How India Learned to Read Subtitles

In India, cinema speaks many languages. “To have not seen the films of Satyajit Ray,” Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese director, once said, “is to have lived in the world without ever having seen the moon and the sun.” Yet I know Ray’s moons and suns simply because we spoke the same language. The Calcutta filmmaker made most of his movies in Bengali, and growing up in a Bengali family, I didn’t need subtitles to understand Aparajito or Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. It was like being from Liverpool and learning about Paul McCartney. Ray was ours. Similarly, friends from Kerala grew up venerating Malayalam masters like G. Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. We stayed away from each other’s great movies because of limited access, horrid subtitling, and linguistic alienation.

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The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way India watches movies. The Hindi film industry—headquartered in Mumbai, formerly called Bombay, therefore named “Bollywood”—is losing its hold. Over the last four years, movies and stars from the southern states—primarily the Telugu and Tamil industries, with the Malayalam industry not far behind—have taken over the commercial and critical reins. They are the ones with the buzz, the momentum, and, quite frankly, usually the better movies. At this moment, Hindi cinema appears to be observing, imitating, and being schooled.

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Traditionally, Indian television channels are categorized into national and regional ones, the latter term even used for channels beamed across India, but in a different language. National channels are broadcast in Hindi and English, and occasionally show regional films with rudimentary English subtitles. As a result, viewers had long largely stayed in their own lanes. The emergence of streaming television in the 2000s and 2010s enabled platforms to take pre-existing libraries of films and serve them up better subtitled—and better dubbed in various languages—in order to find more of an audience. But the pace began to dramatically pick up in 2020.

“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” said Bong Joon-Ho in January of that year, lifting a Golden Globe for Parasite. Weeks later, the pandemic hit. Indians were confined to their homes from March to May in nationwide lockdowns. With theaters closed until at least October and new content not being filmed, audiences grew bored of reruns and restless for something fresh—which, they soon discovered, already existed.

Outsiders often mistake Indian cinema for “Bollywood,” one homogeneous song-and-dance riot. But of the roughly 2,000 movies made in India every year, less than a fourth are in Hindustani, the Hindi-Urdu blend spoken across large parts of northern India. There are other “-woods.” The Malayalam film industry is called Mollywood, the Kannada industry Sandalwood, the Tamil industry Kollywood, and both Telugu and Bengali industries lay claim to the nickname Tollywood.

Indians have long been so parochial that instead of watching movies in languages we do not know, we would remake them instead. Commercially successful romances, comedies, and action movies have, for decades, been routinely made over and over again in other Indian languages, each cover version adding cultural specificity and local flavor. But Indians began losing their taste for remakes as better subtitled moves took off. A viewer in Delhi could turn to Malayalam and Maharashtrian cinema to scratch an arthouse itch, and Telugu and Tamil blockbusters for an old-school escapist experience. Many Indians even went from their daily soap operas toward Korean and Turkish dramas.

The nation’s taste evolved—or so it seemed. Audiences at home started demanding more interesting content, while filmmakers and actors known in their own states started enjoying national celebrity. However, despite audiences being more discerning with what they were watching at home, they were simultaneously tired of staying in. Even though COVID vaccines rolled out in 2021, audiences were wary of returning to movie theaters. By 2022, they were starved. They longed for something larger than their television sets, a phenomenon they could share as a collective. This is when the Telugu epic RRR landed. Here was scale, here was action, here was dodgy right-wing historical revisionism, all presented as a massive three-ring circus. For the first time, India marched to theaters to watch a Telugu film.

Indian cinema has always clamoured for stars, placing popular actors—mostly men—on a pedestal, and treating tentpole movie releases like festivals. This is a country where actual temples are built to honour actors—there is one for Tamil star Rajinikanth in Karnataka, for instance, and one for Hindi star Amitabh Bachchan in Kolkata—but it is only now that the worshippers are crossing over.

RRR kicked off a wave of Telugu and Tamil films at the box-office, leading to a new buzzword: the “pan-Indian” hit that scores across the audience (and the diaspora). These are bombastic films that are unabashedly loud and violent, films that literally worship their stars and leave absolutely no room for subtlety. Pan-India hits include K.G.F.: Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, Pushpa: The Rise, and Leo. They are the kind of films Hindi cinema had left behind in the 1980s and 1990s, only done much more slickly—and with theater-shaking sound-design—by filmmakers who have nailed the blockbuster formula. Hindi cinema is now trying its best to keep up with the volume.

This nationwide shift away from Hindi cinema is in dramatic contrast with the linguistic hegemony the government is trying to impose. India has 23 official languages including English, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration is trying to make Hindi the lingua franca. Not only do all government communications increasingly feature Hindi more prominently, but a newly outlined National Education Policy intends to make learning Hindi compulsory in schools, even in states where it is not otherwise spoken.

Cinema, then, might be offering a resistance.

Right as we started to watch our best subtitled movies, we also started indulging once again in movies so deafening that they don’t need subtitles. But, at the very least, we are looking beyond what we knew. Where we once chose our very own moons and suns and stars, we are now sharing our constellations. We’re gazing at a larger sky.

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