With “The Jungle Book” out in cinemas, the need for understanding local film markets for culturally accurate dubs is higher than ever.
By Ankit Ojha on August 31, 2016

Jon Favreau’s (“Chef,” 2014) live-action adaptation of “The Jungle Book” contains material from late journalist and writer Rudyard Kipling, whose life in British India has been documented through his (skewed) point of view in his short stories.

Despite being criticized for its manipulative subtext on colonialism, Kipling’s collective works have quite the lineage in the country’s post-colonial timeline. Names like Mowgli and Shere Khan ring a nostalgic bell to those who’ve grown up watching it, myself included—primarily thanks to the Japanese anime adaptation “Janguru Bukku Shōnen Mōguri” (1989-1990), which was repackaged and dubbed for its syndicated run across India with its own Hindi-language theme jingle tailored especially for its viewers. 

Disney, of course, wouldn’t lose that kind of opportunity. And with a stacked Indian cast—Priyanka Chopra (ABC’s “Quantico,” 2015-2018) and Irrfan Khan (“Jurassic World,” 2015), among others—voicing the Hindi-language version, I just had to find out if the studio’s attempt to recreate the nostalgia for Indian cinema screens was worth it.

It was. 

The Jungle Book” holds its rightful place among the better Hindi-language movie dubs, but that’s not the point. Notable here are the added-in character tics—race, background, etc.—keeping the universal Indian audience in mind. Its inherently Indian soul now has more substantial native relevance. 

Bugs Bhargava, for example, lends a stereotypically anglicized Hindi accent to King Louie, reminiscent of Indian cinema’s portrayal of Englishmen in colonial India. This customized image system helps us understand that, like Mowgli, he’s an outsider. Unlike the protagonist, as mentioned earlier, however, he’s evil.

The Jungle Book
Homies // Neel Sethi in a still from Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, a Walt Disney Pictures film.

Like Bhargava, the other sharp casting choices help natively translate Kipling’s original motive to the story—a timeless commentary on the polarizing kinds of outsiders (some adaptive, some greedy) and insiders (some welcoming, some racist) found in societies worldwide.

One wonders why this technique isn’t used as regularly. Studio Ghibli’s forays in American cinemas have had excellent dialogue translations and casting—Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“The Wind Rises,” 2014) and Christian Bale (“Howl’s Moving Castle,” 2004) are prime examples. Financial constraints could serve as an answer. 

Hiring experienced writing and voice-acting talent can be costly. Currently, Khan and Chopra are internationally recognized, thus demanding high wages. One can safely assume that Disney’s knowledge of the source’s cultural impact in India would have allowed them to take the risk, which seems to have rightly paid off. 

Since its release, the film is reported to have earned a record-breaking $23.7 million in its first 12 days, shattering the total gross of “Furious 7” (2015) last year at $23.4 million. The studio knew the film’s financial feasibility in the Indian market.

Like the minds behind “The Jungle Book,” if other dubs also translated, cast, and sold its Indian version(s) like native mainstream movies, there’d be a good chance this would encourage a broader audience to hit the cinemas. They have, after all, been sold a movie they’d like to watch because it’s more culturally relevant than just functional. 

Disney’s success may have set the ball rolling for a commercially promising future in India. Whether it’s near or distant is another story altogether.

A version of this article was first published in Empire Magazine Arabia‘s August 2016 issue.