The dulcet, seductive voice of Pazhuvur Rani Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) in Ponniyin Selvan -1, the commanding tone of Prime Minister Ramika Sen (Raveena Tandon) in KGF-2, the matter-of-fact yet empathetic words of Mathivathani IAS (Nayanthara) in Aramm — all of these are the different avatars of Chennai-based voice artist Deepa Venkat.
In a career spanning over 20 years, Venkat has dubbed for several lead actresses in Tamil and Telugu. It all started when she was still in middle school, lending her voice for the Hindi dubbed version of American cartoons like Chip N Dale: Rescue Rangers or advertisements.
Growing up in Mumbai, Venkat was fluent in Hindi and this proved to be a blessing when south Indian films began to be dubbed for television in the nineties. She initially lent her voice for junior artists and supporting roles, and later to the lead actors in dubbed-to-Hindi south Indian films like Muthu (1995), Ratchagan (1997), and Kadhalar Dhinam (1999). In Tamil, the first time she dubbed for a lead actor was for Devayani in Appu (2000).
Recalling her early years in the field, Venkat said that she would always get rejected in voice tests because her voice was not “sweet”.
“Back then people wanted women actors to sound very ‘sweet’. My voice isn’t like that, and it’s hard to speak in such a pitch throughout the film. I didn’t know how to judge what pitch I’ll be comfortable in speaking all through the movie. I would always get rejected and I used to be furious. But now, everyone wants a bass voice because the mindset of the directors has changed,” she said, laughing.
Venkat has appeared in several films in supporting roles, and enjoyed a stint in television serials too. But, while she understood the acting process, dubbing came with its own set of challenges. She was only 20 when she dubbed for Simran in Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (2002). The film is about a child’s search for her biological mother and is set in the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Simran plays the child’s adoptive mother, Indira.
“This was a mother who loved her child fiercely but was also angry with her. It was very difficult for me to get those emotions into my head. At that age, I was only used to getting a scolding, not giving one! I didn’t have the maturity of that character,” said Venkat. It was actor Suhasini Maniratnam who showed her how to bring out such emotions in her voice.
“Suhasini Ma’am had come for the dubbing one day and she showed me how to do it. Simran had a very distinct way of speaking and it took me days to understand her modulation. Suhasini Ma’am was so experienced that she could do it instantly. I can never forget it,” said Venkat.
By the time Ponniyin Selvan-1 (2022) was made, Venkat was a seasoned professional. Still, the senthamizh (classical Tamil) spoken in the period drama wasn’t easy to master.
“For PS-1, the challenge was that there were words we didn’t know that we had to say – like ‘kalathalapathi’ (the head of an army). We all dubbed it as kaLAthalapathi, but it was only in the end that someone pointed out that it is ‘kalathalapathi’. Also, you are used to saying certain words in a flow, but while dubbing, you have to be conscious of getting the pronunciation right while speaking naturally,” said Venkat.
The ‘zha’ syllable was quite a problem for many of the actors to pronounce properly in PS-1, added Venkat. While one can get away with it in a contemporary film, a period drama demands strict adherence to the pronunciation.
“You can’t get away with saying ‘Arunmoli’, you have to say ‘Arunmozhi’. The sound engineer recording your voice also has to be able to hear what you’re saying clearly. But, focusing too much on the pronunciation means you lose out on the expression,” pointed out Venkat.
Thankfully, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who plays Nandini, had done her job well, and this made the dubbing process easier.
“Aishwarya took her time with the dialogues. Nandini isn’t the type to respond quickly to anything. She will look, she will take a breath and only then say something. She had delivered the lines correctly, so it gave me room for getting the pronunciation right and emoting,” she said.
Since 2013, when she first dubbed for Nayanthara in the romcom Raja Rani, Venkat has become the Lady Superstar’s voice on screen. Venkat said that Nayanthara is among the few actors who’ve actively sought her out and established a rapport.
“I have always been shy of approaching a star for whom I’ve dubbed and I’ve never initiated contact myself. However, Nayanthara reached out to me. She was very particular about how she sounded on screen. She would give me instructions even before the director of the movie did so! She’d say that I have to speak exactly in the same way as she did in the original recording – do not raise your voice unless it is for clarity, maintain the same tone and so on,” said Venkat.
Jyotika is another star who worked closely with Venkat for her film Raatchasi (2019), in which she plays a strict school teacher.
“Jyotika had started dubbing for herself by then and she had dubbed for this film, too, but the director wanted something different. She was also very particular about getting the tone for her character right. She called and spoke to me at length about how I should do the dubbing,” recalled Venkat.
An actor plays a character on screen. The voice artist has to match their emotion, and act like the actor with their voice. For this, the original sound recording is invaluable. Everybody has a different breathing pattern, and we all have our own way of taking pauses. Besides, actors also change their voice modulation according to the character they’re playing – be it a queen or a maid. Venkat said that it is necessary to listen to the original sound recording several times to understand how the actor is playing the role after so many rehearsals and retakes.
“Nayanthara always says, ‘Yaarachum pannalamla?” (Someone can do it, right?). We usually say, ‘Yaaravudhu pannalamla?’ But we all have our own way of speaking, and the original sound recording helps us understand that. The first take of the first scene is never the final one because we have to understand how the actor has interpreted their character and spoken these lines,” said Venkat, adding that it helps to dub in the same order in which the scenes appear in the film. This enables the voice artist to travel with the character, and then go back to the first few scenes and dub them again.
Over the years, Venkat has learnt that speed is not necessarily the same as skill. She is now happy to take her own time to understand the layers of a character and do the dubbing. Directors these days are also more particular about pronunciation, Venkat added.
“For example, I was saying ‘Enkita kudu’ (Give it to me) in one of my films, but the director asked me to say ‘Enta kudu’ since that is more colloquial and suited to the character. They pay attention to every word these days,” said Venkat.
But when she dubs for so many actors, how does she ensure that they all don’t sound the same? This is where, Venkat said, sound engineers play a very important role. While the voice artist and the director focus on the pronunciation and emotions, it is the sound engineer who points out the similarity in the voice and tone.
“The sound engineer will ask us to watch another scene with the character, absorb how they’re speaking and then use that tone. There’s a heavy influence of Nayanthara when it comes to bold roles, and at the end of the day, it’s me speaking those lines. An actor can change their costume, hair, makeup and look different. But I have only my voice – so however much I change it, it may sound like Nayanthara or Deepa Venkat! We need another person to identify it. Then I try to pitch my voice differently, stress on the words differently, or change how I start or end a line,” said Venkat.
A typical day at the recording studio starts at 2 pm for Venkat. She believes that’s when her voice is at its best, and she does not dub for more than five hours a day. Longer than that, and the freshness in the voice disappears. The voice artist starts to sound dry, the tongue rolls too much and they start stumbling on words. Venkat also carries hot water in a flask and food from home to the studio. In general, she avoids sitting directly in front of AC vents and practises music off and on to keep her voice flexible. It takes anywhere between 3-10 days to dub for a film, depending on the complexity of the role, the screen time of the character and the number of dialogues they have. Some directors also expect different options from the voice artist, said Venkat.
But, despite how integral the voice artist’s work is to a film, there still isn’t a National Award for Best Voice/Dubbing Artist for a feature film. Calling this unfair, Venkat said that even the film industry does not acknowledge the work of voice artists enough. Unlike others in the cast and crew, voice artists don’t even receive invites for previews.
“Other than being credited at the end of the film, there’s no mention or acknowledgment of our work anywhere from production companies. I’m not saying we should be called for publicity, but an acknowledgment would be good,” she said.
Sometimes, even the credit is not given. A big film that Venkat dubbed for recently left her name out of the credit while everyone else’s name was there. Still, Venkat is a happy soul as she travels from star to star, character to character, and studio to studio.
"It all started as a timepass and I can't believe it has become my full-time profession," she said.
Forty minutes into the interview, describing the nuances of dubbing and her experiences in the industry, her voice is still strong. She hasn't stumbled once. She has mimicked several voices and actors, much to the entertainment of this interviewer. She might be invisible on screen, but it's not at all difficult to see why Deepa Venkat is the Lady Superstar of voice.