Art & Entertainment

‘Pathaan’s Subtitler Nasreen Munni Kabir: Bad Subtitles Can Ruin Good Film, Good Subtitles Can't Save Bad One

The UK-based author, Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has penned English subtitles for Shah Rukh Khan's latest film "Pathaan", said audiences "rely" on subtitles to explore cinema from different regions and countries especially in the post-pandemic era.

Nasreen Munni Kabir

Subtitles in films help in bridging the gap between languages, says veteran documentary filmmaker and translator Nasreen Munni Kabir, who credits streaming platforms for giving due importance to the translated written dialogue on screen.

The UK-based author, who has penned English subtitles for Shah Rukh Khan's latest film "Pathaan", said audiences "rely" on subtitles to explore cinema from different regions and countries especially in the post-pandemic era.

"Subtitles have become very, very important. There was resistance even in the West... I will credit streaming channels Amazon, Netflix... You see web series from Korea, Israel, Finland, and you rely on the storytelling through subtitles," Kabir told PTI in an interview.

"Our great filmmaker Satyajit Ray. In the '50s and '60s, when he made those masterpieces his films mainly ran in Bengal. Today, they are run all over India because of subtitles. Bad subtitles can ruin a good film and good subtitles cannot save a bad one," she added.

While the pandemic ravaged the film exhibition industry, streamers emerged as the alternate screen with access to international and domestic content across languages at the audience's disposal on a click.

The industry veteran -- known for authoring book-length biographical conversations with Javed Akhtar, Lata Mangeshkar, and Waheeda Rehman -- said subtitling has to be "good and subtle".

"Korean films are very popular, why? It's subtitling... You will not go and see Godard (noted French director Jean-Luc Godard) or Wenders (German filmmaker Wim Wenders) in Finnish. You will see their films in French or German," the India-born filmmaker added.

Kabir, who bats for watching a film with subtitles over its dubbed version, said it's important for viewers to respect the original language because "the director has directed the acting in that language".

"In dubbing, it's a totally different performance. The person who is giving the performance to the dubber has not moved across the terrain or battlefield or wherever the scene is and physically comes out with the dialogue," said the translator, whose next work is in Mani Ratnam's "Ponniyin Selvan - II".

"He is sitting in a studio and he's saying so the emotion that man will have in dubbing may be very proficient, very good but he's not connected to the body. It's a dismembered performance. So, you must always see the film in the original (language)," she argued.

There was a time, Kabir said, in the Indian context when many people didn't take subtitles seriously.

"When the films went abroad and the subtitles were really bad and difficult to understand, poor English... Ultimately, the target language has to be good. If you're speaking Gujarati very well, you are not writing subtitles in Gujarati, you are writing them in English."

Subtitles should also "not flatten things culturally", she added.

Citing the example of Guru Dutt's 1960 classic "Chaudhvin Ka Chand", Kabir said one of the dialogues had Johnny Walker say "Arre miyaan", which was subtitled as "Hey, dude!"

"To me, that's totally shocking. You have completely ruined the era, period of the film. You try to make it out as if it's New York, when you have these people wearing kurta-pyjamas in Lucknow."


Kabir, also popular for directing documentaries on Guru Dutt and Shah Rukh, is impressed by the rise of the Indian documentary circuit.

Acclaimed climate change documentary “All That Breathes”, directed by Shaunak Sen, and Kartiki Gonsalves' “The Elephant Whisperers”, which explores the heartfelt bond between man and animal, recently made it to final five in the best documentary feature and best documentary short subject sections at the upcoming Academy Awards, respectively.

"It's wonderful that there is a (trend) about recording Indian lives," the filmmaker said, adding she wants to next watch "While We Watched", Vinay Shukla's documentary on veteran journalist Ravish Kumar.

Documentaries are important because they record the time and people who are involved with the process, she said.

"Documentaries can be very lyrical and poetic. When you have a documentary that's poetic it will really linger in your mind more than a feature film. Because a feature film is made up, it's a fake world. Documentary is not a fake world. You are recording reality and that is very exciting," she added.

Kabir was in India to participate in the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival.

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