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It was the late ’80s and in college, a couple of Bihari friends once accosted me in the hostel corridor. They were planning a ‘noon show’ run and wanted to know if a certain Mallu film, Heart for Hire, would be worth the gas and the eight kilometre ride to town. Now Heart for Hire (a literal translation of Vadakakku Oru Hridayam, a purported ‘social’ which had the heavenly Jayabharati in the lead and touched on themes like erectile dysfunction and adultery) turned out to be a little too “innocent” for their liking, but the incongruous English title did tickle the funny bone for a while.
Now, 25 years later it’s Malayalam cinema itself which is vexed over the issue, and it’s not translations: the titles themselves are in English. The Malayali is thinking more in the saayip’s tongue, at least when it comes to movie names. And the state is thinking of closing the gate on it: no more subsidies for the saayips. Now in God’s own country, where everything’s up for debate and argument, this hasn’t gone down well. Filmmakers bristle at the intrusion into their creative rights. How do you justify subsidy to a recent film title like Koothara, some ask, which—not discounting its creative merits or lack thereof—is surely Malayalam but translates to a slur which even Trivandrum lowlife might be a bit shame-faced to use? Or find a plausible desi translation for Ordinary, which revolves around the lives of the ‘ordinary’ (statespeak for ‘local’) bus workers at a hill station? What in ‘thani Malayalam’ can stand in for all this?
So what brought about this sudden surge in Malayalam pride? Could it, dare we say it, have anything to do with the Malayali’s uneasy rapport with the English language, especially onscreen? After all, this is the land where superstars have built careers on their ability to mouth off in the Queen’s tongue, questioning people’s “sense, sensibility, sensitivity” and all; where TV hosts with fake accents and stilted glottises are recalled “by popular demand”.
Unfortunately, this whole controversy comes at a time when ‘Mollywood’ itself is going through a ferment, a new, youngish energy after a long desultory patch. And some of the ‘English film titles’, it has to be said, are part of the revival. Some of the best of the batch, like 22 Female Kottayam or Salt ’n Pepper, to name just two, can hardly be imagined with an alternate Malayalam title. There’s also a case to be made that the English title brigade have been pushing the limits, as it were, on story ideas. What else can explain how a film like Idukki Gold—which in a nutshell is about five ex-pothead school friends getting back together for a trip to score that elusive, mythical weed of the title—ever got the go-ahead? This in a state so uppity that ‘good families’ even today will not admit such a thing exists. The hope, of course, is that when the dust settles, it’ll be good cinema that wins over such trivialities. As the yoga acharya keeps reminding me in another context, when you enter the hall, keep your mind open to possibilities. Inhale, hold for 10, exhale. Sometimes, rarely, it’s pure gold on the screen, isn’t it?
Sasi Nair is associate editor, Outlook; E-mail your columnist: snair [AT] outlookindia [DOT] com