Among the happier trends in movie-watching down south is the release of films with subtitles. Speaking as someone from Chennai, this is how it used to be. The majority of releases were in Tamil, English and Hindi, but the odd Telugu, Kannada or Malayalam film would find its way here.
It helped if the actors were known. Local boy Kamal Haasan’s films – say, Kokila (Kannada), Maro Charitra (the Telugu original of Ek Duuje Ke Liye) – would almost always get here, and sometimes even a film without stars would break out into a blockbuster. I am thinking about K Viswanath’s musical drama Shankarabharanam (1980, Telugu) and Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (1988, Malayalam).
One went and watched these un-subtitled films without really getting them a hundred per cent, sometimes with a hapless friend who spoke the language. I completely ruined my Malayali friend’s viewing of the Mammootty-starring Malayalam drama Amaram (1990). Every scene, I kept shaking his arm, asking, “So what’s he saying now? So what’s she saying now?”
Subtitles don’t solve these problems entirely. If a film deals with very rooted local culture or if the humour depends on the way a dialect is used, there’s still going to be some loss of information – even with the best subtitler on board. Or else an actor from another state might carry some cultural baggage that’s lost on you, as you haven’t seen his body of work and are just watching this one film.
If a film deals with very rooted local culture or if the humour depends on the way a dialect is used, there’s still going to be some loss of information – even with the best subtitler on board
But that’s the way it is with any film whose language, whose culture you’re removed from – be it French, Korean, Latin American. And with subtitles, we’re at least watching the films around us, peering through the window opened up by the scroll of English text at the bottom of the screen.
All of which brings me to Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s Telugu blockbuster, Pelli Choopulu (Matchmaking), a delightful rom-com that kept me smiling throughout – because this is one genre where subtitles don’t need to account for culture or place or anything but the most basic translation. The genre is such a familiar, airtight construct that you don’t have to worry about too much being lost in translation.
The Hindu’s review pointed out, for instance, that a supporting character spoke a Telangana dialect – but the English equivalents are equally snappy, and the situations are universal. Like this rant by the hero, Prashant, about his ex. “She wasn’t my kind of girl. She was the type who smothers samosas with sauce. The flavour of the samosa is lost. What a waste of money. Why don’t they just gulp down the sauce?”
This rant is delivered in a light-hearted fashion, and that’s how the film is – young, urban, light-hearted. The story is about Prashant and Chitra. They meet in an arranged-marriage setup that neither of them is interested in – shades of Socha Na Tha, here – and the rest of the narrative charts the ups and downs of their relationship.
He’s a good cook. (Hence his earlier rant about samosas and sauce.) She thinks – even if they aren’t getting hitched – that they can get into business with a food truck. She sets out to convince him.
The essence of him and the essence of her are distilled into their clothes. She’s in a super-crisp kurta (a super-bright yellow) worn over jeans. He’s in a T-shirt and shorts, with the drawstring hanging out. She recalls the fish and chips he made one day and says he’d be the perfect partner for the business venture.
But he’s not interested. He’s getting married to an heiress, and he tells Chitra, “It’s a great idea, but I am settled.” A job, for him, is a means of making money, and now that he’s marrying into money, why does he need a job?
All of which brings me to Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s Telugu blockbuster, Pelli Choopulu (Matchmaking), a delightful rom-com that kept me smiling throughout – because this is one genre where subtitles don’t need to account for culture or place or anything but the most basic translation
She asks if he likes the girl. He hasn’t met her yet. Her father has arranged a date later in the day. Chitra asks, “What if you don’t like the girl?” He shrugs. “I’ll adjust. Money is the problem. But if I have money…” Chitra’s retort is wonderful: “I’ll give you free advice.” The word “free” makes the line.
“Free advice” is, of course, a general term, used in any situation, but here, it bounces off what we’ve just learnt about him, his money-mindedness. He smiles. “It’s free, right? Say what you want.”
She hits him with her spiel. That what he’s doing isn’t right. That he’s talented. That he might have to handle the in-laws’ business one day, something he may not enjoy. He says, “Look. Some are born to take up a job. Some to become entrepreneurs. Some just can’t do anything. I am the third type.”
The most beautiful part of this beautifully directed scene is the background music, which is of the third type too. Some music cues mimic, exactly, the graph of a conversation, thundering at dramatic pauses, solo violin-ing at sad declarations. Some music cues are a counterpoint, going west where the conversation goes east. Here, we just hear some aimless humming. The woman’s voice drifts over the scene just like Prashant drifts through life.
Watch the trailer here: