubbed into Kannada. But dubbing of films is a fake way of interpreting an art. Dubbing is not translation. At best a remake is better. Otherwise, it defeats the whole purpose of forming linguistic states,” argues noted filmmaker B Suresh.

Suresh goes on to cite the UNESCO guidelines framed in 1996 to protect regional languages, which gives dubbing the fourth and the last option when it comes to producing content in other language films. The first three being subtitling, para-dubbing, remake or narration.

Perhaps, the point missed in the entire debate is that contemporary cinema, more than being a cultural product, is also about money. KFPA cites the number of films that tanked at the box office, leading many of the producers to incur huge losses. “Out of the 120 films produced in a year by the Kannada film industry, only 10-12 films scrape profits. It takes Rs 16 crore to make a film here,’’ says KFPA president Munirathna Naidu.

There are more than 250 films whose remake rights have been bought by local producers. These rights come with a package of dubbing rights as well. For the producers, it makes economic sense to spend smaller amounts to dub them to Kannada instead of spending large amounts of money on remaking the film with local stars. According to statistics, a producer spends around Rs 1-4 lakh in dubbing and spends somewhere around Rs 30-40 lakh in securing the rights of a film.

But this model, protesters say, threatens to destroy the local industry and renders many jobless. Sandalwood employs nearly 20,000 people directly and another 10,000 indirectly. Dubbing will establish hegemony of big corporate houses leading to huge job loss, argues Ashok, president of Karnataka Film Workers, Artists and Technicians Federation (KFWATF).

Dubbing started in a big way with the Hollywood movie Avatar, which was a big grosser at the box office, informs Ashok. But the showdown came in last May with the Aamir Khan starrer Satyamev Jayate, a social awareness programme. When Star Plus decided to dub the programme in all languages, including Kannada, there was a huge revolt and general entertainment channel Suvarna, owned by Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar, had to block the broadcast of the show. The channel, however, put out the first episode on YouTube, receiving 30,000 views. But under pressure, it had to pull down the video from the website.

Incidentally, during the same time a private consumers’ forum approached the Competition Commission of India (CCI) with a petition on the issue of dubbing films in Kannada. After a year and half, last October, the CCI, in its preliminary report, favoured dubbing; calling films a consumer product.

While the final order is pending, several groups filed appeals in the Karnataka High Court, which has given a stay on the report until it is established whether it is within the CCI’s purview to carry out such an endeavour.

It is not the first time that discomfort around dubbing has raised its head in the Kannada film industry. The issue of dubbing cropped up regularly when the state was formed. But it was only in the 1960’s that the opposition, led by noted writers Aa Na Krishnaraya and Ma Ramamurthy, gained momentum when Vijaya Vahini Studios planned to dub Maya Bazaar and Patala Bhairavi from Telugu to Kannada.

It is interesting to note that the number of films produced in 1957 was 11, and it was reduced to seven in 1958 due to the impact of dubbed films.

Many artistes, including the Kannada film industry’s legendary actor, late Dr Rajkumar, joined the movement later. The current wave of anti-dubbing protest also enjoys huge support from writers and intellectuals. Writer UR Ananthamurthy and director Girish Kasaravalli have been vocal of their support to the anti-dubbing lobby. Interestingly, while Sandalwood is divided over the issue, Bollywood has been trying to convince the Ministry Of Information & Broadcasting to ban dubbing of English films into regional languages.

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