A decade ago people outside Kerala probably knew of Malayalam cinema only through remakes like Hera Pheri, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, and Bodyguard. But thanks to streaming platforms, films like Nayattu and Joji have received national attention.
And it’s not just Malayalam. A rooted film like Karnan, when released on Amazon Prime Video with subtitles, gains an audience that’s not familiar with the language and culture depicted in the film. All of us who rely on subtitles to understand regional films have a nagging question: are the subtitles as good as they could be?
What’s wrong with the subtitles on streaming platforms?
Typically makers hand over their films to streaming platforms along with the subtitles. But after that it becomes the sole prerogative of the streaming platform to adapt it as they please.
Barring typos and grammatical errors, an issue that’s considerably harder to spot if you don’t know the language of the film is: context. The viewer intuitively assumes that the subtitles communicate the nuances of the original dialogue (which, of course, could be translated into English in many different ways). Because streaming platforms can arbitrarily modify subtitles, it’s impossible to pin down whether a missing layer of context is due to the subtitler or the streaming platform.
For example, in Nayattu, subordinate police officers use the term ‘sir’ as a mark of respect, which is common practice in India. Joju George’s character is called Maniyan sir. But the subtitles say “Mr. Manian,” anglicizing the localness that’s integral to the film.
This ‘standardization’ is problematic not just from an inclusiveness standpoint (should all speaking patterns be flattened out into one standard English template?) but also calls into question the value of presenting a regional film to a new, larger audience while also blunting it’s specificity. Does a Malayalam film need to read like an English film in the subtitles for it to be accessible?
An example of potentially losing some context about a character could be found in Master. In the scene where Vijay Sethupathi talks about the “butt-pain” of an ostrich that lays a large egg, the point and punchline of the entire joke is in that lewd, and unexpected, phrase. The subtitles read “only the ostrich will know the pain of hatching such an egg!” This makes the line appropriate across ages (which is critical for a streaming platform) but it also makes the character sound philosophical when he was bawdy in the original.
Another problem is leaving something important unsubtitled. For instance, Karnan opens with a quote in Tamil that roughly translates to “These were times when common people began to fight spiritedly for their needs and rights”. This is left unsubtitled and robs the film of some context. The subtitle says “BEFORE 1997”.
Who is to blame?
Vivek Ranjit who has subtitled Malayalam films for over a decade (Drishyam 2, Lucifer, Ayyappanum Koshiyum, Nayattu) and is also a screenwriter, recently tweeted that his subtitles for Nayattu were significantly modified by Netflix: muting the local context, removing caste references from a folk song and replacing all cuss words in a gritty cop film with ‘idiot’, thereby ridding it of layers of flavour. “Streaming platforms use my subtitles as a base version and then make modifications,” says Vivek Ranjit. Once you’ve sent it to them, it’s out of your hands. He adds that he has to “painstakingly argue the case against each of their modifications over email, and then they agree to a few of them.”
He tweeted Netflix agreed to fix many of the glaring issues he had pointed out. However, as of writing, the subtitles of Nayattu on Netflix continue to have ‘sir’ replaced by ‘Mr’ and the folk song remains free of caste references.
What’s the way forward?
The rationale of streaming platforms, arguably, could be that they’re bringing submitted subtitles in line with their internal policies which might include muting cuss words and leaving potentially controversial parts untranslated (or vaguely translated). The problem is a lack of transparency about these rules.
A clear statement of how subtitles are standardized by streaming platforms will help viewers understand what they might potentially be losing by solely relying on subtitles. It also helps subtitlers express a film’s intent within this set of agreed rules. Subtitlers with decades of experience translating regional films for international film festivals and releases could help adapt these rules to the context for each language.
A rigid set of rules without consultation with regional subtitlers is more likely than not to systematically mute cultural context and cannot truly serve the purpose of helping regional films gain a new audience. Without dialogue between subtitlers and streaming platforms, only viewers are going to lose out important context in translation.