In the south: Local flavour, global reach

Print edition : September 01, 2017

A still from Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. It is the most recent testament to the strength and potential of "regional", "vernacular" cinema to create state-of-the-art spectacle that can take on both Bollywood and Hollywood on their own terms.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a generation of angry young men who were disillusioned, lonely and frustrated with the system. Kamal Hassan, Rajinikanth, Vishnuvardhan and Ambarish gave body and voice to the angst and anger of these decades.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a generation of angry young men who were disillusioned, lonely and frustrated with the system. Mammootty, Mohanlal, Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna gave body and voice to the angst and anger of these decades.

(Clockwise from top left) Bapu, Puttanna Kanagal, Jandhyala, B.R. Panthulu.

(Clockwise from top left) Balu Mahendra, K. Balachander, Aravindan, K. Viswanath.

(Clockwise from top left) Bharathirajaa, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Maniratnam, Girish Kasaravalli.

There has been a radical change in all areas of film-making in the new millennium. But the crisis of the local and regional in globalised times is that its own audience is hooked on the global. If any kind of alternative cinema is to survive, film-makers of the local need to create new narratives of space and time, by bringing everything back to human scale, natural pace and historical moment.

The phenomenal success of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, which grossed more than Rs.1,750 crore, is the most recent testament to the strength and potential of “regional”, “vernacular” cinema to create state-of-the-art spectacle that can take on both Bollywood and Hollywood on their own terms. Dubbed into other languages and released across the globe, this “Telugu” film showed that Indian cinema is not just Bollywood but much more diverse and complex than that. Keeping a global audience in mind, the film has no specific regional markers to it but is set in a totally fictional and imaginary space and time. At the same time, it also cleverly plays with certain “pan-Indian” tropes such as racial/casteist prejudices, glorification of macho heroism, and obsession with fair skin.

One major narrative strand of Baahubali 2 is the jealousy and feud between two brothers, the biological child and the adopted one. This sibling rivalry and the warring claims of the brothers over the kingdom could be read as a metaphor for Indian cinema too, where the tussle for the audience market and for the nomenclature “Indian cinema” is between the colossal Bollywood on the one side, which represents the “Indian”, and the various other major cinema industries in India such as Tamil and Telugu on the other, which are dubbed “regional”. If Hollywood is the major opponent for all national cinemas in the world, within the Indian national territory, Bollywood has a similar presence and scale that looms large over the horizons of “vernacular” or “regional” cinemas. So, the sibling rivalry in Indian cinema invariably extends to claims over the Indian cinema kingdom, as its real and authentic inheritor.

Like Baahubali, non-Hindi cinemas in India, despite their proven skills, technical virtuosity and rich lineage, have long been banished to the margins of the empire of Indian cinema and from the status of “national” cinema. They are often called “local”, “vernacular” or “regional” cinema, while Bollywood anoints itself as “Indian”. Sadly, this is reiterated and reaffirmed by Indian film writing, theorising and also history writing, where Hindi cinema occupies the central position around which the whole discourse is spun. It is replicated in the “Indian Cinema” sections, retrospectives and packages in the international film festival circuit too. In effect, Bollywood has been magnified to its present status by brute commercial power as well as by the social acceptance and cultural capital it has accumulated in the post-Independence decades.

Quantity & reach

The language-wise data of the Central Board of Film Certification show that of 1,902 films certified during 2015-16, Hindi tops the list with 340 films, closely followed by Tamil (291), Telugu (275), Kannada (204), Marathi (181), Malayalam (168) and Bengali (149). The rest of the films (294) are made in 34 languages and constitute only 16 per cent of the total. Although, in terms of numbers Hindi cinema constitutes only 18 per cent, with regard to revenue it accounts for 43 per cent! Tamil and Telugu cinemas come next with 19 and 17 per cent respectively, with the rest of the other regional cinemas accounting for only 14 per cent (Deloitte Report on Economic Contribution of Indian Motion Picture and Television Industry, 2016).

According to the Deloitte Report, “South Indian film industry is very vibrant with revenue expected to grow at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 12 per cent reaching over INR 42 billion by 2017. This segment is dominated by Tamil and Telugu films (90 per cent) with 365 films released in 2015…. Tamil and Telugu films have started to gain nation-wide and international popularity.” Obviously the sibling rivalry is gathering storm, and if films like Enthiran and Baahubali are any indication, one can expect south Indian cinema to command more share in terms of revenue too.

The first encounters

The first ever film screening in south India was in Madras (now Chennai) in 1897, just two years after the Lumiere screening in Paris. Within three years, the first ever cinema house in south India, Electric Theatre, was also built. Nataraja Mudaliar made the first feature film in south India, Keechakavadham, in 1917, and the first talkie, Kalidas, came out in 1931. Soon studios came up in Madras, making it the centre of production for films in Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam too. The first films in Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam appeared in the 1920s, followed by talkies in the next decade.

According to historians, hundreds of silent films were made in Madras and were distributed across south India. But from among them only one film survives: Marthandavarma (1933), a historical made in Malayalam; its print survived as it was seized following a legal dispute over the copyright of the novel on which the film was based.

By 1947, south Indian cinema had already established itself as a full-fledged industry with Madras as its centre. Major studios such as Modern Theatre, AVM, Gemini and Vijaya-Vauhini produced 33 films on an average every year in the 1940s and around 151 films in the 1950s in all south Indian languages. If south Indian films accounted for 17 per cent of the total number of films in the 1940s, their share shot up to 54 per cent in the next decade. Currently, it is still around 50 per cent; figures for 2016 show that it is 938 films out of 1,902 made in the country.

In the period up to 1947, when cinema was a new medium carving a space for itself, it resorted to picturising narratives that were already popular and known; most of the films made during this period in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada were based on the puranas, the epics, folk tales and stories about saints. According to N. Kalyanaraman, “the talkie cinema in its initial years availed of the pre-existing cultural resources in society, namely, drama troupes and their personnel. It also drew on the collective memory of society in the form of the mythological to establish itself in the popular imagination.” Malayalam cinema, comparatively a latecomer on the scene, was an exception to this. Following the trends in theatre and literature of the times, which was heavily influenced by social realist themes and the search for indigenous realism, the Malayalam film scene was dominated by “socials”. In each language, movies, even while following the same montage styles and mise en scene patterns, explored stories that were in conversation and continuity with other narrative mediums and also the sociopolitical and economic forces at work in society.

Decades of self-respect and self-criticism

By 1950, major studios in Madras were churning out films in all the four major south Indian languages. Since they all used the same talent pool of technicians, studio sets, post-production units, labs and other facilities, their visual language, editing patterns, lighting, indoor settings, background score, music, songs, and so on, had a lot of features in common. As films from all the languages often shared the sets, especially of indoors, and used the same music scores for songs and dance, they had the same look, sound and feel. But with regard to their major thematic concerns and stories, they drew from local literature and theatre. In all cinemas, there was also an intense feeling of cultural and linguistic identity that had a constant and sometimes uneasy engagement with the dominant idea of the Indian nation that circumscribed, contextualised and complicated their political vision.

In the years before and after Independence, a number of films fired by the nationalist ethos and the spirit of the freedom struggle were made in all the languages (here too, Malayalam remains an exception). Apart from mythological and saint films that had both spiritual and social implications, those dealing explicitly with social evils such as untouchability, and economic issues like poverty, conflicts of urbanisation, and confrontations with modernity were also made. But in each State, an amalgam of erstwhile princely states and presidencies, these themes and issues took different cinematic avatars, with wide differences in emphasis and priorities, depending on intra-State issues of various kinds like caste equations, regional power balance and economic divides. Likewise, cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi have also played a major role as the setting and stage of film narratives.

The changing role and status of these cities in their respective cinemas document the history of the region within the nation, the effects and affects of the development agenda in the post-Independence decades, and their effects upon spatial geography and human survival. Another significant factor that contributed to regional diversity is the diaspora community of each language which influenced the cinemas in a big way, both as financiers and as overseas market. Tamil cinema has a huge following from its diaspora spread all over the country and the world, which is the case with Telugu too, while it is very limited in the case of Kannada. For Malayalam, since the 1970s the Gulf migrants have been a consistent source of investment.

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the emergence of the first generation of superstars such as Sivaji Ganesan and M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil, Sathyan and Prem Nazir in Malayalam, N.T. Rama Rao and Nageswara Rao in Telugu, and Rajkumar in Kannada. At the national level, an array of public institutions and arrangements came into being during this period: the Film Finance Corporation, the Film & Television Institute of India, the National Film Archives of India, the National Film Awards, and the International Film Festival of India. These institutions, for the first time, recognised cinema as an art form worth teaching and promoting and as a national cultural heritage worth preserving. The impact of these institutions began to be felt pronouncedly in the next decades—especially by recognising and showcasing the best of “regional” cinemas at the national level every year and through funding some of the landmark films which produced some of the most creative artists and technicians who made significant contributions in the next decades.

By the 1960s, in all languages, “socials” emerged as the most popular genre, focussing on social issues of various kinds within the imaginary of the nation. It necessarily had an idealist hero, and sometimes a heroine, at the centre of the narrative, and its conflicts were elaborated and played out in the arena of the community and family, which was under severe stress in its confrontations with modernity and urbanisation.

The decades of anger and despair

By the late 1960s and early 1970s there were conscious efforts on the part of State governments to relocate their film industry from Madras to their own States, by creating sufficient facilities and giving subsidies to promote local industry. This not only relocated the industry but also facilitated “localisation” of the narratives, bringing into the visual field different locales, cityscapes and architecture that gave the films a more authentic look and feel. Freed from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the studios, cinema in many languages returned to the villages. Film-makers such as Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, P.N. Menon, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Bapu, K. Viswanath, Jandhyala, Vamsi, B.R. Panthulu, Puttanna Kannagal, B.V. Karanth, K.S. Murthy and R. Ramamurthy brought into the glamorous and melodramatic world of cinema a certain rural rusticity and realistic aesthetic. Their stories were about people who yearned to break the shackles of the past and become citizens of a modern, secular nation.

Such localisation, while individualising cinemas, limited the synergic interactions and exchanges that used to happen in the earlier decades through remakes, and also the release in other States of films dubbed into those languages. But it helped the development of film music in a big way. Singers, music directors and lyricists in each language experimented boldly with folk, classical, Western and pop music, mixing and tweaking them to create a secular and modern musical experience. In many cases, more than the films themselves, the songs lasted in public memory far longer through radio and, later, television.

If cinema of the two post-Independence decades were that of idealist protagonists who represented society, community or certain class, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the emergence of a generation of angry young men who were disillusioned, lonely and frustrated with the system. Actors such as Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth, Vishnuvardhan and Ambarish, Mammootty and Mohanlal, Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna gave body and voice to the angst and anger of the angry decades. The institutional initiatives in the earlier decades gave birth to a radical transformation in the film idiom and narrative styles in many languages, resulting in an “Indian new wave” of sorts. But its impact was not uniform across south India.

If institutional funding and national and international recognitions, along with art movements and institutions at the State level, triggered a host of films and film-makers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Pattabhirama Reddy and Girish Kasaravalli in Malayalam and Kannada, its impact was minimal or feeble in the other two cinemas, which continued with their emphasis on commercial and entertainment quotients. It was a time when the industry was shifting from black and white to colour; these new film-makers produced a slew of films that captured the angst and anger of the times. There was a sense of despair and despondency in the air, and films resonated with the political turmoil of the period. If in Malayalam it was a curious mix of existentialism and political extremism, in Karnataka the art films of the period were devastating critiques of tradition and the feudal order. In Tamil, film-makers such as Jayakanthan and K. Balachander looked at the moral degeneration and decay of the middle class and the despairs of urbanisation.


Apart from the rise of the so-called “new wave” in various languages, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the rise of cine-politics in the south. One of the most striking features of south Indian cinema that fascinates and intrigues political scientists and film scholars is the curious relationship between cinema and politics in south Indian States. Except for Kerala, in all other States, film stars have had a huge impact on politics in the post-Independence decades, which scholars like Madhavaprasad terms “cine-politics” where “a virtual political community is forged between a star and his fan following”. C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa and Vijayakanth in Tamil Nadu, N.T. Rama Rao and Chiranjeevi in Andhra Pradesh, and Rajkumar in Karnataka had a huge following both in the film and in the political arena. If the MGR persona was built through a careful calibration of the image of a people’s leader, it was a different story in Andhra Pradesh where N.T. Rama Rao built his political image through mythological and folklore films. Although Rajkumar never launched a party of his own, he wielded immense influence over public opinion, which was evident when he came out in open support of the Gokak agitation which demanded primacy for the Kannada language in education and administration.

In Tamil Nadu, if cinema was used as a medium to propagate anti-caste politics of the Dravidar Kazhagam among the masses in the early period, later the image capital accumulated by stars began to dominate and direct the political scene. If cinema followed politics earlier, it was the other way round later. Such political mobilisation was made possible through fan clubs (another south Indian phenomenon) that were already active, which, when the stars became politicians, transformed themselves into party branches of sorts.

Curiously, it was in the post-Emergency period that cine-politics began to make real headway. Nehruvian ideals were losing their sheen, and the state had shown, even though briefly, its authoritarian face during the Emergency. Why it happened only in certain States is intriguing, but as Madhavaprasad points out, “the phenomenon of cine-politics makes a vital difference to our understanding of Indian political history, and demands that we return to the drawing board to reconceptualise the political order we inhabit.

Given the context of the supranational identity of India, other national identities are obliged to express themselves indirectly. The virtual political orders produced by cinema serve this specific function. In the moment of their transition from such virtual politics into real political processes in historical time, stars and their political parties participated in and contributed to the emerging trend across the country towards the assertion of regional autonomy against central dominance. They helped to institute, within these realms, alternative sovereignties through which demobilised populations attained subjecthood” ( Cine-Politics, pages 26-27). Obviously, this observation about cine-politics closely resonates in the field of film economy, too, where Bollywood plays the role of the centre pushing all other cinemas to seek alternative sovereignties.

Actor duos

Another interesting feature of south Indian cinema has been the rise and popularity of male actor duos. This was especially prominent in the “analog”, pre-television decades prior to the 1990s. By the 1960s, when the cinema industry struck deep roots with the rural electrification programme and the coming of large theatre networks across the region, stars began to emerge and became the most prominent selling point. Along with it, there arose male star “duos” such as M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, N.T. Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageswara Rao, Sathyan and Prem Nazir, followed by Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth, Mammootty and Mohanlal, and Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna. Among them, one star embodied the macho, idealist, swashbuckling and sometimes mythical figure, while the other was the melodramatic, romantic and tragic hero. If one was a masculine crusader and patriarch, the other was vulnerable and fragile. In a way, the persistence of these duos points towards society’s ambivalence towards sexuality and the inner conflicts within a male imagination about women that is caught between the patriarch who yearns to protect and rule, and the romantic, who loves to care and share. Interestingly, Kannada cinema may be the only exception to this, maybe because of the predominance of Rajkumar, who ruled over the film narrative world, donning all the roles.

Interestingly, women and family played a central role in the narratives that shaped the duo—it is within the imaginary of family, society and community that these men proved their mettle and settled scores, won wars and loves, and fought evils and wrongs. But since the 1990s, most probably with the emergence of television as the most pervasive visual entertainment medium, the centrality of film narratives, and the power of film heroism in the public imagination gradually eroded. Certain communalist macho heroes emerged onscreen. They were from certain caste groups in rural areas or from the underbelly of the urban jungle, and they were like lone wolves venting their masculine frustrations upon a hostile world that neither cared for rural solidarities, nor provided them urban anonymity and freedom.

The conquistadors who went north

Interestingly, while male actors mostly stuck to their languages, female actors from south India made victorious and glamorous forays into other cinemas, especially Hindi. Sarada, Lakshmi, Sreevidya, Silk Smitha, Nayantara and Bhavana acted in several south Indian language films, while others such as Padmini, Vyjayantimala, Rekha and Sridevi made it big in Hindi cinema too. Likewise, many film-makers from the south were multilingual film-makers who were at ease with several languages. In the 1950s, film-makers such as S.S. Vasan found greener pastures in Hindi with spectacles like Chandralekha that left the nation spellbound. In the next generation, directors K.S. Sethumadhavan and K. Balachander, both of whom made successful films in all south Indian languages, made forays into Hindi, turning out hits like Julie and Ek Duje Ke Liye. In the 1990s, talented film-makers such as Maniratnam, Ram Gopal Varma and Priyadarshan migrated to Hindi and made a significant impact on the industry. Their films were not mere spectacles, but those which dared to explore very sensitive subjects and thematic territories. Maniratnam films Roja, Bombay, Dil Se and Kannathil Mutthamittal dealt with burning issues like the communal divide in the post-Babri Masjid years, separatist movements in Kashmir and north-eastern India, and the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. In films such as Shiva, Satya, Rangeela, Company and Drohi, Ram Gopal Varma delved into the dark, violent world of student politics, urban gangsters and mafia gangs. Priyadarshan created a niche for himself with a series of comedy films like Hera Pheri, Chup Chup Ke, Bhagam Bhag and Malamaal Weekly. Most of them were remakes of successful Malayalam films. But in the new millennium, this trend seems to have been reversed, with big-time directors like Shanker and Rajamouli making films primarily in their own languages and packaging them as multilingual productions targeting a national and global market.

The era of liberalisation & television

Economic liberalisation led to the retreat of the state from several vital areas of the economy and culture, and the entry of private television channels in many ways transformed the Indian film industry and its old revenue models. With a plethora of television serials entering homes, cinema encountered a serious threat in many of the thematic terrains, especially the family dramas that used to sustain it. Though television provided yet another source of revenue and publicity, cinema had to reinvent itself thematically and visually in order to lure its audiences from home to the theatre. There was a shift towards the big and the spectacular; and the male star began to gain more machismo and power. It was as if television became female and cinema, male. An era was coming to an end and a new set of young directors and actors entered the scene during this period.

Breaking away from the narrative modes and mores of the earlier decades, the films of the post-globalisation decades had a new, violent vigour to them. Whether set in an urban or rural milieu, their heroes were from the underclass, gangsters or revenge-seekers who functioned outside civic institutions and morality. They were free of the social, political and moral obligations and allegiances of their predecessors. The most glaring visual symbol of this shift is the all-pervasive presence of the aruval (the long-handled machete) that glorified and propagated the mythology of a community based on martial pride and honour. Interestingly, this so-called Madurai genre of films had its imitators in all south Indian languages. Equally violent and macho notions about honour, especially with regard to “ownership” of women, became popular among the youth. In a way, they seem to embody certain angry reactions against a world that was changing beyond recognition, where village economies and allegiances were crumbling, with the new urban formations not giving any scope or space for a better life.

Shifts in focus

In the new millennium, with the shift from analog to digital, there has been a radical change in all areas of film-making. The facility to work with small crews and ease of access to technology spurred a lot of young film-makers to work outside the mainstream and experiment with the medium. One finds a new generation of film-makers in all languages who are able to develop a visual idiom and thematic terrains of their own. Bala, Mysskin, Sasikumar, Vettrimaran, Amshan Kumar, Pa Ranjith, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, Vipin Vijay, Sudevan, Rajeev Ravi, Aashiq Abu, and Dileesh Pothen, Rama Reddy, Pawan Kumar, Lingadevaru and Rakshit Shetty explore the inner and outer, personal and social, political and casteist conflicts of life in India in post-globalisation times.

What is evident is a shift in focus from the nation to the region, and to the sociopolitical and caste dynamics within States, which itself is a federation of erstwhile princely states and colonial territories. For instance, M.K. Raghavendra describes the narrative terrains of contemporary Kannada cinema thus: “On the subject of how Kannada cinema regards Karnataka today, one could say that the state is segmented into three partly overlapping territories and while the first territory (‘the region’) is the geographic space once constituting princely Mysore, the second is apparently Bangalore/Bengaluru. Kannada cinema today regards as its major constituency those with their roots in the first territory but economically dependent on Bengaluru. The third territory is constituted by the Kannada-speaking areas excluded by the first two, territory that Kannada cinema has generally declined to address.” Likewise, the narratives on and about Telangana have a different story to tell within the contours of the linguistic territory of Telugu.

Another major thematic area coming to the fore recently is the life and experiences of other genders that were either ridiculed in or erased from the narrative world. The past decade saw many films going beyond heterosexual horizons and into the lives and experiences of other genders. The after-effects of rampant urbanisation, displacement caused by “development” and migration for livelihood, and, more importantly, subtle ways in which caste persists in our lives today and so on constitute other major themes in films today.

So, films such as Baahubali, even when they make phenomenal commercial success and command immense popularity, do not represent or connect with any specific locality or cultural history. The crisis of the local and regional in globalised times is that its own audience is hooked on the global; as a result, film-makers of the local find it difficult to talk to the local, for the latter’s tastes, expectations and notions about technical excellence are moulded and ruled by consumption of global products. So, if any kind of alternative cinema is to survive, they need to create new narratives of space and time, by bringing everything back to human scale, natural pace and historical moment. If at all alternative cinema is possible, they will have to invent new sites of interaction and modes of interface, supported by fresh critical and theoretical discourses that are historically and politically informed.

There is no doubt that very interesting and provocative films are being made in all languages, but for these individual adventures to transform themselves into a common journey, there is a need to initiate intercultural dialogues and create solidarities across genres, languages, cultures and boundaries. This is all the more important in our times, when cultural diversity and freedom of expression are under severe threat from global-scale revenue models in economy, authoritarian political projects and monolithic notions about life, society and the world.

C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor