Dubbing artists: Forgotten voices of Indian cinema

Giving Voice to Visuals

Cinema

February 17, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Dubbing artists: Forgotten voices of Indian cinema

Identity of a voice artist in India remains behind screens (Photo Credits: Sunitha Upadrashta)

Indian cinema has always been dominated by the star actors and many others, especially those behind the camera, are simply forgotten. Dubbing artists who render actors and their iconic dialogues immortal, are amongst the unseen heroes of Indian films.

Anthena? Inkem kavali? Veelaithe nalugu maatalu. Kudirithe cup coffee?” (in Tamil) means “That’s it? What else do you want? A small chat if possible? A cup of coffee if feasible?”

This dialogue from Telugu film Bommarillu, director Bhaskar’s 2006 blockbuster, was an instant rage. So much so that media reports said that close to half a million people had set these lines as their ringtone/caller tune.

Genelia D’Souza’s expressions on-screen, complemented by the squeaky, highly enthusiastic voice, rendered the character an immediate hit among the masses.

But not many know that it was Savitha Radhakrishnan, a voice or dubbing artist, and not Genelia, a popular Hindi movie actress, herself who delivered the dialogues, behind the screens.

Whether it’s Genelia, Simran, Aishwarya Rai or Rana Daggubati, it is through the voice artists that audiences have heard some of their biggest stars speak. Most cinema-goers rarely hear of dubbing artists, who breathe life into characters with their voice, while staying behind the silver screen.

“We’ve heard their voices in many films, we’ve even memorised dialogues and mimicked the exact intonation in which they’ve said it but most times, we do not know their names or their faces,” says Manoj Negi, a 28-year-old, Delhi-based aspiring voice artiste. Negi has already dubbed for more than 15 theatre plays in Urdu, Hindi and English and hopes to become a full-time dubbing artiste in Bollywood.

However, he is aware that the identity of a voice artiste in India remains behind screens, and is often reduced to ‘the voice’ only.

“Does dubbing have a place in the 24 crafts of cinema? If yes, then why is that regardless of spending hours mouthing dialogues, crying, laughing and even dramatising, most dubbing artists walk home with a pittance,” asks Mumbai-based Shiney Prasad, another dubbing artiste who has been working in Hindi television since past five years.

“Nobody understands the effort we put in to do justice to the character we dub. It’s not always plain dialogue; sometimes we are required to cry, underplay and even talk in different language. We are mostly paid on an hourly basis,” Sunitha Upadrashta, who has dubbed for over 800 Telugu films, tells Media India Group.

Also a popular playback singer, Updrashta (which spelling??) has dubbed for actresses like Nayanthara, Kamalinee Mukherjee, Shriya and Sonali Bendre.

“Our effort is compared to the total number of shooting days of a film. Just because we dub in a few hours or a couple of days doesn’t mean our effort is minimal. People seldom appreciate the effort of voice because cinema is a visual medium and therefore, they are mostly lost in the visual grandeur of a film,” she says.

Fighting for recognition

“It was as a singer that I gained recognition”, said Upadrashta, adding, “It’s extremely difficult to be popular as a voiceover artiste. In cinema, popularity only comes when audiences recognise an artist by his or her face,” she says.

“Since I am a playback singer and also appear on television, people recognise me. But that is not the case with other dubbing artistes who are never brought on screen,” she adds.

Most voiceover artistes have a full-time job and take time out for dubbing assignments whenever needed. “I work as a Radio Jockey when I’m not dubbing,” says Priyanka, who has dubbed for Tamannaah Bhatia, Samantha Ruth Prabhu and Taapsee Pannu in Telugu.

Priyanka, who has dubbed for over 30 films, says that dubbing artistes garner some recognition when actresses back them. “I have personally been appreciated by Samantha and Taapsee. In fact, Taapsee referred me to other producers of her films after I dubbed for her. This has helped me so much,” she adds.

She also finds dubbing a lucrative career option. “Since I dub for all leading actresses, I have a say over my remuneration. I charge anywhere between INR 100,000 and INR 200,000 for a big-budget film,” says Priyanka, who wants dubbing to be included in all awards.

Rare awards, rarer credits

“We are recognised for our work only by Nandi awards. If Filmfare (a popular film magazine) introduces a special award for dubbing artistes, we don’t have to worry about recognition,” says Priyanka. Nandi awards recognise excellence in Telugu cinema, Telugu theatre and Telugu television, and Lifetime achievements in Indian cinema. It is presented by the state government of Andhra Pradesh.

Another prominent dubbing artiste, P. Ravi Shankar, who has dubbed in over 2,000 films across all south Indian languages, says that names of dubbing artistes should be mentioned in the film’s title cards too. “Awards can honour only one of us. If you want to honour each of us, then include our names in the film’s title cards. Let audiences know who dubbed for their superstars. They should know they have been cheering to our voice,” he says.

A winner of six Nandi awards for dubbing, Ravi Shankar has lent his voice to actors such as Sonu Sood, Pradeep Rawat, Mukesh Rishi, Ashish Vidyarthi and Manoj Bajpayee. He also feels that the industry should learn from the west.

“In Hollywood, even the top actors dub for animated characters. These artistes are equally celebrated for the voice. They have not been ignored because they haven’t acted in the film they dubbed for. Why are we discriminating our voiceover artistes?” he asks.

Into the Bollywood industry

The Bollywood industry now, as the voice artistes explain, is saturated with many radio jockeys, video jockeys, singers and even artistes dubbing for themselves. “Today we have many youngsters coming in to dub and the technology has become easier as well,” explains artist Priyanka.

Every industry has had its fair share of advancements and so has the recording industry.

“At first there was a loop system that had just a single track. Everyone had to dub at the same time. There was one mic for the men, one for the women and a stool for the children to stand on when it was their turn. I was 10 when did my first recording in 1990. If someone made a mistake, everyone had to redo it again,” recounts Ravi Shankar .

From there, it progressed to the track system that had several tracks – one for the main actors, one for character artists, one for bit artistes (small parts), one track for the crowd or ambience.

“Now we have all the latest technology that has made recording very easy. You can make your voice sound thinner or baser. Earlier, syncing was the biggest challenge. In your head you needed to time your sentences accurately. But now there’s absolutely no need for that,” he adds.

With the coming of many bilingual, trilingual and dubbed films, the scope for dubbing artists has increased. The industry also expanded itself with dubbed cartoons and soaps that are now very common on TV.

Cinema is known for casting a huge shadow on the many hands that actually help propel it. Despite the enormous amount of work that cinema creates everyday many other junior artistes, technicians, stunt actors, body doubles, lighting crew and many such roles remain under-appreciated, according to Shankar.

“I cannot lobby enough for our recognition,” he says, “We are treated very well by the team, the directors I have worked with have always held us very respectfully. Actors I have worked with – Soniya Aggarwal and Pooja — are my best friends. But I still believe more can be done when it comes to recognition in the eyes of the audience that hears us,” he adds.

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