The Kannada film industry is mired in a dubbing row all over again. Two days ahead of the release of Sathyadev IPS, the Kannada dubbed version of Ajith Kumar’s Yennai Arindhaal, a group of industry veterans have threatened mass protests if the release of dubbed films is not stopped.
A powerful lobby of industry veterans, including superstar Shivarajkumar and actor-director Jaggesh came together to announce their strong opposition to dubbed content.
Navarasanayaka Jaggesh, in particular, has engaged in hyperbolic threats, reportedly announcing that he was ready to set on fire theatres that screened dubbed films, and was ready to go to jail for it. Activist Vatal Nagaraj has called for a Sandalwood bandh and a protest rally in Bengaluru on March 11.
Besides claiming that Kannada language and culture were under threat, the lobbying veterans also alleged that the livelihoods of 6,000 professionals in the industry would be in jeopardy if dubbing was allowed.
The anti-dubbing lobby might want to give the issue all the emotional colour of a pro-Kannada culture movement, but activists who oppose the ban insist that it is this lobby that is denying Kannada viewers their language rights. Student, blogger and activist Rakshith S Ponnathpur, for instance, points out that the dubbing ban keeps out not only the latest blockbuster movies but also important informative content like nature shows, historical programmes and social-awareness programmes like Satyameva Jayate.
“How can Kannada kids being denied the opportunity to watch cartoons, nature shows on National Geographic, or shows like Satyamev Jayate be good for Kannada? This is why it’s a part of the language rights question. You can’t make everything in your own language. So there’s nothing wrong in getting things dubbed,” he argues.
Kannada author and columnist Vasant Shetty agrees, pointing out that the dubbing ban was originally put in place at a time when south Indian cinema was produced centrally in Chennai, with Telugu and Tamil investors funding films in those languages and later dubbing them into Kannada.
When the fledgling industry began to establish itself in Bengaluru, the ban helped it find an unimpeded space for growth. “But now we are in 2017, where the Kannada film industry is producing 120-140 films a year, there is a full set-up built here. Now the ban prohibiting dubbing in Kannada should go,” he says.
Contrary to the anti-dubbing lobby’s claims, says Vasant, the absence of dubbed content actually serves to push more audiences towards content in other languages. Taking the example of his own parents, Vasant says that they wanted to watch the Tollywood blockbuster Baahubali in Kannada. But while they couldn’t find the film in Kannada anywhere in their town, nearby Hubballi was playing the film in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. “You are actually forcing people to watch content in other languages, and thus pushing them towards other languages,” he observes.
But if dubbing is so counter-productive for the Kannada language, where is the anti-dubbing lobby coming from? Both Rakshith and Vasant lay the blame on the remake culture that occupies so much of mainstream Kannada cinema.
Rakshith observes that many of the same producers both distribute other language films in Tamil and Telugu, as well as buy the remake rights of these films. “So a year later, they rope in a big actor and release the remakes. And because that actor has a strong following, they make back their investment again. So one script allows them to make money twice,” he points out.
On the contrary, he adds, the younger filmmakers who have brought pride and rejuvenation to the industry, are often either indifferent towards dubbing or supportive of it, as for instance, Lucia director Pawan Kumar has done on more than one occasion.
With respect to the appeal regarding the livelihoods of local artists, activists are quick to call out the hypocrisy. Rakshith points out that besides the big stars, many artists and technicians are often brought in from other industries. And Vasant argues that the entry barriers for those outside certain charmed circles of the Kannada film industry remained impossibly high until 10 years ago, when the growth of internet and social media, the rise of multiplexes and the growing pressures of consumers helped to slowly democratise the space.
Besides, the anti-dubbing lobby is not keen on maintaining quid pro quo on the dubbing issue either. As Last Bus director Arvinda SD points out, “Our film producers are dubbing their films into other languages like Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. So they can’t say that they can’t allow other language films to be dubbed here. Or else it has to be that I won’t dub my movies into other languages, and I won’t let other language films to be dubbed here.”
Of course, much of the emotive hyperbole of the recent appeals comes because the anti-dubbing lobby is on the backfoot, thanks to the efforts of the Kannada Grahakara Koota (KGK), a consumer association. In 2012, the KGK complained to the Competition Commission of India, asking it to restore consumers’ choice to receive content in the language of their choice.
In 2015, the CCI agreed with the KGK that the ban was an anti-competitive practice and should not be enforced. It instructed the Kannada Film Producers’ Association (KFPA), the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC) and the Karnataka Television Association (KTVA) to cease-and-desist enforcing the ban and also imposed stiff penalties on them for it.
KGK President Ganesh Chetan, who spearheaded the campaign, asserts firmly that there’s no call to enter a debate on the pros and cons of dubbing, since the dubbing ban itself is not a legal provision, but an informally enforced rule maintained by the clout of the lobby. “They are not courts, they are not the government. Let them make a law. We will question that in the High Court and the Supreme Court. Let them ban dubbing legally. These guys are like hooligans. They are threatening people, threatening exhibitors,” he says.
At the end of the day, says Arvinda, who is personally not favourably inclined to dubbed films, the law has left the decision up to the individual consumer. “You are paying for what you are buying and watching. So every person who makes that Rs 100 payment and buys the ticket, each individual is responsible for what he’s buying and watching. We can’t rely on one organisation to decide. If people unitedly say they don’t want to watch dubbed movies, and theatres go empty, based on that reaction this whole thing will fall. Till then, that space has to be given to experiment, that experiment has to be completed.”