In Conversation with Rekhs, the Doyen of Subtitling in South India (Part 1): On Subtitling-the Journey, Process, Challenges, Milestones Etc.

Rekhs is someone who hardly needs any introduction as far as people who have been following Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu cinema are concerned. After all she is the one who has gone on to bring subtitling to the attention of the common viewer so wonderfully. In a relatively interesting span of 6+ years she has already gone on to take care of the subtitling for more than 350 films, mainly across Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu. This Friday (22nd July) sees the release of Pa.Ranjith’s Kabali, one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year and this is again a film which has seen the involvement of Rekhs. Here in the first part of our conversation with Rekhs she shares a lot of insights on how it all started, how her journey has been so far, the challenges that she has faced and some remarkable films that she has been part of so far.

RekhsWhy don’t you tell us how the whole entry into the world of subtitling happened in your case?

Well my husband Haricharan had made a Tamil film called Thoovaanam (2007) and till then I did not really have any formal film background. Of course I did know a lot of actors and their families, but I had never made use of these contacts in any manner as such. Not only veterans like Sivaji Ganesan and Muthuraman, I have even known people like Suriya, Gnanavel Raja, Ajith, Vikram, director Bala etc long before they  made it big. I am actually a professionally qualified fashion designer and ran “Sankalp” for 23 years. I worked with my husband and popular DOP Madhu Ambat on Thoovanam and that is when I was actually made to look into colour co-ordination. At the end of the shoot I was asked to also subtitle the film as otherwise it was to be sent to NFDC in Mumbai for the same.

Later my friend Krishnan Seshadri Gomatam, the director of Mudhal Mudhal Mudhal Varai (2009) and the popular music video “Ho Gayi Hai Mohabbat” recommended a short filmmaker to meet me. This short film (Bimbam) had a lot of swear words and I did not even know the meanings of most of them then. But the film did go on to win a lot of recognition. After this Krishnan Seshadri asked me to contact Gautham Vasudev Menon, he was working on Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (2010) then. VTV went on to be a great experience for me. Post VTV I went on to meet a lot of people for work but nothing much happened till Shankar gave me Endhiran (2010). This was a film which made me popular, even people in places like Mumbai were able to enjoy the film thanks to the subtitles.

Mammootty suggested that I should try and work on Malayalam films as well; hence I decided to expand and spread my wings. I built my team and took in more people, going on to cover the other Southern languages as well.  After VTV and Endhiran people started taking notice of me and my work, hence a lot of films came my way, social media has also been a big help in helping me reach out to people and vice versa. Of the 350 + films that I have done so far, around 200 have been done independently by me while the remaining 150 odd have been done by my daughter and my team.

So was there any particular entity which offered technical support to you to start with? Can you share some details of how the process of subtitling works?

Sanjay Wadhwa of AP International, one of the biggest distributors of Tamil cinema overseas as well as a leading Home Video player has been extremely helpful to me. Starting with R.S.Entertainment- K.V.Anand’s Ko (2011) we started doing a lot of work together. He gave me access to all the equipment I needed, in turn I went on to train his staff at AP International. I taught them formatting, improved their proficiency in English etc. Towards the end of 2011, NFDC closed their subtitling department in Chennai, making the market all the more open to new entrants.

Normally it takes around 12-16 hours to check the subtitling work of any film. This is a profession which sees odd hours, especially thanks to the kind of demanding deadlines as well as the ways and methods in which one gets access to content. Personally I prefer working reel by reel for any film and write down every dialogue, especially where a lot of overlap happens. I talk to an A.D whenever necessary. So this initial work takes about 4 days, following which it is time coded at AP International. Nowadays dual subtitling also happens (like Arabic +English in Gulf Countries or Malay + English in Malaysia).I introduced the use of yellow layout for the subtitles instead of white that most others do as yellow makes it more clear for reading and even Worldwide yellow is preferred, borrowing a page from Netflix.

In Arabic the process of writing is very different from that of English (from right to left,instead of left to right) and though I don’t really know the language, I do have to look and monitor the same side by side, especially since the subtitles of both the languages should not overlap or run into each other in the film. Gender coding also happens along with formatting and coding. ASCI format is checked and then the output is sent to Real Image where I go and check the film with subtitles, going back to API to make changes if needed. Overall the whole process of subtitling a film takes around 7-10 days end to end. I have gone on to develop software for subtitling along with API and that’s now quite useful while working. One must however note that knowing English is not the only requisite for a subtitlist.

When you aren’t sure of certain words how do you manage? Do you check with the dialogue writer and or director? Or is there some other way to manage it?

At times I do tend to take the help of one of the A.Ds who is good with the language and knows the requirement, so that he/she can help with doubts on certain words if need be. When it comes to songs I often take inputs from lyricists like Karky, Yugabharathi and Thamarai. Very rarely do I have to check for doubts with the director directly as usually the A.Ds are quite helpful.

Why should songs be subtitled especially duets? And why do you think a lot of subtitlists don’t do it? How do you go about subtitling songs? You don’t generally use a literal translation and bring in some innovation-how does it happen?

Songs add to the whole story, sometimes even taking the narrative forward. People may be curious to know what the songs probably mean. Hence I feel it is important to subtitle songs as well. I have always had a flair for poetry and insist on rhyming, in case of Malayalam films Latha (Latha Ambat, wife of Madhu Ambat) translates the song and leaves it to me to rhyme. Then I rhyme more with a gut feeling as I don’t know Malayalam but since Malayalam films are so poignant in their content

I get it 80-90% right. Then Latha checks the meaning. In fact why we make a good pair is she is so eloquent with the translation be it song or dialog, she uses words like “cockles of my heart”. When I check her work with the visuals beside the word doc and I don’t understand the meaning of a particular dialogue I tell her “no way will the viewer get this, cos I didn’t”

There are so many legendary musicians and lyricists who have come up with such wonderful songs over the years, so we should do justice to them. Songs should not be just literally translated. Whenever I get to listen to the songs of the film I’m working on, I try to spend an entire day listening to them, trying to work out subtitles for them. I do keep in mind that bad subtitling can also spoil the impact of a film; hence I try to be very careful especially while working on songs.Maybe not everyone agrees with my points and that could be a reason why not everyone ensures that songs are subtitled as well.

My mother being editor of Macmillan helped cos I was made to read an English story book every day from when I was 8 years to 18 years! after which it became a habit like brushing my teeth! And I started writing poetry when I was 7. I would read out the poem to amma and appa, we would have a great time laughing! So I started thinking in English! When I was 8 my poem on keeping our city clean was translated in Swedish language and I was paid Rs 250 which seemed like a lottery to me then.

If we don’t rhyme songs how then is it different from the dialogues?

How will non Tamilians know the glory of Kannadasan, Vaali, Vairamuthu?

I don’t go into literal translation ‘cos I get into the mood of the song, situation and soul of the story. If just mundane verbatim translation it loses its charm

For example in Kabali:

Veera thurandhara

ennai aalum nirandhaaraa became

“Galahad, the gallant knight

Our ruler with wisdom and might”

Galahad is someone the westerners would relate to immediately

Thooya Naraiyilum

Kadhal Malarudhe

“Though ageing gracefully

love still blooms graciously”

Ageing gracefully is a well used term. Graciously is how one accepts a compliment!

So besides the rhyming it shouldn’t be contrived. That’s the beauty of song-subs.

Rekhs 2What role does the director play in subtitling? Does he/she have to “approve” the final work?

To be honest most directors do not actually check the final work especially considering that it is completed so close to the film’s release at times. But there are exceptions of course; Gautham Vasudev Menon does like to always check the final output. K.V.Anand worked closely with me during Anegan (2015), especially for the “Danga Maari” song. Sathya Prabhas Pinisetty of Yagavarayinum Naa Kaakka (2015) is another recent example of someone who likes to check the work. Some of the other directors also probably prefer not to check the final work as they probably place a lot of trust in my workJ.

How do you handle comedy while subtitling?

Actually handling comedy is very tough and sometimes complicated as well. Take for example when you have someone like Santhanam who speaks so fast, often coming up with terms which are new and then the process is tough yet interesting. I tend to write down all that is clear and known to me in one go, then reading it to see for myself if I find it funny enough. If I don’t find it funny myself then I certainly believe that it has to be redone all over again.

What are the some of the main challenges when you talk about subtitling of movies?

First of all working odd hours, often tackling tough time lines is quite a challenge. Balancing personal life/time with your family along with working at a stretch for 8-10 days on film after film through the year is quite taxing. And of course when there are often changes brought in at the last minute (due to various reasons), it only adds to the confusion and throws the regular routine totally off track. In my case I think I got into the field at the right time, with my family being well settled or else it could have been much tougher to handle. And of course ensuring readability remains one of the biggest challenges for a subtitlist.

Coming up soon is Part 2 of the conversation with Rekhs where she talks about competition in the field, some of the people and films she’s enjoyed working with, recognition for subtitling work and of course the experience of working on Kabali.

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