Reading cinema

TNIE explores the evolution of Malayalam subtitle initiatives in Kerala, its growth and challenges
Whether it’s a French art film, a Mexican series, or a Hollywood action thriller, subtitles offer more than just a translation
Whether it’s a French art film, a Mexican series, or a Hollywood action thriller, subtitles offer more than just a translation

KOCHI: Every film is a foreign film, foreign to some audience, somewhere around the world. It is through subtitles that an audience can experience different languages and cultures. And behind every foreign film that brings a culture to a viewer is a subtitler.

These lines are from the short documentary The Invisible Subtitler. And yes, through subtitles we not only follow the plot but also the people and their lives beyond the screen.

Whether it’s a French art film, a Mexican series, or a Hollywood action thriller, subtitles offer more than just a translation — these one-inch strips of text at the bottom of the screen serve as a tool for cultural immersion, letting us explore, understand, and connect with worlds beyond our own.

However, there lies one challenge. Not everyone in a multilingual country like India can read the rapidly scrolling English letters. The solution? Regional subtitles. 

The origin of regional subtitles traces back to 1993 when Doordarshan began adding them to movies from the Indian Panorama and broadcasting them. “We had movies with English subtitles at the beginning. The regional subtitling practice was initially adopted in states like Maharashtra, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. We did it with the help of The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) during the 1980s,” says Baiju Chandran, senior journalist and retired director of programmes at Doordarshan.

In the late 1990s, Doordarshan began incorporating subtitles in various other regional languages, including Malayalam. “The NFDC utilised the LIPS software (The CDAC developed the Language Independent Program Subtitles’ in Pune) to create regional subtitles,” says Lakshmy Narayanan, one of the earlier subtitlers at NFDC. “As a result, local channels in their respective languages could select the appropriate language for subtitles alongside the movies.”

Money Heist, Spanish series
Money Heist, Spanish series

However, in Kerala, the scene is a bit different. It’s the film societies and amateur groups that have been crafting Malayalam subtitles. The beginning follows thus: In October 2012, a group of movie enthusiasts from the Facebook film group Cinema Paradiso Club embarked on a remarkable journey by producing Malayalam subtitles for Majid Majidi’s film Children of Heaven. The idea was led initially by members of the club, Sreejith Parippai and Gokul Dinesh. 

“It took us three days to finish the task. We watched the movie with the English subtitles on. Yes, our subtitle had several mistakes and we didn’t concentrate on decoding any cultural references or humour. Our motive was purely on introducing the thought to movie buffs and later grow the initiative according to people’s interest,” says Sreejith.

For the duo, the inspiration to make foreign content accessible to people from all walks of life came from a few articles. “Especially, the articles published in periodicals discussing Malayalam subtitles by C S Venkiteswaran. Also, the successful efforts of Irumpanam School in creating subtitles for students was another turning point,” says Sreejith.

He is speaking about a film club at Irumpanam Vocational Higher Secondary School in Ernakulam, which screened Akira Kursawa’s Dreams with Malayalam subtitles for the students.

This was way back in 2010. The initiative was the brainchild of their Malayalam teacher, Sanal Kumar. After releasing the first movie with subtitles on Cinema Paradiso Club’s Facebook page, Sreejith and Gokul were dissatisfied with its low reach. 

“We recognised the need for a dedicated platform beyond the regular social media. So, we established a blog and formed a group called M-SONE (Malayalam Subtitles for Everyone). Many from the Cinema Paradiso Club also joined the blog,” says Sreejith. 

C S Venkiteswaran
C S Venkiteswaran

M-SONE has now released 3,331 movies with Malayalam subtitles. All thanks to a team of 597 translators. The members claim that the total subtitle count may be over 7,000 if series episodes are also counted. “Now anyone can contribute subtitles to movies. The earlier members of the group serve as the admins and they cross-check and verify the subtitles,” adds Sreejith. 

It’s not an easy task, especially since one is doing it out of pure passion. One such person, Ameya Shaji (name changed) has been a contributing member of M-SONE for a while now. According to her, depending on the duration of the movie and the time she has in hand, it would take at least three to one week to provide subtitles for a movie. 

“Most subtitlers use a software called Subtitle Edit. However, they don’t just translate words literally, they analyse the dialogue in each scene to capture the full meaning without losing the core message. The software will have timestamps and the subtitler will translate the dialogues and save it as  file,” Ameya explains the process. The group’s subtitle collection is available on their website for all to download.

Malayalam subtitles are not restricted to these online groups. The Open Frame Film Society, Payyanur, has also been at the forefront of promoting cinema through Malayalam subtitles. Their efforts have resulted in subtitling approximately 50 classic movies, including Hiroshima Mon Amour, Charulatha, Knife in the Water, Tokyo Story and Death by Hanging. It has completed three hundred other films too.

P Premachandran, a higher secondary Malayalam teacher and a member of the film society, says the efforts have eased language barriers. “When we organise film festivals, the older population can understand the craft better if we add Malayalam subtitles. In one such workshop, critic K F Mathews pointed out that he could acquire deeper knowledge of the 1956 film Night In Fog, thanks to the subtitles,” he says.

“Also, many older people drop by the Payyanur film festival as they don’t want to miss out on experiencing a foreign movie in their mother tongue. Plans are now afoot at the society for its 9th Film Festival. Premachandran says the society’s efforts have also facilitated the screening of academic films with Malayalam subtitles in many schools across Kerala,says Premachandran.

He says, Malayalam subtitles is a way to introduce school children to world cinema. With subtitle files that are in WhatsApp groups to introduce classics and film related to education to young children. Afterall, cinema is also a tool for education, he smiles.

The challenges

Malayalam subtitling groups grapple with ethical dilemmas, and one of the most prominent issues is piracy. Interestingly, the acceptance of Malayalam subtitles owes much to the availability of foreign films on platforms like Telegram and Torrents. The audience for Malayalam subtitles often overlaps with those who consume pirated content. Another significant challenge faced by subtitlers lies in translating profanity. Rendering them into Malayalam without offending the audience is no small feat, especially as the viewers include schoolchildren to older audiences. Sreejith discusses another aspect — double translation. “Foreign films undergo double translation when rendered into Malayalam. Subtitlers, who are often unfamiliar with the original text, rely on English subtitles for their translations. And that means the authenticity and originality of the text is questionable. During this process of double translation, numerous words and meanings are inevitably lost,” Sreejith says. 

Diversity in captions

National award-winning film critic C S Venkiteswaran, however, ponits to an interesting phenomenon. “There are several versions of Malayalam subtitles available for the same movie reflecting different dialects or slang. Hence, viewers from various regions in Kerala can select the version that truly speaks to them. It’s all about the abundance of choices. Providing ample options ensures that viewers can find the one that suits their preferences,” he says. Rajeev Ramachandran, a senior journalist and audio-visual translator, emphasises the importance of subtitles with closed captions and audio descriptions. “Closed captions enhance inclusivity by providing a cinematic experience for the hearing impaired. However, modern cinema extends beyond mere dialogue — it encompasses scenes, actions, and the audio track, all of which significantly contribute to the narrative. For me, closed captioning is akin to translating a visual and auditory cinematic concept into a different language,” he says.

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