CHENNAI, India — Days before the May opening of the Cannes Film Festival, the director of the first Bollywood film invited for an official screening gave a shout-out to his colleagues in a long-overlooked arm of the Indian film industry.
“There's a whole new wave in Tamil cinema,” said Anurag Kashyap, whose film “Gangs of Wasseypur” was screened as part of the Cannes' Directors Fortnight. “They've made the most extraordinary films in the last two years, and at the national level people don't even know about it.”
Spread across southeastern India, northeastern Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia, the Tamils number some 65 million people and possess one of the world's oldest cultures. But in Hindi-dominated India, they — and their movies — are usually ignored or dismissed.
At the international level, Tamil cinema gets even less recognition. Writers frequently confuse Mumbai's Hindi film business, locally known as Bollywood, for the entire Indian industry. But the increasing critical and financial success of “the Other Bollywood” could soon flip that perception upside down.
Led by Tamil cinema, the South Indian film industry — which also includes movies made in the Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada languages — produced more than half of all Indian movies over the past five years.
Budgets for Tamil films now rival Bollywood's, according to a new report prepared by consultant firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. And the Tamil industry is emerging as a creative dynamo.
Deloitte expects the South Indian industry to grow 11 percent a year and earn revenue of nearly $600 million by 2015 — compared with Bollywood's $2 billion-plus. And with the emergence of a nascent corporate studio system, South Indian films like “Robot” — a crazy sci-fi mashup featuring Rajnikanth, South India's biggest star, which garnered around $12 million abroad, according to Deloitte — are beginning to tap the overseas market and other new revenue streams.
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“With the Sri Lankans migrating to a lot of places in the world, we get to export our films even to places like Norway and Sweden, which weren't in our map at all a few years back,” said film producer SP Charan. “Now we are pushing our films to places like Delhi and Bombay, with subtitles. That's another market that we're tapping into that we didn't have before.”
Starting with Walt Disney's 2006 purchase of a 15 percent stake in Ronnie Screwvala's UTV Software Communications, companies like Sony, Walt Disney, Fox and Viacom have been betting on Bollywood for the past five years, after realizing that Hindi movies continued to outsell Hollywood imports. The reason? Unlike in the United States, more and more Indians are going to movie theaters every year, and paying higher and higher prices.
Now, that same motivation is driving Bollywood's big players, and international firms, to the South.
In May 2011, UTV Motion Pictures — which was acquired by Walt Disney earlier this year — had eight films in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam slated for release in the US, the UK and other foreign markets. And Sony Music Entertainment bought the catalog of Chennai-based Think Music in July 2011 to gain a 50 percent market share in the South, giving a corporate boost to the film songs that are the meat and potatoes of India's music industry.
“What studios realized is that they have to produce local content if they want to grow within the market,” said Siddarth Roy Kapur, managing director at Disney UTV Studios. “For us at Disney-UTV, we've already made a foray into the South [Indian] market and it's only a matter of time before the other players decide to do the same.”
Revolution and counterrevolution
But it's the creative energy of the Tamil industry — which also accounts for the largest share of the overall media and entertainment market in the South — that's making waves. Over the past five years Tamil remakes like “Wanted,” “Ready,” and “Bodyguard” were responsible for the comeback of the ever-shirtless Hindi star Salman Khan, even as his muscles turned to fat.
Three of the top 10 grossing Bollywood films of 2011 were remakes of Tamil blockbusters. And Bollywood's biggest star, Shahrukh Khan, is slated to star in two Tamil remakes this year, according to local reports.
What's happening is a simultaneous revolution and counterrevolution.
Over the past decade, mainstream Bollywood movies have increasingly focused on the elite — shifting stories to foreign locales and focusing on scripts about modern subjects like live-in relationships (“Salaam Namaste”) and homosexuality (“Dostana”). But these films were alien to a huge part of the audience, including lower income groups in metropolitan cities and more conservative people in smaller towns.
Meanwhile, in the South, the masala or “spicy” potboiler formula — a beefy hero, two heroines, five fight scenes, six songs, and a surrealist disregard for logic or the laws of physics – never went out of style. The Tamil industry's thriving “star culture” assured that diehard fans might go to see a movie 30 or 40 times just to see Rajnikanth play the hero.
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“What happened over the past two or three years, starting with a film called 'Ghajini,' a film with Aamir Khan that was a remake of a South Indian film, was really a hark back to the cinema of the '80s,” said UTV's Kapur. “Those are films that were still being made in Tamil cinema, and also in Telugu cinema, but had stopped being made in Hindi. Now people are revisiting that and going back to a time when those movies were popular.”
At the same time, so-called “new wave” Tamil movies have recently earned critical acclaim — along with the admiration of Hindi-film directors like Kashyap at Cannes. In 2011, “Aadukalam” (or “Arena” in Tamil) swept India's national awards, winning in six categories including best director and best screenplay, while in 2012, “Azhagarsamiyin Kudhirai” (“Azhagarsamiyin's Horse”) was named the year's best popular film and “Aaranya Kaandam” (“Jungle Chapter”) won a national award for best first film, along with the Grand Jury Award for Best Film at the South Asian Film Festival.
The result is that the South, once the butt of jokes in Hindi movies, is now the epitome of cool.
Akhila Krishnamurthy in Chennai provided reporting assistance for this series.