The ascendancy of South Indian cinema in the Indian film market and the eclipsing of Bollywood have taken filmdom by surprise. Many reasons have been offered for this, many of them plausible, especially the fact that the astronomical fees charged by Bollywood stars have made their films unviable. Whether a film is a blockbuster or flop becomes widely debatable in the context of the actual costs incurred. I believe that purely economic explanations such as these are trivial, and understanding the socio-political reason would be more interesting. Popular cinema has a mass following and audience concerns dictate the tendencies of films through the “natural selection” of successful formulae. Conversely, the direction taken by successful cinema provides clues to public concerns.
This article was driven by the success of Rishab Shetty’s Kannada film Kantara, which has become a huge hit across India. K.G.F: Chapter 2 (2022) was the last Kannada blockbuster to succeed across India but there is a difference between KGF2 and Kantara in terms of their cultural origins. Kannada cinema, until a few years ago, was a predominantly “Old Mysore” cultural product. It originated in the former princely state of Mysore (once under indirect British rule) and largely addressed the public from that territory. There could not be, in Kannada cinema, a fruitful romance between someone from that region and someone from another part of Karnataka, say Dakshina Kannada (once under Madras Presidency) or Bidar (once in Nizam’s Hyderabad).
Mysore had the acknowledged characteristics of a “nation within a nation” and 1956 (when States were linguistically reorganised) meant more to Kannada cinema than 1947, which is the turning point for Hindi cinema. In politics, there was the hegemony of Old Mysore at the State level, with leaders from the other regions, with some exceptions, more likely to find places at the Centre. H.D. Deve Gowda, B.S. Yediyurappa, S.M. Krishna, Bangarappa, Siddaramaiah, and D.K. Shivakumar are from Old Mysore while Oscar Fernandes, Janardhana Poojary, Margaret Alva, and Mallikarjun Kharge are from other parts of Karnataka. Kannada film icons, hitherto, have generally been from Mysore (now Mysuru).
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But Kantara is a cultural product of Dakshina Kannada, from where filmmakers have only recently entered the region’s cinema. A striking feature emerges if Kantara and KGF 2 are compared— Kantara is determinedly local while KGF 2 strives for an all-India appeal. KGF 2 is “regional” in being a Kannada movie but it has national ambitions and can be reworked in Hindi but Kantara, which includes bits of the Tulu language, would lose virtually all its cultural significance if remade in Hindi. I would consider Kantara a landmark for Indian cinema, which cannot perhaps be said about the other recent South Indian films that became pan-Indian hits—such as KGF (2018), Pushpa: The Rise (2021), KGF2 (2022), RRR (2022) or Ponniyin Selvan: I (2022). Before explaining why, I must examine the pan-Indian appeal of these South Indian films. This means asking what they offer that Bollywood does not—that is, whether their socio-political content is different.
Narratives of the nation
South Indian regional films have often been remade in Hindi, but they still have a covertly oppositional relationship with Bollywood. To elaborate, Hindi films address a pan-Indian public while regional films address language identities. Sometimes the two identities come into conflict based on the issues and this shows in the films. Dubbing a regional film into Hindi could also change a film’s purport, as happened with Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992). In that film about a Tamil scientist being kidnapped in Kashmir, the wife grabs a Hindi-speaking soldier and screams at him in Tamil; the film is clearly playing the regional language card, which disappears when the film is dubbed into Hindi.
Regional films generally speak in two voices, one emphasising the separateness of the regional and the other valorising national goals and values. Hindi cinema is relatively uncomplicated since it can be regarded as a vehicle only for national concerns.
If one studies the distribution of male stardom at any time in Hindi cinema after 1947 one sees that three or four stars have dominated at each moment, and each one has carried forward a concern identifiable as a “narrative of the nation”. India being a patriarchal society, films dominated by the heroine ( Andaz, 1949) are specifically about gender issues and the condition of women—as “women” rather than as mothers or sweethearts. This is unlike Hollywood where a woman can be placed randomly in a “masculine” situation (like the military or the police). The “muscular” women in 1930s’ and 1940s’ Hindi cinema meant something specific in this context. The vigilante in Hunterwali (1935), for instance, essentially signalled the weak man, and appeared alongside the first Devdas (1935). It went along with a crisis of masculinity in the colonial era duly noted by social scientists such as Ashis Nandy.
The leading male heroes of the early 1950s were Dilip Kumar who through his “method” performances ( Babul, 1950) articulated the uncertainties of the young nation; Raj Kapoor, on whom rode egalitarian impulses ( Awaara, 1951); and Dev Anand who problematised the issue of the “modern” ( Baazi, 1951). There are multiple narratives at any one moment since the nation is a complex “organism” with many issues confronting it that merit narrativising. Hindi cinema needed to address a vast populace across the nation where different concerns could prevail while regional cinema, which addressed language identities, was more grounded in the smaller linguistic territory. Regional cinema could hence afford a single dominant male hero (NTR, Rajkumar, Uttam Kumar, MGR) who appeared in several narratives concurrently and played an enormous variety of roles.
The national narratives in Hindi cinema are driven by expectations about the socio-political future of the country, but with the Hindu right-wing tightening its hold over India, the possibility of multiple narratives has diminished. Patriotic messages have tended to stifle every other kind of narrative. The term “patriotic” is used to describe The Ghazi Attack (2017) and Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) but they are not from the same mould as Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967).
The older film invoked the family life of the soldier and suggested that war was only one activity that the nation was engaged in. The new films, however, are single-minded in suggesting that military/patriotic duty prevails over everything else. By this definition The Kashmir Files (2022) is not quite a simple humanistic film about the “ethnic cleansing” of Kashmiri Pandits but is deliberately designed to be about patriotic Hindus brutally targeted by pro-Pakistani Kashmiri Muslims. Also, patriotic narratives (which would include films like Padmaavat) can do without major stars since the emotions are simpler; I would attribute the decline of the male star also to that factor.
Salman Khan (arguably) represented semi-urban India’s resistance to the increasingly Anglophone culture of the metropolises, but even that has perhaps become irrelevant, with patriotism spreading as a monoculture. Bollywood stars may have become too greedy, devouring much of every film’s budget, but they have become so at the wrong time, when there are fewer national issues to narrativise.
When we examine the big-budget south Indian films triumphing at the expense of Bollywood, we find altogether different messages: Resistance to central authority is one that recurs—with unkempt facial hair often marking the protagonist/rebel. On studying the other dramatis personae in these films we find that those who represent authority in KGF 2 and Pushpa are well-groomed. In RRR, the anti-British rebel played by NTR Jr has an unruly beard and his associate played by Ram Charan is cleanshaven when serving the British but grows a rough beard when he changes sides. This unkemptness, which goes beyond the macho signification of moustache and beard, suggests refusal to conform.
The protagonists of KGF 2 and Pushpa: The Rise are criminals and there is an explicit celebration of their criminality in both films, as though criminality represents “rebellion” or “resistance”. In both the films, an association is made between their immoral bosses and corrupt officialdom and the protagonist as a self-made man with a following of defenceless people. Rocky in KGF 2 even stands up to the (lady) Prime Minister, a “dictator”. In each of these films the conflict is between the regional hero and the central authority.
In Pushpa, the Telugu protagonist meets a brutal police officer (IPS) named Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat and humiliates him. RRR is ostensibly patriotic but it has the parodic attitude towards patriotism that Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) had towards the masala film. The protagonists surpassing the British in a dance contest can hardly be read another way. It is the parodic element that Western critics have responded to, and parody is covert mockery of what it is ostensibly imitating.
The corrupt/brutal servant of the law is not a new motif in Indian cinema. It went hand-in-hand with a sense of the weakening state, but the state was usually distinct from the nation. In the sports films of the last decade like Paan Singh Tomar (2012), the protagonist loves the nation but hates officialdom. It was as if the patriotic Indian needed to connect directly with the nation without the mediation of the state. The new South Indian films target the state as represented by the police with renewed vigour, but without a compensating eulogy of nationhood in the abstract as in Hindi films.
Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: I is more explicit in constructing a regional object for eulogy. The Cholas were in conflict with the Pandyas and it would not be appropriate to praise one at the expense of the other since both are Tamil. So, what Mani Ratnam does is to uphold instead the glory of the place and its times. The film may be taken to be a response to the north Indian bias in Bollywood’s historical films in which the Hindu-Muslim conflict dominates.
The only character in PS1 who might be termed a central “villain” is Madurantaka Chola, who seeks to be placed deviously on the Chola throne instead of the man who would later become Raja Raja Chola. Madurantaka is the only warrior not shown sporting a beard and the significance of facial hair is perhaps to drive home the masculinity of the warriors as people not engaging in subterfuge. The only cleanshaven male in the film is, significantly, a spy pretending to be a devout Vaishnavite.
To emphasise their valour, the kings are all great fighters and not content to simply lead others. In the Mahabharata, heroes (Karna, Arjuna) are different from kings (Yudhisthira, Duryodhana), but here the two are telescoped to facilitate a comprehensive eulogy of Tamil history. Battle scenes ignore the notions of strategy and leadership and armies simply charge at each other, with kings at the fore. The exalted Tamil language used in the film arguably also contributes to this.
Some representations in Kantara find parallels in the films just described, the most striking of which is its protagonist Shiva being engaged in illegal hunting and timber smuggling like Pushpa from the Telugu film. The story begins in 1847, when a king makes a pact with a local deity Panjurli (through an oracle) to give away a part of his land to the local tribespeople in exchange for peace and happiness. The pact is honoured until a descendant of the king (in 1970) demands the lands back; the threat of Panjurli’s rage at such flagrant dishonouring of the century-old pact with the deity does not deter him. He threatens to take the issue to court but is found mysteriously dead on the steps of the courtroom, as predicted by the deity.
In the present day, Shiva (Rishab Shetty) is an unruly but heroic figure in the forest where the most powerful person is the king’s descendant, Devendra Suttu. He has all the officials in his pocket until Muralidhara (Kishore) arrives there as the deputy range forest officer (DRFO). There is an immediate confrontation between Shiva and Murali, who tries to prevent the locals from gathering wood and hunting boar. The presence of the honest official as adversary to the protagonist complicates the story; Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat, IPS, in Pushpa was not in the same mould. If the official has unsavoury qualities, it is convenient to treat his writ as different from that of the state but here the DRFO is the state, and it is the state (and not an official) to whom Shiva is hostile. The fact that Shiva and his people are supported by the deity implies that his actions are unimpeachable.
The film has been hailed by Hindutva sympathisers but placing a deity in opposition to the state raises some difficult questions. Panjurli is not from mainstream Hinduism and it implies a conflict between the cult’s desire for autonomy and the mainstream’s attempts at subsumption. One of Panjurli’s manifestations is in the shape of a boar which is interpreted as Varaha, an avatar of Vishnu. But there is the likelihood that the boar being deemed an “avatar” was itself a part of such Brahminical appropriation and there could still be cults that worship the boar without a reference to Vishnu. Phrased differently, regardless of Panjurli being accepted as “Hindu”, the deity has an autonomous existence and significance that, to its devotees, need not be telescoped with the mainstream religion.
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This aspect of Kantara is perhaps too radical for Indian cinema today and Shetty, therefore, engineers it so that the state and the community have a rapprochement at the expense of the local landowner-villain, and a diversionary action sequence achieves that. At its conclusion, Shiva becomes the oracle of the deity although he has been ostensibly killed and his beloved—a forest department employee—is pregnant with his child.
The DRFO is shown to submit to Panjurli at the festival. If DRFO Muralidhara represents the state, his submission to Panjurli is quite the opposite of the nation state being made the sacred object in Hindi films. The way in which the motifs are brought together is complicated and Shetty may not be fully aware of what he has done. But the film allows for “mainstream Hindu” and Panjurli (as a local deity) not having identical constituencies. Kantara also suggests that the legitimate interests of the nation’s constituents may not be in sync with the nation state.
Object of loyalty
Kantara is singular for not being “regional cinema” as the other south Indian films described here are, but a new cinema with most of its moorings in local culture. Of the questions it raises with regard to our milieu and its cinematic representation, the chief ones are: (a) whether attempts to give a single philosophical purpose to a faith as diverse as Hinduism can do justice to its richness. Hinduism’s origins cannot be traced to a single point like Islam or Christianity and efforts in that direction would probably misrepresent it. (b) Whether religious motifs cannot be brought back fruitfully into artistic representations to help them embrace greater complexity.
The dry rationalist approach of official realism has perhaps outlived its utility. Kantara is one of those artistic exercises that actually gives religion a good name—because of its relationship with local rather than pan-national culture.
The other south Indian films invoked in this article locate themselves as regional constituents of India although with an uneasy relationship to the nation state, pointing to a desire for federalism instead of unqualified nationalism. PS1 apparently invokes only Tamil history but its heroic portrayals covertly draw attention to the neglect of the subject in the all-India context. Kantara may be in Kannada but it is not “regional” as much as a cinema that acknowledges the local before the regional and the national. Its widespread success suggests that despite the public efforts at building a homogeneous national culture, the local is alive and well and recognised as a legitimate object of loyalty across India.
M.K. Raghavendra is a Bengaluru-based film critic and writer on cinema, culture, and politics, who has written extensively on Hindi and regional cinema, chiefly their political aspects, and published several books on the subject.
- Regional films generally speak in two voices, one emphasising the separateness of the regional and the other valorising national goals and values.
- Resistance to central authority is one that recurs in South Indian films—with unkempt facial hair often marking the protagonist/rebel.
- Kantara is singular for not being “regional cinema” as most other south Indian films are, but a new cinema with most of its moorings in local culture.