As Hollywood tries to woo India, Bollywood stars turn Mowgli and Sher Khan in The Jungle Book

Image: Facebook/The Jungle Book
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Imagine Sam Neill warning his friends about a T-Rex in the Hindi version of Steven Speilberg’s 1993 cult classic Jurassic Park. Would he say, “Bhaagodirghakaya rengnevala janwar jo ab nahin paya jata aa raha hai (“Run, a large-bodied, crawling animal that has gone extinct is coming”!)?“. 

Unlikely, because chances are that Neill’s friends may not get to hear him out fully.

But the problem is that there isn’t a specific Hindi word for a dinosaur. Hence, the dubbed television version of the seminal movie simply called the marauding monster “badi chipkali”—big lizard

And ever since, ”badi chipkali” has stuck to popular imagination among Hindi speakers. 

Dubbing producer Ashim Samanta, however, detests the coinage, and describes it as an example of the early amateurishness in rendering of Hollywood films in Indian languages. “TV channels used their own dubbing artists at low costs and quality, and this created a bad impact on audiences and threw the market for dubbed films,” Samanta said.

That tackiness is now a thing of the past. The mini-industry that has sprung up around dubbed Hollywood in India has its own rules, brand names, and star system. A-list Hollywood releases, especially the franchises, are almost routinely released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. In fact, Indian language versions can contribute between 40% and 45% of the domestic box office for such movies.

There have been attempts at new languages, such as Bhojpuri for Spider-Man 3, Bengali for Jurassic World, and Malayalam for Exodus: Gods and Kings. The comic book adaptation Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which opened on March 24, has been dubbed, as will be the upcoming Kung Fu Panda 3 (April 1), The Jungle Book (April 8), and Angry Birds (June 3).

American movie studios want to expand their market in India in the same way that dubbing has conquered the lucrative Chinese territory.

Dubbed content is in greater demand by television channels, said a studio head on the condition of anonymity. “The market for dubbed films is incremental, and the audiences have been growing over the years, but there are limitations in terms of the genres. Films with cerebral content, like Inception, historicals and sci-fi films don’t perform that well, for instance.”

The Hindi version of The Jungle Book, which opens on April 8, is making every effort to be seen as a Hollywood production with local talent rather than yet another dubbed film. The live action adaptation is based on Disney’s popular 1967 animated film, which in turn was based on Rudyard Kipling’s books. The new version stars American child actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli and top-line Hollywood voices for Mowgli’s friends and foes, including Idris Elba as Sher Khan the tiger, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the python, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, and Bill Murray as Baloo the bear.

Rather than using voice artists for Hindi, Disney India signed up Nana Patekar as Sher Khan, Priyanka Chopra as Kaa, Irrfan as Baloo and Om Puri as Bagheera. The dialogue for Hindi has been written by Mayur Puri, in a departure from the convention of merely using a rough translation of the original script.

Disney has also appropriated the extremely popular title song of the Hindi animated series broadcast on Doordarshan in 1993. The catchy song was composed by Bollywood director Vishal Bhardwaj and written by legendary lyricist Gulzar. Patekar was also the voice of Sher Khan in the TV series.

However, the use of celebrity voices is still the exception rather than rule in India. Hollywood studios have occasionally used big names as marketing hooks for animated films, a genre that remains underdeveloped in India. Sony Pictures roped in Shah Rukh Khan as the lead character for The Incredibles in 2004, while Fox Star Studios used singers Shaan and Sunidhi Chauhan for Rio in 2011. The celebrity endorsement did not reel in audiences, though.

Besides, the absence of prominent names behind microphones has not prevented moviegoers from patronising Hollywood’s lavishly produced and visual effects-heavy extravaganzas in more familiar tongues. Indian versions of movies such as The Karate Kid, Furious 7 and Jurassic World were big hits.

“There is initially a disconnect between the language and the colour of the skin, but that wears off after a few minutes,” said Samanta, who has worked on several franchises, including Jurassic Park, Transformers, The Avengers, Iron Man, Mission: Impossible and James Bond. “Once you get involved with the story, it doesn’t matter. Many people who speak both English and Hindi prefer the Hindi version because the English accent is often difficult to follow.”

Dubbing producers cannot get too imaginative with the translated versions. But efforts to localise American pop culture references and play with accents have reduced the gap between Hollywood and a country that sways to Bollywood. “There is very little flexibility in terms of the content, obviously, but we do play with the Hindi dialect—for instance, instead of plain Hindi, we use a Punjabi accent or a generic South Indian one,” Samanta said.

Sometimes, the nature of the film allows for creative liberties. Eliza Lewis, who works closely with Warner Bros and whose most recent effort is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, gave the example of the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum (2006), which was released only in Hindi in India. “We didn’t stick to the script and made it as filmy as possible,” Lewis said. “I got a lot of feedback from parents who went with their kids for the movie in Hindi and thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Of course, the success of a dubbed movie depends on the strength of the original narrative. If a movie is poorly written and acted, it won’t even work in its original language, as proven by the failure of recent releases such as Fantastic Four and Gods of Egypt in India.

Action movies, superhero spectacles and fantasy adventures featuring the singular ability of Hollywood to conjure up unseen worlds work best with Indian audiences. “Dubbed action films have a very good market, but love stories, dramas and romcoms don’t work,” Samanta said. “I remember that Universal in India wanted to dub Forrest Gump, but when we watched it, we advised against it.”

Dubbing producers double up as directors to ensure that a movie is as effective in the local language as in the original. Mona Ghosh Shetty works closely with Samanta in creating the perfect match between what is being seen and what is being said. “The audiences we are catering to don’t really know the Hollywood actors, and all they want is to understand the story and enjoy it,” said Ghosh Shetty who is also a voice artist, having dubbed for Cameron Diaz, Milla Jovovich, Angelina Jolie, Katrina Kaif and Jacqueline Fernandez.

Ghosh Shetty is especially proud of Deadpool, the smash hit comedy starring Ryan Reynolds. An irreverent takedown of the superhero genre, Deadpool posed challenges for the dubbing artists. “You are dealing with adult content and abusive language and stuff that we are not familiar with in India,” Ghosh Shetty said. Sanket Mhatre voiced the cheeky anti-hero, while Mayank Jain wrote the Hindi script. “It did very well and is one of the most successful Hollywood films to be dubbed in Hindi,” Ghosh Shetty said.

The new star system

Dubbed Hollywood has become entrenched enough to create an alternate star system. One of the most popular voices of Hollywood in Hindi is actor Shaktee Singh, who has performed for every Bond character and George Clooney. “Good language and enunciation make the film easier to understand,” said Singh, who has also appeared in films and television serials. “You have to give a sense of the personality of the original character and actor.”

Also immensely popular is Rajesh Khattar. He is a familiar face as one of the villains in Don (2006) and the much-loved voice of Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean films, Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man and Michael Fassbender in the X-Men Reboot. Khattar has also voiced the wolf Akayla in The Jungle Book.

Khattar said he was touched by the efforts of his fans to list his achievements as a voice artist. “When I saw the Wikipedia page on myself, I said, shit, even I don’t know how much work I have done,” he said.

Other such artistes are Samay Thakkar (Bane in The Dark Knight Returns and Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman) and Viraj Adhav (Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible movies).

Despite the fandom, voice actors mostly labour away in anonymity, with their achievements restricted to the end credits. “The big difference lies in the pay cheque and the billing in the credits,” Khattar said. “I have been voicing for a decade, and if you don’t get good billing, it does hurt.”

Disney’s experiment with using celebrities poses a challenge to their careers. The preference for big-name voices is part of a general obsession with film celebrities in all aspects of popular entertainment, Shaktee Singh pointed out.

Disney’s gambit with The Jungle Book is easily understood: here is a potential blockbuster with an Indian setting and characters and top-of-the-line visual effects. The Jungle Book is being released in India a week before America, and its strongest marketing ploy is the return-to-sender quality of the project.

Although The Jungle Book series was written by Rudyard Kipling when he was in the US, they drew from his childhood in colonial-era India. No Indian filmmaker has attempted to present a local perspective on Mowgli’s adventures in the forest and his subsequent absorption into the human world.

Until that happens, a dubbed version of a Hollywood vision will have to serve the purpose.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.