Subtitles: a gritty 90s flashback

In the era of OTT platforms, Metrolife looks at what things were like two decades ago

OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Alt Balaji are booming. There is money in the industry and big names like Disney, Apple and HBO are jumping on the bandwagon.

Most of these OTT channels hope to cut across regions and languages, and so subtitles have become an important part of movie-watching.

The fact that many people watch films with subtitles even if they know the language of the film suggest that subtitling is here to stay.

But as recent as 20 years ago, subtitles were unimaginable as a component of movie-watching. 

While now there are multiple centres that provide high-quality subtitles, getting good subtitles done back then was as much as a struggle as finding a place to create them.

Metrolife spoke to Malayalam filmmaker Rajeev Anchal, who detailed on what subtitling was like a couple of decades ago.

The path-breaking film

When Anchal made Guru in 1997, he was creating his own genre.

The film starts out as a standard social-realist take on communal violence. Raghuram (played by Mohanlal), who became an extremist because his family was killed in communal violence, takes refuge in an ashram while trying to escape.

An inmate of the ashram, who gets to know about his life, asks him to meditate a little before he leaves.

When he does, he is transported to an alternate universe where all the people are blind.

The rest of the film is about how he leads them to sight, which serves as a metaphor for the politically torn real world.

The film’s unusual innovation made it a cult classic and it became India’s official entry to the Oscars for that year.

However, subtitles were going to be trouble.

“At that time, there was no social media or channels like this. Newspapers were the only media. Kochumon from Century films, one of the then members of the Film Federation of India, called me up and told me it was India’s official entry to the Oscars,” Anchal says.

“They were 400 films from all the states that year and ‘Guru’ was selected from that. Back then, when you are selected as the Indian entry, the big issue is finding someone to subtitle your film. In 1997, no one in regional cinema subtitled their films.

“There was one group that used to do it in Bombay, their office was near the NFDC office. But they had no comprehensive grasp of the language. They translated by the word and not by the sentence, and the meaning would be changed.

“This was before the time of digital subtitles. At that time, subtitles used to be embossed on to the print.

“When we called those people, they were not taking any bookings because they had too many to finish on their hand already. The deadline was fast-approaching and I realised I had to go to Bombay to figure things out.

“In Bombay, a friend of mine took me to someone who said he could do quality subtitles. We sat with him day and night till we got subtitles of manageable quality.

“I had to courier the film to Los Angeles but by the time it would reach there, it would be too late. So I packed it off with my friend’s wife who was teaching at a university in Los Angeles.

“Although neither me nor my team was present there, ‘Guru’ got up to four screenings there. People who heard about the film’s content came to watch. 

“My friend’s wife was tracking the film’s journey through LA and told us there were two main reasons the film did not get a nomination. One was that my film was ‘dubbed’ when Hollywood had moved on to sync sound. Sync sound had not reached Kerala then. Second was the poor quality of the subtitles,” Anchal says.

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