Saturday, August 20, 2005

Tintin’s new voyage
The Belgian boy detective’s ever-popular adventures are now available off the video shop shelf in an array of Indian languages. Saibal Chatterjee reports.

How would the loquacious Captain Archibald Haddock say "billions of bilious barbecued blue blistering barnacles" in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam or Bengali? If you know these

Tintin’s new voyage
Indian languages and watch a bit of prime time television, you might have already begun to discover to your amazement that there are indeed various startling ways in which the irascible, bearded comic book seafarer’s unstoppable expletives can be rendered in this multilingual land of ours.

Indian language versions of the ever-popular Adventures of Tintin have been enjoying a healthy run on satellite television for some months now. The animated tales of Tintin are available in English on Zee Café, in Hindi on Zee TV, in Tamil on Doordarshan, and in Malayalam on Asianet. And now, these remarkably funny and delightfully inventive comic strip stories about a spunky Belgian boy detective battling bad guys of all hues and sizes in virtually every corner of the globe are available on Hindi-language VCDs and DVDs as well.

"There is a huge following for Tintin in this part of the world," says Jiten Hemdev of Star Entertainment, a Mumbai-based film and television distribution company that holds the sole and exclusive satellite/cable television and video distribution rights of the Tintin series in India. "Tintin works in India, as he does elsewhere in the world, because he is a character that is universally known and loved. Had we brought in an unknown animated TV show, it might not have clicked," he explains.

The arrival of 14 of the choicest Adventures of Tintin titles, including Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Red Sea Sharks, on Indian television and video screens is particularly significant because this is one of the few shows from Europe to be concertedly marketed in India in recent years. Usually, American products overwhelmingly dominate the mainstream home entertainment space.

Says Mohamed Bendjebbour, audiovisual attaché of the French embassy in New Delhi: "We are committed to funding efforts to popularise French films and TV shows. We have a scheme under which we support anybody who wants to bring French software into India."

That explains why the French embassy in India has opted to lend its name to the launch of the Tintin videos by part funding the dubbing of the episodes. "We will also participate actively in the exercise to market Tintin in India," says Bendjebbour.

Acknowledging the support of the French embassy, Hemdev says: "All this would not have been possible without them. They help us source films and TV shows, get in touch with production houses and set the negotiations in motion." According to Bendjebbour, the embassy in India will, over the next five years, pursue an aggressive promotional strategy for French-language entertainment software in partnership with Indian players. "That is the only way in which we can make progress," he adds.

The Tintin VCD and DVD titles now available in India constitute a large chunk of the commercially successful French-language Nelvana-Ellipse TV series that was carved out of 20 of the Tintin stories. First aired in the early 1990s, it contains thirtynine 26-minute episodes in all.

According to Hemdev, Tintin VCDs in English have already sold 1.5 lakh copies in India in under a year. Star Entertainment, in collaboration with Gipsy Videos, has now released one lakh VCDs of the same Tintin adventures in Hindi. "Tintin has done extremely well in English. Although the market for Tintin is still primarily in the big cities, we have reason to believe that the Hindi version too will go down well," Hemdev asserts.

In collaboration with Gipsy Video, owned by Mumbai’s Shethia Audio Video Limited, Star Entertainment has also released 25,000 Tintin DVDs. While the Hindi VCDs are priced at Rs 75 each, the DVDs will cost Rs 299. "Though the DVDs might seem a bit expensive, they are value for money. Each DVD contains two films with dual language tracks in English and Hindi. That means you get four films for the price of one. A VCD, in contrast, has only one film and a single language option," says Hemdev.

History is certainly on Tintin’s side. Nowhere in the world have the Tintin books ever failed to make an impact. The 24 comic books created by Belgian artist-writer Georges Remi, better known simply as Herge, have sold upwards of 200 million copies the world over, having been translated in more than 50 languages, including the likes of Chinese, Malay and Tibetan. Every 10 seconds, somewhere in the world, a Tintin book, video or piece of merchandise is sold.

Tintin’s global reach can be best gauged from the fact that Hollywood has had its eyes on Herge’s hero for several decades. Indeed, Tintin has also been the subject of several full-fledged motion pictures around the world. But none would have been bigger than the one that is currently in the works.

Steven Spielberg, no less, owns the rights to a trilogy of live-action Tintin films. Plans have been on the drawing board since the early 1980s. But according to reports from Hollywood, Spielberg has now confirmed that the Tintin trilogy, dormant for long, is indeed moving ahead. When the films do get off the ground, they will reportedly be a joint venture between Spielberg’s DreamWorks and Universal Studios.

Speculation is already rife about the Tintin stories that Spielberg will take up for screen adaptation. Although Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon is believed to be one of the pairs of books in the running, the other adventures that run over two separate books – The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure; The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun; and The Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet – stand the best chance of being successfully adapted.

Spielberg’s lingering interest in Herge’s creation is clear proof of the fact that Tintin’s appeal cuts across age groups, cultural and geographical borders and all other divides that separate people from people. It is easy to see why: the adventures provide clean fun, riveting stories, stunningly detailed drawings and wonderful humour, some slapstick, some subtle.

Says Hemdev: "What separates Tintin from most other comic book heroes is that it is targeted at slightly older children, those in the eight to 12 or 13 age group. The likes of Popeye are really meant for the four to eight age group."

Buoyed by the strong Indian market response to Tintin both on television and on home video, Hemdev’s company is now planning to release the series in Telugu for telecast on a satellite channel. "We have ensured the highest quality by getting the dubbing done in Kolkata (for Bengali) and Chennai (for the South Indian language versions), and not in Mumbai. We did not want the translation to sound stilted or the voices and dictions to be anything less than authentic," says Hemdev.

An unrealised journey, it would seem, has finally come to fruition. Tintin, one of the world’s best loved comic strip heroes, never ever made it to India for a full-fledged adventure. He did make a couple of brief stopovers though. On one occasion, he spent a few hours sightseeing in Delhi on the way to Tibet. Yet another time, he crashed his plane in the jungles of an Indian princely state with the rather unlikely name of Gaipajama.

There is, of course, that apocryphal story about the creator of Tintin, Herge. Towards the end of his life, he was on the verge of conjuring up an adventurous voyage to Calcutta for his spunky cub reporter and his faithful white fox terrier, Snowy. But that was not to be. Even as Herge was working on his last comic book, Tintin and Alph-Art, he contracted leukemia, the disease that cut short his life.

Herge, who died in 1983 aged 76, had once written that he received a lot of mail from India. He wondered: "Here, in my office, are two letters from Calcutta. Now, what can there be in common between a boy in Calcutta and myself."

Well, there is an unexplained bond between Herge’s immortal comic strip creation, who first appeared in 1929 on the pages of the weekly children’s newspaper, Petit Vingtieme, in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, and Kolkata. Bengali is the only Indian language into which all the Tintin books have been translated. It is not without reason that Hemdev found the production of the Bengali-language version of the Adventures of Tintin by far the easiest.

Herge’s art had heart

HergeWhat is it about the Tintin comic books that make them so popular 75-odd years after they were first conceived? The exotic locations for one certainly have a magnetic pull. Which other boy-hero has had adventures as varied and as extraordinary as Tintin? He has chased opium peddlers across the scorching Sahara Desert. He has been on a hijacked plane in the company of a millionaire who never laughs. He has overthrown a South American despot in a bloodless coup. He has outwitted Al Capone on the latter’s home turf. He has explored the ‘horrors’ of life under Communism in Moscow. He has retrieved a meteorite near the North Pole. What’s more, Tintin has also hitched a ride on a flying saucer. Can anybody beat that?

The fascinating gallery of characters created by Herge, too, has its own timeless appeal. But above all, the element of authenticity that the creator brought into virtually every single story is what places the Adventures of Tintin in a class by itself. Herge did extensive research about a place before locating an adventure there. For instance, in The Blue Lotus, set in Shanghai, every single street sight, wall hanging and Chinese character is accurate. In the make-believe world of comic strips, Herge had a way of simulating a rare air of realism.

But his characters were completely out of this world. Is there anybody quite like Captain Haddock or Professor Cuthbert Calculus anywhere else? While Tintin battled gun-runners, slave traders, currency forgers and opium smugglers, among other crooks, his most trusted ally, Captain Haddock, unleashed his payload of verbal abuses – they add up to nearly 200 at last count – at anybody who dared to cross his path.

From the most famous "blistering barnacles" variants to similarly outrageous ones like "cachinnating cockatoo", "miserable molecule of mildew", and "raggle-taggle ruminants", he stopped at nothing. No less intriguing is Professor Calculus, a hard-of-hearing inventor who is perennially lost in his own world and is a constant recipient of barbs from those around him. Fortunately for him, he cannot hear most of them. And what about Thomson and Thompson, the pair of bumbling, spoonerism spewing sleuths who are unrelated but are look-alikes except for the difference in the shapes of their moustaches?

There has been nobody quite like Herge. Neither has there been anything quite like his fertile imagination and master strokes. Herge’s art had heart. No wonder the thrill of Tintin’s worldwide peregrinations still strikes a chord with readers and viewers thousands of miles across the sea. — S. C.