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Spider-Man Speaks in Local Dialects to Woo Moviegoers

M.G. Srinath, New Delhi, India, May 24, 2007

A young Indian moviegoer walks past a poster of Spider-Man at the INOX Multiplex in Mumbai, India. (Photo: Sajjad Hussain / AFP-Getty Images)

Hollywood has struck a goldmine by dubbing global blockbuster "Spider-Man 3" into four Indian languages. Doing so has not only helped to rake in money, but has also opened a gateway to reach larger mainstream Indian audiences whose knowledge of the English language is poor or minimal.

Call it the "Global Village" or the breaking down of barriers, the audiences in India — in concert with millions across the world — are in awe of Peter Parker.

The film, which has smashed box-office records worldwide, owes part of its runaway success in India to the frontbenchers in the eastern state of Bihar who whistle, clap and cheer in ecstasy when Peter tells Mary Jane Watson in the local Bhojpuri dialect: "Jaan tum to Muzzaffarpur ki litchi ki tarah dikhto ho" ("You are as good as the litchi (fruit) from Muzzaffarpur").

Litchi (litchi chinensis) is a sweetish pulpy-shelled fruit, and the variety grown in Muzzaffarpur, Bihar is regarded as the best in India.

"Spider-Man 3" is the first Hollywood movie to be dubbed in Bhojpuri, a popular colloquial language that is spoken by about 60 million of India's total population of over 1.2 billion people. It is spoken mainly in the country's heartland and the most populous areas of Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The movie was released in India simultaneously with the rest of the world in early May. Other than Bhojpuri, the other Indian languages that Spidey speaks include Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and of course, English.

But the enthusiasm in the Bhojpuri version is awesome and has even beaten back some of the just-released Bollywood movies in collections.

In a bid to inject local flavor among audiences in Bihar, the Indian distributors of the movie asked Ravi Kishen, a big star in Bhojpuri films, to dub for "Spider-Man 3."

"My voice for Spidey is a value addition and it has attracted Bhojpuri-speaking filmgoers," said Kishen. "In fact, I have improvised on the dialogues to recite Tulsidas' poems, which is being appreciated by the audiences." Tulsidas is a Hindu mystic who wrote the great Indian epic "Ramayana."

Now plans are being made to cast the net even wider to catch local markets starved for cinematic innovations. "We will go even more local in our future big releases," said Vikramjit Roy of Sony Pictures, worldwide distributors of the movie. "Localization of the content is one of the key factors which will see the pie of Hollywood films in India grow."

The special effects and the local language-dubbed Spidey movie are attracting audiences in droves as they enjoy viewing a big movie in their own dialect, especially in areas where English is less spoken or understood.

Hollywood seems to be taking a leaf out of business enterprises like Mattel, makers of Barbie dolls, and McDonald's, which reworked its menu in India to cater to local tastes and religious beliefs. Beef is not served in any of its Indian outlets, as it is a taboo among Hindus. Instead, the global chain has added items like McAloo (potato), tikki burgers and channa-paneer (chickpea with cottage cheese) pizzas.

Barbie dolls are marketed draped in traditional saris in a bid to appeal to Indian kids in rural areas, where the wearing of skirts is uncommon.

School children in such areas, who had enjoyed the earlier editions of the Spider-Man series for its sheer special effects, are now enthusiastically queuing up before cinema halls to watch "Spider-Man 3."

"I used to find it hard to understand the American accent of the earlier movies and just had to follow the trend by making out from the action, but this is now fun," said an enthusiastic Vikram.

Catcalls and cheers drown the cinema halls in Bihar when actor Toby Maguire says in Bhojpuri: "Hum makad manav hain, ud kar aayab aur tohar tetuwa dabaa deb" ("I'm Spider Man, I'll fly to you and throttle you").

Bhojpuri films are one of the fastest growing movie sectors in India. Many big stars like Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan and India's movie "Dream Girl" Hema Malini have stepped into the field, and there are currently over 150 films under production.

Last year, 76 Bhojpuri films were released, way behind market leaders like Telugu (245 films) and Hindi (225). However, it has a huge captive audience and the fan base is growing. At least two movies in the colloquial language are released each month and most of them attract overflowing audiences.

The cost for the dubbing of "Spider-Man 3" has been estimated at $250,000, an amount for which three Bhojpuri films could have been shot.

The Spidey film has been released in India with nearly 600 prints, the biggest so far for any overseas film, beating the previous best of 425 prints held by the James Bond movie "Casino Royale."

Hollywood movies in the past have been dubbed "unofficially" in Hindi. Bhojpuri-dubbed "Spider-Man 3" follows the release of "Night in the Museum" (Museum Ke Andhar Phans Gaya Sikandar), in Hindi early this year, which turned out to a huge box-office success in this country.

Even as the movie continues to rake in money, Kishen is now planning a separate superhero film to be created entirely in Bhojpuri.

In the planned movie, the supernatural local protagonist will be a mix of Superman and Hanuman, the Hindu Wind God. Kishan has been quoted as saying: "While dubbing for Spider-Man, I felt I should make something like it in my own language. So I wrote the story of the ultimate superhero."

Kishan's hero is a physically-challenged person who is scorned by society. In frustration, the hero wants to commit suicide when his life changes suddenly. With the blessings of Hanuman, he gets superpowers to become the guardian custodian and vigilante on behalf of his fellowmen.

Titled "Bajrangi: The Bhojpuria Makkad Manav," the film is expected to hit the screens at the end of this year.

The Indian animation industry is also coming of age, signing up co-production assignments with major companies. From a low-cost content provider to Hollywood studios and global film producers, the $300 million industry is rapidly moving up the value chain.

According to India's main software industry lobby group — the National Association for Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) — the animation sector is expected to clock over $950 million in revenues in the coming years.

In the meanwhile, do not jump out of your seats when you hear Spiderman saying in his latest avatar in Bhojpuri: "Hum makad manav hain…." ("I am Spider Man").

It may not be as memorable as Arnold Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back" line in his 1984 movie "The Terminator," but Hollywood is evolving as it reaches out further into the globalized world.

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