westworld and subtitles

I intend to write on this topic as a longer essay at some point soon but the “Kiksuya” episode of Westworld, Season 2 touched a few chords that are the inspiration for this post. There are a lot of things to appreciate about the episode but what I appreciated the most was the makers choosing to use the Lakota language for both voice-overs and character dialogues.

This is a topic especially close to my heart, based on my experiences as both an Indian filmmaker and an Indian viewer in the US. As a viewer, it has always been frustrating to see films or shows where Indian characters (or any non-western ethnic characters for that matter) talk in English. To make the situation worse, such English dialogues almost always use written, formal English rather than conversational English with slang and humor, which almost always is reserved for the white characters. In that sense, use of the non native language is almost always a reliable indicator of one-dimensional characters.

As a filmmaker, I chose to make films on Indian characters, even when the audience was mostly a film-festival audience (or in other words, an older white demographic). This choice was partly borne as a reaction to depiction of Indian characters on TV, and films (both short and feature films). Interestingly, this depiction wasn’t limited only to those by white filmmakers, but also by Indian-American filmmakers. Looking back, frustration stemming from the stereotypical depiction of Indian characters (those set in India, as well as first-generation Indians) by Indian American filmmakers, was a big reason for the choices I made — making a statement by showing similar Indian characters as multidimensional, and having a fuller life than usually depicted.

I learnt that the choice to have subtitles for most of the film’s duration, for a film that is set in the US, was always a controversial one. Even if it was a short film. Anyone who consulted on the film, or had a chance to offer an opinion, initially discouraged the prospect. I’ve first-hand heard film festival programming staff from a prestigious Indian film festival discouraging using subtitles to make the film more 'competitive’.

All of this is to say, that using subtitles for showing characters authentically is not a popular choice. We live in a multicultural world, and want to create multicultural stories yet choose to make them in a single language. The common refrain on this topic is “that people don’t like to read subtitles while watching films”. I could write a lot about the problems with both the assumptions and the general evidence supplied in its support, but I think Westworld did us a favor.

I loved that the “Kiksuya” episode broke that myth, and broke it in style! Not only did it have characters who would normally speak to each other in Lakota, use Lakota but that it went over and beyond by choosing to do the the long voiceover, mirroring Native American Oral storytelling traditions, in Lakota. There was no reason for them to do this since the Maeve’s daughter (the audience of the storytelling) ostensibly only spoke English, and they had a plausible reason for having that story in English. But by instead using the other side of plausibility, they raised the experience by a couple of notches and broke some barriers for other filmmakers to do so.

For young filmmakers trying to make their mark, I can understand their choice to not use subtitles, and instead have characters speak in English. Therefore, it is for established filmmakers to use their power to break these barriers. And Westworld did just that, and did that well!