I’m not sure when this started because I don’t watch much tv, but English programmes on a number of channels in India — definitely those in the Star bouquet like Star World — telecast shows with subtitles in English. Yep. When you switch on the tv, you can watch an American show in which the dialogues are all in English with English subtitles. This suggests that Star is of the belief that the majority of its viewing population is hearing impaired. Because really, why else would you need English subtitles for an English programme? Of course, the tragedy is that those who are actually hearing impaired and watching Star World are up for some serious confusion because the subtitlers’ notion of English is, let us say, patchy. Consequently, it’s an “actress slash model” instead of “actress/model” and references are made to a “mother/son relationship”, as in one that presumably has either mother or son. Then there are the typos: “Didn’t I just meet you on a yatch?” These are very, very mild examples from what I saw just now when I turned on Star World to check out the subtitling. Fingers crossed that something more typical will show up by the time I’ve finished writing because there have been some gems over the past few days but I have the memory of a doorknob.

When I went to watch “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, I discovered the subtitling rash has spread to movies as well. Consequently, I had to deal with seeing Eli Wallach being referred to as “Julie” in the subtitles that eat up a quarter of the screen. I’m reasonably certain that giving Jules Steinhardt a nickname (Juley, perhaps?) wasn’t supposed to turn him into a woman. Plus, since about 80% of the dialogues were correctly subtitled, Julie notwithstanding, they emphasised how bad the dialogues in “Wall Street” really were. And I don’t mean just the bit where the hero Jacob (Shia LaBoeuf) breaks into Chinese in order to impress some Chinese investors. (Because that’s what clinches a deal worth billions of dollars: leaning over and spouting a fortune cookie proverb.)

For example, there’s a point at which Josh Brolin takes Shia LaBoeuf aside to tell him that the Chinese investors’ money is not going to LaBoeuf’s pet project but to another company (despite the Chinese proverb. Imagine that). LaBoeuf is upset and accuses Brolin of being a creep. Brolin (roughly speaking): “I saw so much potential in you.” LaBoeuf (equally roughly speaking): “You should look at yourself in the mirror. You’d see what scum you are.” Er, ok. Brolin’s scum because he saw LaBoeuf has potential?

I’m not even dipping my toe into how director Oliver Stone would have us believe that the CEO of an investment bank would go racing with a random employee to tell him his pitch didn’t work while the American economy faces a meltdown. “Amar Akbar Anthony“, with its three brothers separated at birth and reunited by circumstances, might have had a more logical plot than “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”. Ok, admittedly it was internal logic that operated only within the Manmohan Desai vision of the world but at least it was there. Stone seems to have no idea of what happens on Wall Street today or investment banking. Even I can tell that, and all I’ve done is read “The Big Short” and “Too Big To Fail“. “The Big Short” is outstanding, by the way.

One of the most perplexing bits of “Wall Street” to me was Stone’s wishy-washiness about whether Gekko is cool or not. On one hand, he’s eyed with the admiration reserved for prophets by LaBoeuf and his friend while Brolin and others think he’s pathetic. Surely we can have some sort of consensus, given all these characters are Wall Street insiders who are judging Gekko by the kind of insight he offers into the economic downturn? Gekko’s supposed to have the last laugh when he manages to make a billion dollars while everyone else basically withers and dies.  Except Stone doesn’t bother to tell us how he managed to do that. So I’m not convinced, no matter how much gel Michael Douglas uses to slick back his hair. Then, at the end of the movie, Gekko turns into a fairy godmother. With his silver tongue and a donation of $100 million to alternative energy, he solves all problems and ensures a happy ending. All that’s missing is a sparkly wand that he can whoosh about.

But more curious than what Oliver Stone’s notion of investment bankers is the fact that, apparently, only the PVR cinema at Lower Parel shows subtitled prints. Friends saw “Wall Street” in Nariman Point; no subtitles. So according to PVR, people who come to watch films in Lower Parel only understand written English? Meanwhile, a few kilometres away, Nariman Point’s exposure levels are so dramatically different that they can penetrate the American accent and get the dialogues without subtitles. Bizarre.

Fittingly though, as I came out of “Wall Street”, I overheard some chaps giggling about how silly the film was and how it was totally unaware of how things happen in reality. Then one of them, who is clearly in a hedge fund of sorts, said, “By the way, you know what happened for the first 40 minutes of our meeting with the National Pension Fund guys? Keep in mind, this is the National Pension Fund of Korea, fourth-largest in the world, the guys who are putting $300 million into the US market. For 40 minutes, they whined to us about how no one comes to visit them. They whined. Like a teenage girl trying to get a new iPhone from Daddy. They’re dying to spend their money. All anyone has to do is go to them. That’s it. Just meet them.”

It’s like he was the Indian Gordon Gekko.

5 thoughts on “Out of line

  1. I assumed that the subtitles on Star were because of the accent. They’re not assuming that their audience is hearing impaired, but that they might have difficulty understand the Western accent. Nothing else seems to make sense, right?

    And I think it’s true a lot also… even my mom has a hard time understanding the Western accent. She downloads English subtitles along with the movies she downloads, and sometimes, so do I. There are times when the actors on shows that I watch as really speaking low, or fast, or whatever, when I just can’t understand a particular dialogue, so I download the subtitles. 😛

    • Here’s the thing. It’s not that I think the American accent (aside from a few programmes like Masterchef, it’s all American) has to be comprehensible to everyone but I don’t think it’s THAT impenetrable. If we were getting programmes from Glaswegian tv, I’d be all for subtitles. But these are reasonably neutral American accents (as in not types like the Texan twang). It may demand that we listen more closely, which is attention that “Bones” doesn’t deserve admittedly. But that’s a separate matter. The point is, most often it takes a little more viewer attention, that’s all. Might be a better idea to push yourself that little bit considering the quality of subtitling in particular. Yesterday I saw one that read “You couldn’t have it wrong” when the guy actually said “You couldn’t be more wrong.”

      • Hi there,

        I remember wishing that Brokeback Mountain had come with subtitles. And I must admit that sometimes I switch on the subtitles out of sheer laziness.

        And I think my Mum would definitely prefer the subtitles because she does find accents – even the ubiquitious American accent – fairly impenetrable. Though, of course, even with subtitles I don’t think she would get Wall Street – she would need phone-a-friend tool. There is a business opportunity for the entrepreneurial.

        The thing is, I think my Mum is a more typical television watcher than you and I. She is quite indiscriminating in her choice of programming, she even watches advertisements and then buys those things. I bet you don’t 😉

  2. Chetna, I’m glad you mentioned Brokeback Mountain because I think movies often are very difficult to understand because many actors mumble. I think many Americans would find a lot of Brokeback Mountain difficult to figure out word for word. Television acting, on the other hand, is easier on the viewer, I think.

    You’re probably right about the typicality point but I still don’t think subtitles are necessary. It makes us lazier viewers and I repeat, they’re frequently wrong.

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