If it’s Indian cinema, it must be Bollywood!

Recently, there has been a flurry of articles all over on Southern cinema heroes, in particular, Vikram, Suriya and Rana Daggubati. Outlook, Hindustan Times, and Sunday Mid-day have all published similar features. It was but a matter of time that TV channels too got into the act and NDTV has done a special segment as part of India Decides on Southern Stars where Pronoy Roy interviewed Vikram and Suriya and maybe others but I followed these two. The bias that Bollywood is Indian cinema and vice versa was never more apparent as one realized this is perhaps the first time ever these actors have been interviewed on National Television – with Vikram I cannot say this with 100% certainty as he might have been interviewed following his National Award for Pithamagan (2003) but for Suriya, it was definitely his first time in front of a National audience.

However, lest one thinks this is finally giving Southern Cinema and its (male) stars their (overloooong) due, sadly, I don’t think that is the case at all. The bias continues and is as wide a chasm as ever. If these three heroes are in the news, it is not due to their achievements in their own cinemas but more because they are all making their debut in Bollywood this year. Vikram will be ‘introduced’ to Hindi audiences in Mani Rathnam’s Raavan co-starring Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, Suriya will be seen by pan Indian audiences in Ram Gopal Varma’s two part Rakta Charitra while Rana co-stars with Abhishek Bachchan, Bipasha Basu and Prateik Babbar in Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maro Dum. On top of that, in the NDTV interview it was embarrassing when Pronoy Roy asked Suriya about his wife ‘Jyothi.’

This apathy for cinema outside Bollywood is pathetic and especially so when one sees what big stars Vikram and Suriya are in Tamil cinema. Their fanatical fan following in Tamil Nadu and the adulation they enjoy in their home state is something a top Bollywood star can never dream of. People in Mumbai (and the North) have not even heard of these actors leave alone be aware of their work. Those who have seen Aamir Khan in Ghajini (2008) or Ajay Devgan in Yuva (2004) would do well to see Suriya’s interpretation of these roles in Gajini (2005) and Ayutha Ezhuthu (2004), both notches above his Hindi counterparts. And one cringed seeing Salman Khan strut his stuff in Tere Naam (2003) after seeing Vikram’s work in the original, Sethu (1999). Why, I remember recently a friend of mine put up a status on facebook that she understood why Mumbai had got hotter. She added that it was so since Suriya was in town to shoot for Rakta Charitra! And a film critic from Mumbai on her friends list, supposed to be quite knowledgeable on cinema asked her who Suriya was! Not that this is anything new. Even when the great P Bhanumathi died in 2005, no Northern newspaper or TV channel even reported her death! It was while surfing through a Southern cinema website that I read about it and so could prepare the necessary tribute for Upperstall.

Regional cinema has always got the wrong end of the stick when many a time their better films leave Bollywood far behind. Tamil cinema, for instance, has done some extremely interesting work over the last few years and it has been a pleasure to see films like Paruthiveeran, Chennai 600028, Mozhi, Subramaniapuram and Poo among others. These films are innovative, tackle their subject matter most interestingly and are rooted to their culture unlike pan Indian Hindi cinema. What’s more, they execute their mainstream Indian cinema elements such as action (at least in the realistic films), song and dance much, much better than Hindi films and are technically quite superior as well even if a little obvious. Leave alone Tamil, Marathi cinema too is doing some extremely fine work today with films like Gabhricha Paus, Tingiya, Valu, Natrang and Harishchandrachi Factory. But ask a normal cinegoer in Mumbai the names of the actors or the directors of these films and you will mostly draw a blank. He probably would not even know that these films have been released in the theatres. Yet, at the National Awards it’s often regional cinema that walks off with the major awards. But even here, the bias continues. Thespians like Sivaji Ganesan and A Nageshwara Rao should have been bestowed with their Dada Saheb Phalke Awards much earlier and while the nightingales of Hindi cinema are both proud Phalke Award winners, what about legends like Sandhya Mukherjee and P Susheela? Their achievements In Bengali and Southern cinemas, where each has sung thousands of unforgettable songs respectively, cannot be ignored.

We would do well to remember that if any filmmaker has constantly broken barriers with his films internationally, it was the great Satyajit Ray and even today in the West, most people’s knowledge of our better filmmaking is through his Bengali masterpieces. Otherwise, our mainstream Bollywood films are little more than ‘those kitschy song and dance musicals’ to them.

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  1. @Ronnie: Very true. Bollywood is such a closed and brain dead world. Hindi films are getting worse week by week. At the same time, it is sad to see regional cinema makers and stars who do better work yet look up to Bollywood. In fact, in most cases the Bollywood re-makes of regional films have been inferior. Guess its that all India reach factor…

    @Shan: Vikram should get the accolades once Raavan and Raavanan release but it is likely to come from down South only. Yes, hats off to him for grappling with two roles at the same time while the two versions of the film were shot simultaneously. In fact, it would be interesting to see how fair the makers are to him regarding the promotion of the Hindi version. One only hopes he will not get sidelined in the expected Abhi-Ash blitz (yawn) that we are going to see in the coming days.

  2. @Kalanidhi: When I speak of regional cinema, I mean ALL of regional cinema even if I haven’t mentioned other languages. I can never forget films like Shankarabharanam as you mentioned or Sagara Sangamam, which is one of my all time favourite Indian (and not just Telugu) film. What performances by Kamal Haasan and Jayapradha! In fact, enjoyed Magadheera thoroughly from last year’s Telugu releases. Was most impressed with the scale and how they handled the 400 years ago bit.

    @Badri: Sad but true. Obviously very few have. And why just Adoor and Aravindan? Do people even know how good Malayalam mainstream films of the 1980s and early 90s were with fine filmmakers like Fazil, Bharathan, Sibi and Padmarajan amongst others at their helm?

    @Shakthi: ‘Bollywood’ has lost the plot for some time now. Unfortunately the current scenario continues to look as dismal as ever. 🙁

  3. Nice piece! Of course the mainstream Indian media cannot be bothered about anything but mainstream Bollywood; it’s a symbiotic relationship; it fetches them the necessary TRPs and revenue and the producers and stars get their bit of publicity. Anyway, they are not even equipped to shift focus to regional cinema or alternative efforts; they are not knowledgeable about it. The world does not exist beyond Mumbai. And this is true not only for the media, but many practitioners of the craft too; “Achha cameraman hai, lekin Bombay mein kya kiya hai?” Bollywood cannot be a yardstick; it can only be a reference point.

  4. A small addition to this, TV channels OD-ing on ‘Abhi’ & ‘Ash’… and conveniently forgetting the story about the other guy, Vikram, the lead in the Tamil ver. And by far doing the most challenging of role reversals in Indian cinema in a while. And that too at the same shoot.
    Hmm.. wonder why no one is interested in that.. rather than what costumes people are wearing at Cannes!
    Or why it was not ‘Abhi’ who was doing the two roles??

  5. Well said. Perhaps u shdve included path-breaking Telugu cinemas as well. The Telugu industry may not exactly make a meaningful movie every month, but when they do, they stand the test of time. Some of the greatest movies of all times – such as Shankarabharanam etc have all been made in Telugu.

  6. it,s true in bollywood they only spent money ..so they think that will make a good movie…they forget about story.. they inspired bye holly wood…i hate people call bollywood ..tollywood ..kollywood …cos its name borrowed from Hollywood…god damn … English dictionary says it doesn’t have the name on those three..always says error..or spell check..

  7. Anil, Thanks for the feedback.

    The superstar status that Rajinikanth has, ‘Bollywood’ stars can only hope to emulate in their dreams. Not only did Muthu become a cult favourite in Japan as did Rajini, you should see how crazy the Japs are about him. The Japanese websites on him are well worth a dekho! Even for his last film, Sivaji, The Boss (2007), enough Japanese tourists came down to be in Chennai for first day first show. Why, in India alone there were die-hard fans who flew out of Tamil Nadu to catch the film first day in other cities as they couldn’t get tickets in TN!

    Here’s a link to one of the Jap sites: http://www.rajini.jp/

  8. Thanks Shoma, but to be honest I don’t know if there’s a solution. People, especially in Mumbai, are very happy in keeping Mumbai their world and couldn’t careless about what’s outside. A pity really as I find good regional cinema far more interesting and stimulating and am glad somewhere that thanks to Upperstall, I do get to keep in touch with some cinema outside Hindi filmdom. It’s nowhere enough I know but still, it’s a start… Why just Soumitra, isn’t Suchitra Sen also thoroughly deserving of the Phalke Award?

    Ramchandra PN: 🙂

  9. Karan,

    Well said and I agree with most of your observations.

    I think, it is more than just prejudice and ignorance. These two are at the bottom of things, but I think they are being very cleverly manipulated to build up monopolies in the media. Have you ever wondered, we are such a large country and the mass media opening up new audiences and new areas of possibilities, why such a handful of ‘icons’ dominate the media in terms of news and ad business particularly? Ironic, that when the a/v ads were not such a big business and such a wide, global reach, there was a variety in our ads, today it all revolves around handful of personalities and themes and they all are the spin-offs of this cultivated image of ‘Bollywood’.

    So, the misplaced, uninformed talk about cross-over films and personalities goes on and on endlessly, more as a publicity device of a few stars, the fact that Rajnikanth’s Muthu became very popular in Japan rarely gets a mention in our media, forget about even studying it.

  10. Lovely, timely and enlightening piece indeed. I agree with the points you have made. I had sent briefs on stories on Soumitra Chatterjee and Tapan Sinha to the Sunday Supplement editor of one of the largest newspapers in the country more than a decade ago. She said she had never heard these names before! I did not bother to explain. The Tapan Sinha story could get some space but Soumitra, sadly, could not. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award as evaded Soumitra Chatterjee till date. Why? It is not just bias. It is also a kind of illiteracy and ignorance. Soumitra won the National Award only a couple of years ago though he should have won it much earlier such as in Raja Mitra’s EKTI JIBAN.

    To get any article on Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, etc. considered at the editorial level of any English language print media publication, it has to be pegged and timelined around their birth or death anniversaries. Why? Till date, I could not sell a very good interview of Kamal Hasan I took many years ago at the IFFI in Chennai because he was not from Bollywood! I could do nothing about a detailed interview of Charu Hasan because few knew his name among Mumbai editors, believe me! The same happened to another interview with the late Gopi! No one seemed interested in an obituary piece on Bengali cinema’s Shubendu Chatterjee when he passed away some years ago.

    Is there a way out of this ocean of ignorance?

  11. I would tend to be in sync with shakthi.JR when he mentions the ‘wood’ terminology. Being called as bollywood, tollywood, sandalwood, etc is an insult to the cultures that produce thier own cinemas. Ok, how about calling Hollywood something like Hollybolly or Hollysandal or or hollytolly or hollygermo or even Hollyruse…? *S*

  12. Vibhav: Sadly, regionalism is something we can do nothing about in India. Why just films – we see it everywhere from cricket selection to what have you.

    Bollywood grabbing all the attention seems all the more unfair when one sees the good work in other languages. But again, will this change? Unfortunately no. And to make matters worse, with the Housefulls becoming hits, we’re going to see more and more junk in big budget mainstream Hindi cinema. 🙁

  13. Basically, brings to mind what pt Ravi shankar said after being conferred the Bharat Ratna. He said, there is bound to be opposition from people from within various parts of India for his winning the award and that it is natural. India, he said is several countries under one head (almost like Europe) he went on.

    Personally i think , hindi is a language that has been thrust upon the people of india. Bollywood is also a symbol of cultural imperialism and has gone on to grab all attention in india and its projection as mainstream indian has come at a heavy cost for other language cultures.

  14. Well, it is certainly not an ideal situation. But not just India.

    Bollywood : Regional Cinema = Hollywood : International Movies

    The world knows how great European film-making is. Yet, Hollywood has always been the all important, most talked about, written about and watched. I guess it all boils down to money. Where there’s more money flowing, there’s more attention given.

    Things will certainly change. But only to a certain extent. It’s like mainstream commercial cinema and low-budget, yet great film-making. the latter’s never gonna catch up in terms of popularity or media coverage. That is the way it’s been. Perhaps, the fact that it is less hyped about is what makes it special.

    Not everyone’s a Ray.

  15. Akash: Sadly, I don’t see things changing particularly vis-a-vis Bollywood and regional cinema.

    But what is more disturbing is that even the good work in regional cinema is slowly getting rarer and rarer with more and more formulaic junk. Post 2008, only Pasanga, Nadodigal and Eeram were perhaps the interesting Tamil films of last year and this year when we are almost half way through, only Angadi Theru somewhere has been appreciated pretty unanimously as a good film. The lower budget film’s battle against the formulaic big budget film is getting tougher and tougher. Though somewhere I have to say the lower budget films are to blame as well. They have to be fresh and different to catch attention but again, post 2008, too many of them were little more than Subramaniyapuram clones and little wonder they fell by the wayside. Angadi Theru has sailed through again on being fresh and different in its subject matter.

  16. Monish: Not sure, the films are getting any kudos at all. If at all, they win something at the National awards then probably Mumbai and the North hears of them. Otherwise…

  17. You’ve rightly pointed out the hegemony of the mediocrity generally dished out by Bollywood prevents the due recognition of good regional cinema. I think the predominance of Hindi language has also got something to do with the scenario. Its good to see slowly interesting films from South are finally getting a bit of the kudos they deserve.
    I also believe that cinema also reflects in some ways the condition of the society of which it is a product – Tamil Nadu and other southern states being far more advanced in all human development indexes than North and East no wonder produces better cinema.

  18. yeah, being low budget is not the qualifier. being fresh, innovative and engaging is. hopefully actors/stars who can act should be more selective and bolder when it comes to signing up for films. They have to choose quality over quantity. Film-making over money-making. am not saying don’t do money-making commercial films at all. but don’t do just that all the time. at least one quality film for every two or three commercial ones.

    it’s a tough call, but at least a few have to take it.

  19. Akash: Stars are not brave people. Unless it is some big director they will never attempt something too different. They feel they have a certain image with their viewers they have to maintain. Also, as they become more and more successful, they become even more insecure and get caught in the vicious cycle of now-every-film-must-be-that-big-blockbuster and choose their projects accordingly. Amitabh Bachchan could have changed the faced of the Hindi film Industry in the late 1970s and 1980s if he so wanted with the New Indian Cinema at his peak but no, he was secure in what he was doing. Don’t see any others doing anything about the situation either. And of course a star will argue with you, what do you mean by quality film? To him a hit film is a good film. Period!

  20. Since migration for work is one of the biggest realities of our times, nostalgia for home may be a natural corollary.
    In such a situation and given new technological advancements in recording and screening equipment , it is possible to think of a lateral thinking entrepreneur financer who may want to back a number of low budget video screening theatres across the country and make films for them in regional languages…the oversea dvd rights etc will bring back the money quite easily. Even one financer of a C grade feature on celluloid is enough to cause a significant ripple…or is this all just wishful thinking ?

  21. @ swagat – we do have low budget video screening theatres in many cities and towns. Earlier they used to show films in VHS, now VCDs and DVDs; on TV monitors. They often cater to the Z grade movies and the blue ones. I also believe in north bihar, uttaranchal and other places there are such video theatres and video films are specially made for these chain of theatres – and in their own regional dialect. The films that are made and shown here are apparently xerox copies of the Hindi film. So, I guess one can not run away from the hindi film even if you are in digital or even if you are in a remote village in north bihar. If it is the Maithili language cinema, it would still be bollywood.

  22. Sir,

    I am a doctor and I have always been into writing stories. I write film stories and I would like to make a film out of one my stories.

    I dont know how to put it to you in any other way sir, but could you please help me get in touch with Actor Surya please ?

    You are the only person I know who is close to Surya and whom I can approach.

    In my mind the actor who can do the character that I have written is Surya. Please believe in me sir.

    I won’t let you down.

    Could you please help me in getting an opportunity to discuss the story with him.

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Yours sincerely,

    Avinash M

  23. That would be interesting to read all comments. it is likely to come from down South only. Yes, hats off to him for grappling with two roles at the same time while the two versions of the film were shot simultaneously.


  24. Jazz,
    Sure Bollywood is our largest and most widespread film industry but a lot of great work is being done in other regional film industries as well, which are often unfairly ignored. As for the world film industry, well, the harsh truth is that we need to make better films first. The foreign market and the west still look at our films as ‘those Indian musicals’ and exotic kitsch and little else.

  25. i live in Johannesburg South Africa. I review Hindi films because DVD’s are available here. In fact, i always apologise in my blog about this, before i write a review. I would love to screen films in Tamil, Bengali, Marathi and other languages.

  26. Thanks for your feedback Sphongo. Would love to read your reviews. Thankfully, one is fortunate enough to be able to view and review regional cinema here in India, some of which is far more interesting than Bollywood anyway. Maybe, a visit to India would help in building up a regional cinema collection! 🙂

  27. Even Dharmindar, Shatrughan Sinha got Dada Saheb Phalke. No Not Soumitra Chatterjee! Wow, what more can you expect from a most corruplted govt. Sharmila Tagore got the Chairperson post, her son got National award. He was awarded even before Chatterjee. Shameless people, most corrupted people are holding all the positions now.

  28. As mentioned in article Bhanumathi Ramakrishna was another actress (Tamil, Telugu, Hindi) who was also a producer, director, singer, story writer, dialogue writer, studio owner. She deserves a Dhada Saheb Phalke. She was not given even a Padma Shri. And to think Saif makes me wonder how these awardees’ are chosen.

    I also read another article saying it is difficult to conduct IT raids or submit a court case against Padma awardees’.
    Prior permission from government needs to be fetched. Explains the rush!

  29. hindi cinema is also knows as bollywood. Over 250 movies are released and censored each year in Bollywood. Hindi is one of the largest industries in India. It generates employment to many people, it also help the Indian economy by generating large revenue from the particular movie.

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