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Daffy speaks Hindi
Five years ago, Prachi Saathi phoned a helpline to enquire about the show timings of an English film. All she got was an admonition. The elderly customer care executive at the other end hung up, saying, "Beta, it's an adult film. Not for kids. " Saathi was 25 then but she could not have asked for an easier compliment. Not growing up is an asset in the resume of this pretty girl whose voice you have probably heard as Vicky, the poker-faced robot from Small Wonder, Mickey's girlfriend Minnie Mouse and the mischievous young Dennis from Dennis The Menace. Most recently, she played little Krishna in India's first stereoscopic animation film Krishna Aur Kans. Everyone thought it was unusual for a 31-year-old to play a toddler given to mischief and tantrums but "no one wrote about me", she gripes. Saathi's is the unfortunate reality of most voice artistes who dub in Hindi for international cartoon characters ranging from Popeye to Scooby Doo. The absence of a screen credit, the increasing clutter of new voice artistes and the sheer overpowering brand value of the character all combine to form an iron curtain that fiercely shuts out their identity. "It is only when celebrities do the voicing for a film that it is talked about, " says Saathi. Back in 1986 when artiste Vinod Kulkarni of Popeye and Aladin's Genie fame started his career, there were fewer contenders and recognition came far easier. "We were all stars then, " he recalls. "But unlike me, others would feel awkward when asked to audition for voices or imitate animals. So not many came forward. " The 45-yearold, who voiced the character Sikander from The Jungle Book, recalls how, in an age of no computers, all the artistes required for a particular episode would gather around one microphone. Nana Patekar, who voiced Sher Khan, was one of them. "We would watch the English visuals, write our own translations and sync the lines with the characters, " recalls Kulkarni. A goof-up meant taking the whole scene from the beginning again.
Today, with the glut of artistes willing to work cheap, budgets are lower. Kulkarni, who used to get Rs 1 lakh per episode, now, like other artistes, has to wait at least three to four months to see his payments. Urvi Ashar, who has been in the industry for almost 12 years, says this is a consequence of subletting. "Today, channels have realised that there are vendors who will get the dubbing done for less money. So not only has quality suffered a bit but the industry has now become a bit of a fish market, " says Ashar, who has voiced Candace in the series Phineas And Ferb and Shinzo, the boy with the endearing lisp in Ninja Hathodi.
Ashar says she has been asked to perform one of these voices every time she is at a party. It makes her feel "like a standup comic" at times but all the same, she says, it's flattering - after all, it is only in such rare social situations that voice artistes get to experience the limelight. Most channels do not mention their names in the end credits since changing the original English voice artistes' credits involves a huge budget. That's perhaps why encounters such as the one Toshi Sinha had a month ago are precious. Sinha - who played the famous perky teen Raven in the Disney Live series That's So Raven - relates how the teller in a bank, a young girl, heard her voice, and told Sinha that it reminded her of Raven. "When I told her it was me, she literally started jumping and screeching, " says Sinha, who enjoyed the momentary attention but at the same time felt a tad guilty for holding up the queue.
For Sinha, who is prone to giggling fits, it was easy to mimic Raven's body language as "I am a lot like her - half-mad and hyper". Largely, while dubbing for famous characters with an established brand value, artistes are asked to stick to imitation rather than innovation. Even Rajesh Kava, who was the Hindi voice of Harry Potter in the last three films of the series, retained the mannerisms and intonations of the famous wizard by studying the character's tendency toward chaste Hindi and relationships with the others in the film. "I did not want the audience to sense a jerk or an obvious deviation from the earlier voice of Harry Potter, which was done by a younger artiste, " says 33-year-old Kava.
But that strict code is gradually changing. Though the big brands are mostly sacred, the others allow the artiste to improvise or, even better, Indianise. Kava - who calls himself an "animal specialist" as he has to his credit a variety of animal roles from the monkey in Krrissh to the black cat Kio in Ninja Hathodi - has embellished the Looney Tunes character Speedy Gonzales with actor Govinda's drawl from the films Dulhe Raja and Akhiyon Se Goli Maare. Even Prasad Barve, who has played Scooby Doo, Daffy Duck and Po the panda from Kung Fu Panda, replaced the word 'burgers' in a scene where the panda is gobbling burgers to 'vada paos'.
"Initially, we used to try and sound a bit Hollywoodlike. But now, the focus is on Indianising, " says Barve, whose Daffy Duck has the habit of lapsing into the voices of actors Saif Ali Khan and even Arshad Warsi from Munnabhai. As a voice artiste, Barve, whose nephew is glued to cartoons, feels a moral responsibility toward his audience. So, he says he tries to insert messages such as 'Children should not fight' or 'Be respectful'. He also sticks to safe, innocent words and avoids translating terms like 'dog' to 'kutta' (" I say doggy" ), acknowledging that some shows tend to temper their lingo with colourful language in the race for TRPs. This "erosion of values on TV" is the reason many parents discourage kids from watching the idiot box, feels Amarkant Dubey, the director and writer of Chhota Bheem, adding that the series enjoys many NRI fans, thanks to its emphasis on "culture". "We make it a point to retain innocence and Indian values in the show, " says Dubey, whose son Vatsal started lending his voice to Bheem at the age of eight. Vatsal's signature 'Agya dijiye, Maharaj' is a hit with the kids. But veterans such as Kulkarni - who once corrected 2, 000 recorded episodes of Popeye in order to replace words like gainde with nasamajh - are sceptical about the future of propah language in animation. 'Even young Ganpati is saying 'Abe chal' nowadays, " he says wryly.
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