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Lost In Translation


Once upon a time, before iPods had been invented, there was not much a teenager taking a bus to school for an hour every day could do to entertain himself.

Except to listen. To the conductor screaming at college students traveling on the “footboard”; and boys that got into the girls section of the bus. Listening also to the pretty girl from Nirmala College talking to her friend, and to the old man sitting next to me yelling at precariously placed people holding on to his seat, to take their underarms out of the way. And smiling, as he turned to you and complained that no one takes showers anymore. Listening to whatever song caught the driver's fancy as he played the same tape over and over again.

Idhu Enna Mudhal Irava, Ammadi Illamaikku Pudhu Varava

(This is our first night together, Wow! we are new arrivals at the altar of love)

And to look. At the convent girls that pretended to not notice. And college girls that really didn't notice. And at the city through windows with red metal bars going across their length, and black accordion blinds on top held together with flimsy shoelaces that always looked like giving away but never did.

Coimbatore was an industrial town. Everywhere along my route, there were cotton mills and foundries; button factories and pumpset manufacturing houses. Sprawling campuses, cordoned off by compound walls with broken glass pieces on top to prevent intruders, and stern sounding warnings asking people to “Stick No Bills”. Warnings notwithstanding, the walls existed for posters – large, colorful banners glued to them with starch. Most of the posters advertised movies, although there was the odd one about the upcoming visit of a politician or the impending arrival of Jesus Christ. Every Friday morning, the posters would change, and from the longevity of a poster or a billboard you knew if a movie was a hit or a flop. With no Yahoo! to tell you which movie was playing where, the posters were often the only source of cinema information.

Every movie theater played four shows a day, and in the suburbs the morning show was reserved for skin-flicks – mostly Malayalam movies that promised more skin than they delivered. The posters for these movies were designed by marketing geniuses – mostly just the name of the movie and the picture of a scantily clad girl – with a giant “A”covering the key parts. Coming to think of it, the girl in the poster could have been fully clothed: all that you could see through the A was her face. The A meant that the movie was for “Adults Only”, although a few kids in school uniforms that looked suspiciously like mine would sneak in once in a while. To eliminate any confusion, these posters also had a translated version of the title in Tamil, usually enclosed in parantheses. Translated it would seem, by the same team of marketing geniuses.

Thus an innocent sounding name like Mazhu(ax in Malayalam) became “A Father-In-Law's lust” in Tamil. Next Friday, a new set of posters clarified: “A Father-In-Law's justified lust”. That set my heart at rest.

The atrocious Endless Love did brisk business for weeks, advertised as the “Secrets of love, sex and childbirth.” A movie called Amazon Women (I think) was promptly renamed to a more appropriate sounding ” Naked beauties in the King's court.” (Raajavin Kottayil Nirvana Azhakigal).

Sometimes the theaters would play a home brewn soft porn clip in the middle of a movie – in such cases, the original movie didn't matter much. “Digby , the biggest dog in the world” was a movie my dad had taken me to when I was young. Imagine my surprise then when they screened it at a theater next to my house a few years later, with posters that screamed (in paranthethized Tamil) – “Sex Crazed Big Dog” (Adangatha Kaama Veri Piditha Ratchatha Naai). I hastily tried to recollect the movie, and concluded that I must've been too young to understand the lust part of it when I had watched the movie with my dad.

Conditioned thus, most people equated English movies with skin flicks. Midway during The Abyss, a guy got up and screamed: “Show us some Skin”. A few minutes later, he stomped out of the theater in anger. Later, when watching Legends of the Fall in Chennai, someone leaned across and whispered in a conspiratorial tone: “Does this movie have any scenes bro?” I could only offer him an understanding grin.

PS: Navin's post about the Tamil title of a comic book, set off the train of thought leading to this post. And yes, we've both outgrown our school uniforms.