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Indian film industries in search for immersion and realism through dialect coaching

For years, the Indian film industries have caricatured regional dialects. Most ignored the need to delve into granular aspects of languages as they felt it wouldn’t add anything to the story or character.

Ryan Gomez
Jul 02, 2021
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Chief Inspector Chester Campbell gives a rousing speech inside his new police precinct in 1919 Birmingham, England. Without any further introductions, the policemen inside the precinct know who and what kind of a man he is, simply by identifying his thick Ulster accent from Northern Ireland. A Northern Irishman serving as a high-ranking policeman in England in the early 20th century is more than likely to have gone up against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and come out on top. It is in fact a clever narrative tool used by the writers of BBC’s hit television show, Peaky Blinders, to establish the Chief Inspector as a force to be reckoned with. Now, the interesting aspect here is that the actor who plays Chief Inspector Campbell, Sam Neil, is from New Zealand - 18,000 kilometers away from Ulster, Northern Ireland.

For years, the Indian film industries have caricatured regional dialects. Most ignored the need to delve into granular aspects of languages as they felt it wouldn’t add anything to the story or character. “Films have begun taking realism seriously only in the last decade. Earlier, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan brought their own styles. Even Sanjeev Kumar relied on his own style and charm. A few colourful words, phrases and proverbs were added and that’s all it took,” says Ganesh Kumar, actor and dialect coach, who has worked with Bollywood stars such as Hrithik Roshan for the film Super 30. “Now, people are exposed to more films both domestically and internationally and they can see that authentic work is being done. They can claim that they have seen The Godfather, Scarface, and The Dark Knight. Ever since people started consuming such quality content, it had a direct impact on the kind of movies that started getting produced and you had films such as Gangs of Wasseypur being celebrated,” Kumar says of the Anurag Kashyap revenge thriller which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012.

Hrithik Roshan in Super 30
Ganesh Kumar

This shift in filmmaking has led to a new profession, which is in high demand and one that is equally demanding. Kumar explains that this turn in sensibilities has made filmmakers meticulous about what is expected from a particular character or scene. He also adds that this would, at times, lead to creative differences with the filmmakers, a challenge that he relishes. “Sometimes, the writers ask me for the correct diction for a particular gaali, which is not always easy to explain. So, I always come prepared with notes so that I am not caught off-guard with their requests and demands.”

The evolution of the digital space in India has also contributed to altering the perception of the audiences. This has, inadvertently, forced relatively new filmmakers in the country to introduce a more authentic representation of accents and dialects. Dimple Shah, who has worked as a dialect coach for Anushka Sharma (Jab Harry Met Sejal), Vicky Kaushal (Sanju), and Abishek Bachchan (The Big Bull), believes that the pandemic has accelerated this change. “The pandemic has accelerated the growth of the digital space and the kind of content which would be expected five years from now is already being produced,” she says.

Vicky Koushal in Sanju
Dimple Shah

“Today, the audience demands authenticity. If you’re showing a Gujarati family [in a movie/show], the audience will pull you up if they don’t seem convincing enough. A Gujarati man born in the 1940s or 50s, will invariably have studied in that medium (Gujarati) and his Hindi and English speech would bear a distinct Gujarati accent.

Training actors to perfect a specific accent may sound novel but it is a function that takes time and effort. Shah, a Gujarati theatre actor herself, suggests that filmmakers and actors should avoid diction and dialect training altogether if they are unable to commit to the project. “I know there are many things that go into being an actor and the pressures they face. But I would prefer if they were going for a diction class, they attempt it seriously. Otherwise, it will only make them look bad, not us,” says Shah.

It is evident that the Indian film industry has still a bit of catching up to do in terms of really pushing the envelope. This is surprising, considering the diversity in languages and dialects across the subcontinent. “The accolades that Vicky Kaushal received for his character Kamli in Sanju are because of the time he gave me and his hard work and nothing else.”

Sunita Sharma is also a well-renowned dialect coach in Bollywood and has worked in projects such as Dangal and of course, the one that propelled her career, Tanu Weds Manu Returns where she guided and coached Kangana Ranaut to perfect her Haryanvi twang. A specialist in Haryanvi and Punjabi dialects, Sharma has also trained actors such as Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra in Dangal and Bhumi Pednekar and Taapsee Pannu in Saand Ki Aankh.

Cast of Dangal
Kangana Ranaut in Tanu Weds Manu Returns
Sunita Sharma

She believes that coaching and knowledge of dialects are two very different things. “Teaching is a completely different art form. To teach, first of all, you need to have such a command of the language that you’re able to field any questions lobbed at you.”

While there is an ever-growing demand for authenticity and realism in adopting authentic dictions and dialects in dialogue, not every filmmaker has warmed up to the idea. Sharma believes that there could be another reason why producers and filmmakers have grown fond of the idea of dialect coaches. “In Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Kangana’s character Datto, became a big hit even before the film released as many fell in love with the character just from the trailers. Even today, when I tell people that I coached Kangana, they directly ask me to quote dialogues from the trailer,” says Sharma, who admits that she’s always happy to oblige and has memorised all the popular lines.

It would appear that cinematic excellence may not be the only determining factor in this newfound affinity towards creating characters with distinctive accents and hiring the right people to train them. The general buzz and hype a character like Datto could bring to a film even before its release does present monetary benefits – which is something the studios and producers would be keen on. From a financial perspective, it makes complete sense, and if it helps the directors and writers realise their artistic goals for the movie whilst bringing in authenticity and realism for the audience, it is a win-win for everyone.

In South Indian films, dialect coaching is yet to attain mainstream relevance with respect to characters in films with a region-specific accent. However, there is a demand for dialect coaches to train actors from other industries for the various nuances of the respective language that they would help pick up. Shiny Sarah, an actor and dialect coach for the Malayalam industry, has coached actors such as Rajshri Deshpande, Radhika Apte, and Kunal Kapoor. Coaching South Indian dialects for actors from Bollywood presents a unique challenge because of how different the languages are. “The letter ‘Zha (ഴ)’ in ‘mazha’ was a difficult letter for them. But I gave the freedom to say ‘mara’, which is to say ‘ra’ instead of ‘zha’ because the lip sync was the same for both and we could make up for it in dubbing.”

Radhika Apte in Haram
Shiny Sarah

Shiny Sarah echoed the same sentiments as Kumar, Shah, and Sharma that the recent crop of actors found it difficult to learn various dictions and dialects. This may sound surprising considering this happens to be a relatively new concept and ideally would have been easier for the new generation of actors rather than the veterans, who could be excused for being set in their ways.

The exponential growth of digital platforms has undoubtedly created a ripple across the various film industries. The dialect coaches also unanimously agree that this growth has helped people specialising in languages carve a career path in dialect coaching. There is enough evidence to suggest that more and more filmmakers and producers could be tempted by the idea of hiring dialect coaches for both artistic and commercial gains. There is a good possibility that writers of Indian films and television shows might not be far off from using language and dialects as a clever narrative tool.

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