Kannada filmmaker P. Seshadri strongly objects to the word ‘ban’. “It’s an understanding between the distributors, producers and exhibitors,” he says. The national award-winner’s allusion is to the unofficial embargo in Karnataka on dubbed movies and TV serials from other languages, a practice that’s been in place for over 50 years now and has the support of the state’s authors, artistes and filmmakers. “It’s like someone has parked his car in front of your gate. You will object to it even though the road may not belong to you.”
Recently, however, the proscription is in the eye of the storm. Vasant Shetty, a techie and columnist who’s been spearheading an online campaign, calls it the “Talibanisation of Kannada cinema”. He says it’s undemocratic and has no legal sanctity as it has been put in place by private trade bodies like the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC).
It all started in 1960 under the stewardship of legendary actor Dr Rajkumar and writer A.N. Krishnamoorthy, the intention being to give a boost to the then ailing Kannada film industry. Telugu film Maya Bazaar was reportedly the last dubbed film released in Karnataka. The protectionist measure helped the industry move up from making 8-10 films a year to 30-40 in the 1970s. “It led to the golden period of Kannada cinema, when we made good films based on literary works,” says Seshadri. Now, it produces 130-150 films a year—with a success rate of 5-10 per cent.
The embargo helped industry move to 30-40 films a year by the ’70s. Now it makes 150, with a success rate of 10%.
Matters came to a head after the Kannada dubbing of Aamir Khan’s serial Satyameva Jayate was disallowed on the entertainment channel Suvarna TV. Meanwhile, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) too entered the scene after a complaint was lodged with it. It has sent a notice to KFCC and the directors’, producers’ and actors’ associations, seeking to know why dubbed films shouldn’t be released in Karnataka. In response, the Kannada film industry, led by Shivaraj, Rajkumar’s son, took to the streets in Bangalore two weeks back protesting against a possible move to allow dubbing in Kannada.
Embargo supporters like luminaries Girish Karnad, U.R. Ananthamurthy and filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli say it’s a complicated and layered issue. And it’s not as though films in other languages or subtitled programmes aren’t being allowed. What is disallowed is only dubbing of content. “A Bangalorean knows 3-4 languages. Why can’t he watch films in the original, be enriched linguistically?” asks Seshadri. His issue is also with the lack of “aesthetics” in dubbing. “It would be out of sync to see an Aamir or srk mouth lines in Kannada. It murders creativity,” he says. Indeed, Kannada voice-overs for Discovery and cartoon shows on Chintu is a regular practice.
Basically, the idea is to protect the local. “It’s like how Hollywood killed Latin American cinema,” says Kasaravalli. (If it takes Rs 10 crore to make a film, then it’s just Rs 1-2 crore for dubbing rights, which in turn makes local content unviable and affects indigenous industry and jobs.) “Most TV channels are owned by outsiders. Star has a stake in Suvarna, ETV in Colours. They want dubbed shows to flood our channels to cut local programming costs,” says Seshadri.
Other states are putting their foot down too. Andhra Pradesh imposes a 20 per cent entertainment tax on dubbed content (and proposes to raise it to 50 per cent). In Calcutta, Tollywood has protested against the release of the dubbed version of the Hindi film Gunday, citing the same line (local cinema has recently been seeing a revival here).
For those against the embargo, it boils down to a matter of choice. “No vested interest should dictate terms to voiceless citizens in the name of guarding language and culture,” writes Shetty. Kasaravalli says dubbing means the state “will be flooded with C-grade films for which dubbing rights come for peanuts.... What will we achieve by getting access to these vulgar films?” The debate rolls on.