I am a Kavya Madhavan fan and loved her looks and dulcet voice. Till, years later, on TV, when I heard her speak in a rather deep voice, and then read about how almost every lead actress, from Divya Unni to Nayanthara, has one common 'voice'. We may know her as Tamannaah Bhatia's mother in Petromax or as 'Cooker Amma' from the recent Dulquer Salmaan-starrer Varane Avashyamund, but not many know that Sreeja Ravi is a five-time State Award-winning voice-artiste with over 1,500 movies to her credit. "I guess lack of visibility is associated with this category of artistes," she smiles. But, this did not prevent daughter Raveena Ravi from following in her mother's footsteps. She made her dubbing debut with Saatai, and has grown in strength.
"Dubbing is my passion and I love cinema. Luckily, of late, the audience is keen to know who's lent their voice for a particular heroine," says Raveena, who made her Tamil onscreen debut with the critically acclaimed Oru Kidaayin Karunai Manu, but continues to dub for Nayanthara (in Malayalam), Amy Jackson, Kajal Aggarwal and Raashi Khanna, among others.
The mother and daughter speak about all things dubbing and give an insight into voice-acting as a profession.
Sreeja, you began voice-acting almost 44 years ago. We've come a long way in terms of technology since then…
Sreeja Ravi: When I started off in 1975, the loop system used in dubbing; the visual and the tape would run simultaneously and we'd have to record an entire scene in one go.
Even combination scenes?
SR: Yes. All the artistes in a scene would assemble around one or two microphones and an entire scene would be recorded in one stretch. After digitalisation, we now have the privilege of track dubbing where an artiste can record his/her portion alone. Those days, we had to give our best in every take, because improvisation would mean redoing the whole scene again with everyone.
So, dubbing would go on for many days?
SR: A single film would take around 28-30 days of dubbing, as opposed to just one or two days for an artiste now.
In spite of dubbing being such an integral part of every film, why do you think voiceover artistes don't get their due?
SR: I guess we are the behind-the-scenes people. At the time of dubbing, we're treated well and the director would want us to enhance the effect of some scenes with our voice. But, after dubbing, we are out of the picture and are seldom given credit by the makers or the actors.
Raveena: With the advent of social media, the audience has become more aware about our work. Actors are also not hesitant to acknowledge us anymore. It's a blessing to have fans for your voice.
This category also gets left out during awards, right?
SR: We don't have National Awards in this category. State Awards started recognising us after a long time. In Kerala, the State Awards would usually alternate between male and female artistes every year.
You're possibly the only mother-daughter duo who've dubbed for the same person. Your mother dubbed for Nayanthara from her debut Manassinakkare and you took over from Bhaskar the Rascal. Did she give you any tips?
Raveena: Mom was supposed to dub for Nayanthara and I had accompanied her to the studio.
SR: It was a coincidence that Raveena got roped in. When I saw the footage from the film, Nayan looked gorgeous and very young. I felt my voice may not do justice and asked Siddiqueikka (director Siddique) to try Raveena's voice instead. He was skeptical at first but asked her to record for a scene. He was thrilled with the result, and insisted I coordinate the dubbing and be with her throughout the recording.
Raveena: (laughs) I was stuck in the lion's den with mom by my side. She's very strict when it comes to work and I had to give my best.
Not many are aware that you're the voice-actor for Kavya Madhavan…
"Athu eniku paara aanu" (This has become quite a problem for me). In fact for Varane Avashyamund, where I've acted as 'Cooker Amma', I saw a couple of comments where people have asked if Kavya dubbed for my character.
How difficult is it to dub for non-native actors?
SR: It is a real challenge. In Harikrishnans, Juhi Chawla spoke in Hindi in most scenes. It was still all right because she'd given good lip movements. In Balram Vs Tharadas, Katrina spoke in English, and so a lot of work went into matching her lip movements.
Raveena: I find that actors now put in an effort to learn their lines, and it helps us when lip movement if the metre is correct. But when the lip movement is a mere murmur, we have to work harder.
Have there been instances where you've lost your voice after dubbing?
Raveena: I've ended up with a cracked voice. These days, the trend is subtle acting and even emotional scenes are nuanced. And if there are scenes that require us to scream or yell, we do it towards the end of dubbing.
SR: In Netaji, there is a scene where Lisa Ray is hung upside down from a tree and lowered into a crocodile swamp. I had to dub before the editing. After screaming and yelling, I spat blood. I was asked to rest my voice completely. Ending up with a cracked voice is very common.
Do you have to develop a certain set of 'voices' and 'accents' in your repertoire?
Raveena: We don't train beforehand, but when a certain character requires a particular accent, we're helped with it. For instance in Anegan, Amyra Dastur's character was shown through three different eras—present day, another set in Burma, and one as a Tamil Brahmin. I had to learn the Tam-Bram accent, because there were a lot of scenes; quite a few got edited out, later.
Sreeja, you're a child-voice specialist and have dubbed for a number of child artistes such as Baby Shalini and Baby Shamlee. Did you go through any training?
SR: Hmmm… it mostly has to do with controlling my vocal cords, and that is self-taught. Most people know me as Kavya Madhavan's voice in Malayalam, but never have they pointed out that Shalini (Shalini Ajith) and Roma (Roma Asrani) sound the same as Kavya. When we see a particular artiste, we adjust our voice to suit their body language, character, and physique. The same happens when it comes to dubbing for children.
Have you received negative comments from stars you've dubbed for?
SR: It is mostly the directors who select us for a particular character. So, thankfully, I've not received any negative comments.
Raveena: Same here, but there are times when the audience criticises your work. For instance, I'd lent my voice for Deepti Sati in Lal Jose Sir's Nee-Na. When the trailer of the film dropped, many comments said that my voice didn't suit her character. But others defended me saying that when seen on mute, it was clear that the lip-sync and spoken lines were different. Sometimes, you can't correct emotions and lines through dubbing.
Have you had to prep in advance for any film?
Raveena: Sometimes, we may have to learn the dialogues and be prepared with the emotions as well. I can recall some. In Saatai, there's a scene where the heroine cries and laughs in one shot. The famous Tamil slang scene in I for Amy Jackson. And, the 'drinking' scene with Madonna Sebastian in Kaadhalum Kadanthu Pogum. I was given snacks and a soda bottle while recording this scene.
Has your course at Actor Prepares helped you as a voice artiste? And does being a voice actor come in handy when you're in front of the camera?
Raveena: Yes to both. I am very shy when it comes to being in front of the camera. Even during dubbing, I make sure that I am alone in the recording room because I am a drama queen in front of the mic and am not comfortable with others seeing me. I was able to overcome this stage fear of mine after Actor Prepares.
At the time of dubbing, are you able to figure out if the film will be a blockbuster or a flop?
Raveena: (laughs). Always. By the time we are nearing the interval, we have a clear idea of how the film is going to turn out.
Sreeja, you had the opportunity to work with Sridevi on her last film Mom. What was your experience working with her?
SR: I have met Srideviji a couple of times but worked with her only in Mom. I coordinated the Hindi to Malayalam dub and lent my voice for her as well. She was very happy with it. It was a blessing to work with her.