Dubbing in demand as Hollywood takes hold in India

Mona Shetty breaks into fits of laughter when she talks about playing Barbie in the Hindi-language version of the Hollywood animation "Toy Story 3".

"I've never played with a Barbie doll in my life but I got to be Barbie," she said with a smile. "I loved it. I got to say, 'I love you Ken'."

Voice artistes like Shetty are in high demand as Hollywood films become more popular with Indian audiences, driven in part by the growth in multiplex cinemas in big cities and tie-ups between US and Indian studios.

Evidence of India's appetite for US blockbusters is everywhere at the dubbing studios that Shetty runs with her mother, Leela Ghosh, in the northern suburbs of India's entertainment capital, Mumbai.

In a soundproof room with computers, editing software and a giant flat-screen television, an actor is preparing his lines for the Hindi-language version of "Shrek Forever After".

Outside, promotional posters for Hollywood films line the walls and a whiteboard in Ghosh's office charts the progress of work on dubbed cinema releases, DVDs, television series and adverts.

"There's enormous possibilities for dubbing," 60-year-old Ghosh, who set up the business in the early 1990s, told AFP. "Once upon a time this industry wasn't very organised but now it is."

With about three billion cinema tickets sold in India every year, compared with 1.5 billion in the United States, dubbing both foreign and domestic films in India is potentially lucrative.

A total of 242 Hindi-language or Bollywood films were released last year with even more made in south India in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada.

The Indian industry as a whole had revenues of 89.3 billion rupees (2.0 billion dollars) in 2009, according to a recent report on the film industry by auditors KPMG.

In comparison, only 60 foreign films were released in India in the same period, making nearly 3.8 billion rupees.

English - the language of India's former colonial masters, the British, which is still the lingua franca of politics, administration and the judiciary - is effectively a minority language among India's masses.

Although there are estimates that about a third or 350 million Indians can hold a conversation in English - the highest in the world - only about five percent or 55 million people speak the language fluently.

Only releasing English-language films therefore limits their reach, said Ghosh.

"Obviously it all boils down to the numbers," added Shetty. "If you have one billion people and you can't reach them then that's a shame."

Dubbing, rather than subtitles, is the preferred option in India, as literacy - currently at about 61 percent of people aged 15 and over - cannot be taken for granted.

Producing a dubbed movie can take as little as one month - a tight turnaround compared with the years it often takes to make the original film.

Costs - anything from 500,000 rupees to 1.5 million rupees - depend on the marketing, number of characters, the language and whether songs also have to be translated, said Shetty.

Foreign films are tailored to suit more conservative Indian sensibilities, particularly in terms of sex and religion, while sometimes the language itself throws up problems.

Shetty described the translation of director James Cameron's "Avatar" as a "nightmare" as the characters speak Na'vi, which was created by a US linguist and inspired by the language of indigenous New Zealanders.

The Indian version worked, though, becoming one of the most popular movies last year.

Ghosh said the appeal of dubbed films comes from Indian audiences being more comfortable with dialogue in their own language.

"It's very satisfying to see a film like 'Godzilla', 'Anaconda', 'Spiderman' or 'James Bond' doing excellent business in Hindi also. That means people are hungry for good stars and good techniques," she said.

Shetty has made a living from the business, lending her voice to some of Hollywood's most bankable stars, including Angelina Jolie in "Tomb Raider" and Drew Barrymore in "Charlie's Angels" - but without the intense media scrutiny.

"You just learn to listen to a voice and train yourself to replicate it in your own language. You have to match their pitch, their tone and voice quality as far as possible without sounding unnatural," the 36-year-old said.

Some voice artistes, who can earn anything from 20,000-50,000 rupees a role, see it as a stepping stone to a more high-profile on-screen career.

"Many people come to Mumbai as aspiring actors. This is what feeds them until they make it," said Shetty. "Some people do it as a part-time job. But they soon realise it's a full-time job."

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