(Don’t Get) Lost in Translation

A bootstrapped company with patent-pending tech says it can play dubbed versions of any film in theatres, in the language of your choice, right in your ears, all perfectly synced. Is there a market for this?

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A gadget that can read or listen to anything and live-translate it into your language? That’s one of those ubiquitous science fiction tropes. For instance, Doctor Who’s time travelling phone booth, Tardis, doubles as a real-time translator. Douglas Adams (true to form) has a literal fish for a translator in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: he named it the Babel Fish. Star Trek’s Universal Translator comes closest to a realistic translation device, but even that is more fiction than science.

You may not be on the USS Enterprise, but there are growing use cases for some form of live translation, especially in entertainment. You might want to attend a concert with your K-pop stan daughter and finally understand the lyrics to her favourite act. Maybe you want to watch a standup comedy show in another language that your friends speak, but it would be nice to be able to laugh along with them. Or at least keep up with the context.

One such tech contender in India is a Gurgaon-based company called Cinedubs. Its pitch is a proprietary technology that lets you watch a film in a theatre in a language of your choice. Cinedubs is in a very early stage and focused on a mobile app. All you need is a pair of headphones, and you can sit with your friends in Chennai and watch their favourite Tamil film, but with Hindi dialogues right in your ears.

How does it work? More importantly, is there a large, scalable market for such a solution?

Now Showing: Dubbed films, right in your ear

blocks/Unsplash

Film dubbing has made a massive comeback over the last few years, thanks to the popularity of South Indian language films in north Indian markets. It is now standard practice for big budget releases to be dubbed in 5-6 Indian languages. Hindi cinema caught up later, but Marvel/DC superhero films have been doing it for a lot longer. This year’s FICCI-EY Media & Entertainment report (pdf) estimates that the average cost of dubbing a film has gone up from ₹5 lakh (~$6,000) a film to ₹20-30 lakh (~$24-36k) over the past decade. More than a third of the Hindi film box office revenue last year came from Hindi dubbed versions of South Indian language films.

Love Dhanush but don’t know Tamil except “dei” and “po”? Same here. But that’s no problem anymore, because all of Dhanush’s films release in theatres near me in Hindi, and on my favourite OTT app with English subtitles.

Cinedubs, launched in 2021, is trying to solve a subset of this problem. “Let’s say you’re in a city whose native language you don’t know,” co-founder Aditya Kashyap explains. “Or you’re one half of a couple that speaks different native languages. You want to catch the latest Friday release close to home, but you’re a Tamilian living in Chandigarh and the film is not playing in Tamil anywhere. Cinedubs can help with that.”

Cinedubs solves this with its mobile app and proprietary tech called 3D CFI. A user downloads the dubbed soundtrack of a film on the Cinedubs app; it’s saved on their phone. When they walk into the theatre and the movie begins playing, the app listens to the audio for about five seconds and recognises exactly what frame of the film is playing. It forwards to that exact point in the dubbed audio on the user’s phone. You plug in your headphones and watch the same film as everyone else. Only the audio in your ears will be different.

Cinedubs uses something called ‘3D CFI’ technology to accurately recognise which frame a film is playing at, just via audio. This is crucial because dubbing is only useful when it is perfectly synced with video. 3D CFI is Cinedubs’ invention, and the company has applied for a patent on the technology in India and the US. Cinedubs co-founder (and Kashyap’s brother Vineet Kashyap) developed 3D CFI.

“In every moment in a film, or even in real life, there are many different sounds playing in one go,” Kashyap explains. “There is dialogue, background music, the sounds of an explosion, or some object being moved. Each of these sounds have their own frequency. And when you combine them all together, the combination of these frequencies becomes a unique timestamp for every frame in a film. This is how Cinedubs is able to correctly identify what frame of the film is playing.”

But isn’t it odd listening to a film on headphones while watching it in a theatre? Doesn’t the dialogue playing on theatre systems interfere with that in the headphones?

“In theatres, audio systems have many speaker channels,” Kashyap explains. “Only some of them are dedicated to the dialogue. The rest relay other background sounds. So when you’re listening to the dubbed version via headphones, the original dialogue is unlikely to interfere, even on a cheap device.” Besides, he says, dubbed tracks don’t just have dialogues; they also (ideally) have all other background sounds from the movie to ensure that the viewing experience isn’t disrupted. Cinedubs gets its dubbed files from a film’s producers.

Cinedubs was launched in 2021, is bootstrapped, and has over 35,000 users for now. Most of them are in India, downloading Indian language dubbing for Indian films. The first was R Madhavan-starrer Rocketry: The Nambi Effect last year; Madhavan is also an investor in the company and its brand ambassador. Kashyap says the app has a small number of users in foreign markets, mostly among the South Asian diaspora in the US, UK, and Canada. Some also watched last year’s Telugu adventure film Vikrant Rona in Spanish dubbing.

Cinedubs is now betting on bigger films (and trailers of big titles) to familiarise people with the product. Next up: T-Series’ Adipurush, releasing next week in five Indian languages. This year, it had trailers of films like Pathaan, the highest-grossing Bollywood film in a long time (but the producers turned down a deal for the movie). The company is also in talks with international production houses, including Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount.

But the process is slow because (a) the user base is still small, and (b) producers worry about piracy because the Cinedubs app downloads the film’s dubbed audio track on a user’s mobile, making it available offline. “We have safeguards in place to prevent users from downloading or otherwise recording the file and sharing it,” Kashyap says. “For example, the downloaded file will not play if headphones aren’t plugged in. So no one can record the audio from another device.”

What are the possibilities?

A Star Trek-like universal translator isn’t just useful for cinema. In fact, there may arguably be a small set of film-goers for whom this app makes sense. Most people watch films in their own language or travel to a theatre to see a version dubbed in their language. Cinema penetration in India isn’t high enough, and subtitling and dubbing films is now getting commonplace. Kashyap does have anecdotes, but they are niche examples: multilingual friends watching a Kannada movie together in four different languages, or a North Indian-South Indian husband-wife duo who finally go to the movies together armed with Cinedubs.

But Kashyap has a clear vision: “Producers won’t have to release dubbed versions in individual cinemas, distributors will not need to pay for expensive DCPs (digital cinema packages) for each language version of a new film, and viewers will not be forced to drive to a specific theatre to watch a film in the language of their choice,” he says. Bear in mind that Indian cinemas have a bigger problem. They need to bring in more viewers and get a regular supply of films that do good business (I covered this in a previous edition of The Impression).

More films are releasing in even more languages now, but Bollywood has been having trouble taking dubbed versions of Hindi films to the Tamil- and Telugu-speaking masses. This, when names like Pushpa and Rocky Bhai from KGF have become household names in towns and villages in Hindi-speaking states. An app could help bridge that divide among big city folks with a large Hindi-speaking migrant population in the South. Will it help solve the bigger problem?

There are more applications for translation and dubbing in the entertainment business. Gaming is an example; Indian studios are working on immersive, multiplayer, role-playing games set in Indian mythology. Technology that can let players tune into the gameplay’s audio in a language of their choice could potentially boost the reach of a title across the country (and internationally). Big Tech companies understand this. Earlier this year, Google announced a ‘Machine Translation’ service that will allow game developers to translate in-game text almost instantly, and for free.

We may not be close to a universal translator that works across the galaxy yet, but if India wants to export media/entertainment technology that people can use globally, it’s worth trying to invent some version of the Babel Fish.

Last Scroll Down📲

Tenor

No ‘likes’: Meta’s shareholders voted against a proposal to inquire into the company’s role in spreading hate speech in India. The proposal was submitted by a consortium of NGOs, including India’s Internet Freedom Foundation and Eko, among others. Eko had submitted a similar proposal opposing Google’s plans to open data centres in countries with rampant human rights violations such as Saudi Arabia. Other shareholders demanded Google reconsider plans in countries like India, where internet shutdowns are increasingly common. Google’s parent Alphabet has opposed the proposal.

Reality wars: Meanwhile, Meta is fighting Apple for dominance over the nascent AR/VR headset business. Meta’s Quest 3 seems heavily focused on gaming, in line with the company’s metaverse business efforts. Meanwhile, Apple’s Vision Pro (priced at a whopping $3,499) seems more like an immersive way to browse the internet and maybe watch movies.

Not backing down: There’s a fight brewing for IMAX screens in the US between two ardent purists of the medium—actor Tom Cruise and director Christopher Nolan. According to Puck, Cruise is upset that exhibitors are allotting all IMAX screens to Nolan’s upcoming Oppenheimer from July 21 onwards, slashing the exclusive window of the actor’s upcoming Mission Impossible 7 just ten days after release. He is now reportedly demanding exhibitors give his film more time in non-IMAX screens. Since the pandemic, big budget Hollywood films are releasing in quick succession, potentially eating into each other’s business.

Not happening: News veteran Malini Parthasarathy has resigned as chairperson of The Hindu Group. In a tweet, she said that space for editorial views was shrinking and hinted at a disagreement with the Board. According to The News Minute, she had proposed becoming editorial director of the group but was turned down. Parthasarathy has been criticised for appearing close to the Union government and the BJP; in 2021, The Hindu Group’s director N Ram distanced himself from Parthasarathy’s visit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Onto the bandwagon: Journalist and TV anchor Faye D’Souza has launched a news aggregation app, Beatroot. The app promises ‘nutritious’ news that’s good for the reader. It’s currently open to a limited number of downloads. Beetroot seems to be a natural extension of the news aggregation D’Souza has been doing on her Instagram account. However, other apps like InShorts are already well entrenched in the news aggregation business.

No can’t do: Streaming platforms including Netflix and Amazon are planning a legal challenge to a new government rule asking them to insert anti-tobacco warnings on their content. India’s health ministry has asked for nearly minute-long disclaimers bookending all films and series that feature people smoking or using tobacco. Platforms say this will discourage foreign producers from releasing their work in India. Besides, everyone will have to go back and edit millions of hours of already available content.

Beefing up: Reddit is trimming costs and raking in the cash to get profitable in time for a public listing. It is laying off 5% of its workforce and has jacked up fees for access to its APIs. It’s widely being seen as a move to kill third-party apps. Reddit has its own app, but it’s a lot less popular than a bevy of third party apps. This move has upset Redditors so much that several large subreddits are staging a 48-hour blackout.

Trumpet 🎺

Doctor vs. Ffinfluencer is not a common Twitter showdown. But Monday afternoon became a moshpit on Indian Twitter as original finbro Ankur Warikoo posted a long thread on his fitness journey, complete with suggestions for protein and other supplements.

The thread included affiliate links to these products, although Warikoo said he plans to donate this affiliate income towards the education of underprivileged children.

Warikoo’s tweets were soon picked up by healthcare professionals such as Dr Cyriac Abby Philips, popular on Twitter as ‘@theliverdr’. He particularly took objection to recommendations like curcumin (haldi) and ashwagandha supplements, pointing out that these can cause liver damage. That soon devolved into a lengthy back-and-forth between Warikoo and Philips.

Still, the memes mocking Warikoo’s seemingly-sudden pivot from crypto recommendations to protein shakes came in thick and fast (this one is in Hindi). That’s probably because just a couple of weeks ago, finfluencer PR Sundar settled a case (with a hefty fine) with markets regulator Sebi for offering unauthorised investment advice. Finfluencers have been running for cover ever since. I covered the fallout of this incident in last week’s edition of The Impression.

From Vauld to Whey, Warikoo’s come a long way. All this shows is that being an influencer now is getting harder and harder; there’s always pesky meme accounts and aggressive fact-checkers waiting to pounce.

That’s all this week. If you enjoyed reading The Impression, please share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. And please write to me anytime at [email protected] with thoughts, feedback, criticism or anything you’d like to see discussed in this space. I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading, and see you again next Wednesday!

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