Thursday, July 18, 2013

Post No. 100: The Subtitleless Revelation/Revolution

I have always thought of myself as good with words. No, I’m not verbally eloquent by any means — in fact I’m probably one of the worst public speakers ever — but I’m a writer, a grammarian, a spelling bee winner, a polyglot. Learning language — English and beyond — has always come easy to me. I leapt ahead in Spanish classes as a child even when I started later than everyone else.

By pure exposure to Hindi films, I was able to pick up basic phrases fairly rapidly. As was my sister, who is more talented than me when it comes to languages (she’s on No. 5 or 6 now). After less than six months with Bollywood, Paagal Papaya and I were lobbing basic Hindi sentences back and forth in our usual mix of Spanish and our family’s own language (“Donkey Latin”).

Since then, I’ve formally studied Hindi on and off in bouts, bulking up particularly before I went to India earlier this year. I’ve used Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Living Language, Mango — just about everything. But all in short bursts. The bulk of my Hindi “study” has still been films and songs, particularly when subtitles lapse.

My comprehension level is high enough that I can watch a Hindi film without subtitles and understand most of what is going on. I saw Aashiqui 2 in India without subtitles (and Bodyguard in the U.S. without subtitles), and I was surprised at my own comprehension level.

When I was traveling in India, I also spoke basic Hindi with the tour bus driver and tour assistant. That’s far more bravery than I’ve ever had with Spanish, although I know much more Spanish and definitely can speak more. (Once, the assistant started talking way beyond my comprehension level, and when I finally guessed that he was asking how I knew Hindi, I had to tell him, “Main sirf thoda thoda bol sakti hoon. Bollywood se.”)

Since coming back, then, and being asked several times if I speak Hindi and how much, and answering only once in (albeit “perfectly accented”) Hindi that “main kuch Hindi bolti hoon,” I have wondered why I’ve settled for this level after nearly three years with Hindi film. Why am I not more fluent? Why haven’t I learned more? Why don’t I speak it?

And why, if I have the ability, don’t I watch movies without subtitles?

Yes, it’s true that it’s easier to watch movies with subtitles. Reading English is easier than working to hear and understand Hindi.

But if I just depend on subtitles, how am I ever going to learn?

And what am I missing by reading subtitles?

About two years ago, not long after we started Bollywood Queens, Paagal Papaya was compiling a post (that never quite got finished) on Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani. She watched the film, loved it and started a post. But for the post, she needed screencaps. So she watched the movie again, without subtitles, for screencaps. “It’s completely different when you watch it without the subtitles,” she told me. “You see so much more of the acting.”

Is that what I’ve been missing out on in the past three years? The true value of the acting? (Even when it’s overacting.)

Certainly I’ve missed out on the poetics of dialogues, whether I could have understood them without the subtitles or not. I’ve long been able to understand when the subtitles are off. And that includes understanding that the subtitles rarely if ever do the language justice. (This is particularly frustrating with Urdu classics, but that’s another story.)

Curious, I tested this resolution by going back to a film I’ve seen a hundred times with subtitles — DDLJ. What did I miss so many times by watching DDLJ with subtitles? That SRK speaks absolute gibberish in the scene with the police in Switzerland. That everyone in the film talks really fast, unless they’re speaking of love or delivering a particularly poignant dialogue. (That does mean there is a lot that is too fast for me to understand, too.) That there is a pretty big change in Simran’s tones and behavior from one half to the next.

None of that is earth-shattering by any means.

But it does make me wonder what else I’ve missed.

And so, after nearly three years of Hindi films, comes my new resolution: Whenever possible, I am going to go subtitleless.

I don’t expect it to be easy — especially since Netflix will keep enabling me with subtitles that I can’t turn off. I don’t expect the resolution to be perfect. I don’t expect to get by unfrustrated. I definitely don’t expect to understand everything. (Especially, to my chagrin, jokes. A multilingual professor of mine once said true mastery of a language is achieved when you can understand a language’s jokes because of the plays on words involved. I’m still nowhere near that level with Hindi yet.)

But I do expect to grow in understanding. And that’s the real goal here.

Expect updates on the progress of this resolution as it goes on.


  1. What a lovely post! I can relate to a lot of what you said... I've been learning Hindi since I was 12 years old or so and even though I've read some books etc. I found that what helped me most was watching the movies. However, I have absolutely no idea of my skills because I rarely talk Hindi, so I'm excited to try it once in India. I do understand most of what is said in the movies too, but I also often use subtitles because I'm tired or whatever other excuse I have. Your resolution is pretty cool, and I think I'll try to do that in the future as well. HIgh five!

    1. See, you have even less excuse than me to still be using subtitles! :) And do try to speak it once you're in India. It was pretty liberating for me. I know I need to speak more with friends here, but I have such a big problem with clamming up, both with Hindi and Spanish. (This tends to loosen considerably after a drink or two.) But I also know I'll never improve if I don't do something different.