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Taught in Translation: How a small network of people brings the outside world into Mizo homes

In the homogenous world of Mizo television, everyone from Prerna in Ekta Kapoor’s Kasautii Zindagii Kay to Elsa in Disney’s Frozen speaks fluent Mizo. But behind this vernacular crossover is a network of people: translators, dubbing artistes and editors. This is how they do it.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Aizawl |
Updated: December 29, 2018 8:00:30 am
Moana A DVD of animated film Moana (2016) — dubbed in Mizo — being sold in a market in Aizawl. During the first wave, it was the Korean language TV series that caught on. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

In 2003, when Sente was a schoolgirl in Aizawl, her gang of friends would eagerly await the latest edition of Lengzem, a popular Mizo monthly magazine. The 60-paged publication had a mix of features and fiction but the girls would straight skip to “the only section that mattered” — it was the Mizo script of a full episode of Ekta Kapoor’s hit TV series Kasautii Zindagii Kay, back then a rage in Mizoram. “We would read aloud and take turns to deliver the dialogue. It was all everyone would talk about back then,” says Sente, now a 25-year-old mother of three.

Years later — in any conversation about the dubbed shows that thrive on Mizo TV — it is still what everyone talks about. In Kasautii lies the genesis of the dubbed television industry of Mizoram. 

What started as a trial for one show is now a small-scale industry. Over the last decade, Korean, Thai, English, Hindi, Turkish and Japanese movies and TV shows (all translated) dominate television viewership in Mizoram — apart from news, reality TV shows (the most popular being Mizo Idol and Youth Icon, fashioned on American Idol) and of course, sports (football premiere league, basketball league etc).

“For the longest time, Mizos would watch Bangladeshi TV channels. There was absolutely no Mizo content. Only during Christmas — in the late 80s — some Mizos in Delhi would sing carols, and that would be aired on Doordarshan,” say Lalsawmliana Pachuau. 

In 1993, Pachuau started LPS — Mizoram’s first cable TV network, with 11 channels (which aired music, sports, news and movies). “We started by airing local Mizo content: news, gospel songs and the like. I wanted to do something for the people of Mizoram,” he says.

During the first wave, it was the Korean language TV series that caught on. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

The Original Mizo soundtrack

While the channels began by airing locally-produced Mizo content, it was only in the early 2000s that a new fad caught on. While it was local cable operator, Skylink that started the trend by dubbing Kasautii, soon Pachuau’s LPS (that eventually absorbed Skylink) had five channels that ran only dubbed material. 

During the first wave, it was the Korean language TV series that caught on. “The Mizos relate a lot to Korean. Especially younger kids. K-pop is huge in Mizoram,” says Pachuau. These days, Turkish shows have caught the popular imagination of the Mizos. LPS 11 — a channel outsourced by LPS — ran three Turkish shows, Strawberry Smell, Endless Love and Black Money through this year.

“Our channels are outsourced to individuals/companies who curate, translate and dub the content,” says Pachuau.

In 2006, another cable network, Zonet, came into the picture. “When  we entered the market, dubbing had already become a thing,” says LV Lalthantluanga, general manager of Zonet. Today, Zonet has five dubbed channels — all outsourced to individual companies who own and run it. While through the course of the day, it is dubbed content that runs on these ten channels (divided between Zonet and LPS), original English/Hindi content is aired from 11pm to 3 am.

Mizoram television, Mizo dubbed Tv show Korean, Thai, English, Hindi, Turkish and Japanese movies and TV shows (all dubbed to MIzo) dominate television viewership in Mizoram. During the first wave, it was the Korean language TV series that caught on. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Lal Ngaihawma, a 30-year-old musician, owns a channel outsourced by Zonet called Zonet Nihawi. “Our channel is different from the other dubbed channels because every Saturday, we run a kids’ special from 2pm to 6pm. We translate Cinderella, Frozen etc.” says Ngaihawma, who first translated and dubbed Madagascar for a screening organised by his church. “That’s what got me interested,” he says. 

Over the last four years, they have diversified content. “We simply don’t dub dialogues, we add our own touch to it too,” he says.

In some movies, Ngaihawma inserts full-length Mizo songs, made exclusively for the film. “We localise with original numbers, so our audiences will relate to it and appreciate it more. I am a musician too, so many times I sing as well,” he says, sitting in his residence-cum-dubbing studio in an Aizawl neighbourhood. 

He then proceeds to play a 2017 Japanese animated film, Mary And The Witch’s Flower that now — after Ngaihawma’s intervention — has an “original Mizo soundtrack”.  The film begins with a title track sung by local Mizo crooner, Ruth Z Fanai, with visuals that include the singer herself.

Helping preserve the Mizo language

While Ngaihawma’s studio is relatively big, dotted across Aizawl are smaller ones owned by other companies. In the heart of the city is PC Lalramnghaka’s cramped two roomed-studio, divided into cubicles, meant for translation, dubbing and editing. Lalramnghaka owns an LPS-outsourced channel, named LPS 11.

 “I go online and check what is popular. That is how I decide content for my channel. I look for shows and movies that already have English subtitles, then it is easy for us to translate to Mizo,” says Lalramnghaka. 

Mizoram television, Mizo dubbed An artiste at a dubbing studio in Aizawl. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

In 2006, on a trip to Kolkata, he had noticed a DVD of Tintin at a roadside shop. “I picked it up, and thought it would be a good idea to translate it to Mizo. When I did, it became very popular,” he says, adding that it’s how he got involved in the business. 

Like Lalramnghaka, channel owners often access these movies by simply buying DVDs or downloading torrents — something they admit freely. “All these years no one has bothered us about permission or copyright issues. Everyone is supporting us in Mizoram. Why would they not? In a  way, even if it is illegal, we are helping preserve the Mizo language,” he says, as in the cubicle behind him, his editor, begins dubbing for the voice of Fox Mulder in the Emmy-award winning 1990s American show, The X-Files.

A viable side-job

Meanwhile, the owners of Zonet and LPS maintain that they have clear-cut terms in their contracts with channel owners: that the latter is solely responsible for the content and copyright issues. “Of course, we regulate the content which comes in. TV-watching in Mizoram is a family activity. We do not include any sex scenes, or any foul language,” says Zonet’s Lalthantluanga.

Even the translators, often young men and women (teachers, students etc), who almost exclusively do it as a side job, are given strict rules by the channel owners on “how” to translate.

“If there is a slang word like ‘damn’, we change it to ain ain or nilo which means no. If there is a reference to zu or alcohol, we call it a ‘glass of juice’ or water,” says Esther L Fanai, who works as a part-time translator for LPS. 

She says it is “good money” and “easy work” since she is comfortable with English. “I do it at home at any time I want. It brings in an easy ten thousand rupees a month just by sitting at home,” says the Delhi University-graduate.  The pay usually depends on the length of the movie/TV show. Short TV episodes can pay between Rs 100 and Rs 300, while movies can bring in Rs 500.

Mizoram television, Mizo dubbing studio After translation and voice-over, an editor cuts out unsuitable scenes from the film or TV show. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

For other translators, its not that easy. “Especially Hindi movies which do not have English subtitles. For those we watch the video and figure it out,” says Lalruatfela Tochhawng, who works as a translator and dubbing artiste for LPS 6. 

“We have never been trained. We just observe the actors closely. When they cry, we try and make our voices sad,” he says. Tochhawng is also an editor — responsible for the final stage involved in dubbing — after translation and voice-over. “That involves lip syncing and cutting out scenes which are not suitable,” he says.

This year, it was Savdhaan India — Star TV’s real life crime show — is what everyone in Mizoram seems to be taken with.“I like how police catch the thieves. It is easy to understand because it is in our language,” says Teremi Chenkual, a 22-year-old student. 

At the Aizawl market, people can buy DVDs of various dubbed movies and TV shows. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

While many youngsters are now choosing to watch English movies over translated ones (Zonet’s Lalthantluanga confesses he doesn’t even “watch five minutes of dubbed stuff on TV”), dubbed content is serious fodder for many people, often older, who are not well-versed in English or Hindi. “My aunt who has a flower shop watches dubbed shows religiously. They are her favourite past time. No one needs to translate it for her,” says Diana Ralte, who works at an ICDS centre in Aizawl. “In remote areas, especially in the villages, people know only Mizo, and nothing outside Mizoram. For them, dubbed content has brought them the world.”

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