Lost In Transcription

Make no mistake, Being Cyrus is an effective little indie thriller and has a chance to find accepting urban audiences everywhere, desi or otherwise. But not with the English subtitles on the DVD release. The film itself is mostly in English but I usually have the titles on by default when watching stuff from India. I was fishing around for my remote when I realized something wasn't quite right with the onscreen words.

Right at the beginning of the film, our anti-hero, Cyrus (played by Saif Ali Khan), presents himself to an aged Parsi couple, Dinshaw (Naseeruddin Shah) and Katy Sethna (Dimple Kapadia). "I've come regarding your poetry school," he says. Except, the Sethnas actually run a pottery school. Otherwise, the subsequent scenes of Cyrus massaging mud doesn't make sense - unless the director was trying pass an oblique comment on the virtues of verse.

I was willing to let one typo slide. But just after that, Cyrus claims some of Dinshaw's works are on display at the "grooving museum" in New York as opposed to, oh, the Guggenheim. That's when I realized either the subtitlist had either partaken of some strong herb or his ability to transcribe English was sadly deficient or he was hard of hearing or he had performed his duties inside the engine room of a steam locomotive. Perhaps all of the above. Whatever it was, his (or her) transmissions from Spaceship Ganja definitely added an extra dimension to our viewing experience.

For example, did you know that Mars was a "marshal planet" and that your half baked aspirations could turn into "half day desperations?" Katy could be played like a "vilon" and, given Dimple Kapadia's continuing oomph, I want to know what a "vilon" is and how does one play it. Apparently, it was also possible to "live like a popper" and you could do so in a place called "Punch Gun" which, presumably, is not far from Panchgani, the initial setting of the film. This must be a magical place because in order to bite the hand that feeds them, you had to "buy 100 feet." Hope they use deodorant over there.

As the film progressed, the transcriptions grew more poetic, wistful even. "He has a very bad sprain" became "he has a very bad spring." A police officer complained death was "starring at him all the time." Must be tough to play second fiddle to the Grim Reaper. In his presence, "handcuffs" morphed into "hand coughs" and "you have a way with words, inspector" soared to "you have ways to hit the words, inspector." Indeed.

The language grew more heated towards the end and our intrepid subtitlist spared no efforts in hiding our blushes. "Sweet old bugger" was censored to "sweet old baba." Frustrated teens might argue they are one and the same but still! Apparently, you also cannot make an "amlate" without breaking eggs. And, once you've made a mess thus, do you clean with "meticulous care?" No, our man felt you have to clean with "medicare." Strong comment on the lamentable state of US healthcare perhaps but a little out of place in a thriller from Mumbai. Finally, being a bit of a showman, our man saved the best for last. Towards the end of the film, a character emoted with great sadness, "no matter what happens during a chess game, the king and the porn always go back to the box."

Intent as our transcriptor was in deciphering the mysteries of the universe, he had an omission I found quite perplexing. In some parts of the film, the dialogue shifts to non-English. Those had no subtitles.

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- May 11, 2006 7:04 PM // Film , Select