Is Kollywood the new Bollywood? Hollywood certainly hopes so as the studios increase their local-language collaborations with the Tamil industry to tap into a homegrown audience of 70 million.
India’s Hindi-language film industry may have grabbed the most attention internationally, but the world is waking up to the fact a totally different film-making universe exists in the south of the country.
The south boasts four prolific film industries, based around separate languages, each with its own stars, facilities, financiers and — perhaps most importantly — huge audience groups. These industries are attracting the attention of their well-heeled Bollywood cousins — companies such as Eros, UTV and Reliance Big Pictures — and also the US studios as they ramp up their forays into local-language production.
Fox Star Studios has a two-picture deal with Tamil director AR Murugadoss, while Disney recently released Telugu-language fantasy adventure Once Upon A Warrior. In addition, Warner Bros has a pact with Chennai-based Ocher Studios, headed by superstar actor Rajnikanth’s daughter Soundarya, though the three-year-old deal has yet to yield any films.
The US studio interest is not surprising given the size and fanatical nature of southern audiences — while south Indians will also watch Bollywood and Hollywood titles, they reserve special status for their own movies and worship their stars like demi-gods. The Tamil-language film industry alone — regarded as India’s second-largest after Bollywood — serves an audience of more than 70 million Tamil-speakers worldwide, including half a million in Canada and the UK.
Known as Kollywood, due to its base in the Kodambakkam district of Chennai, the Tamil industry has long been renowned for the superior quality of its technicians and music directors — it is home to Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman. It also has a strong technical infrastructure with facilities such as Prasad Studios often being the first to introduce new technologies to India.
‘The industry is really at a transition stage. New financing and methods of marketing films are coming in’
Mani Ratnam, film-maker
It is also beginning to go through the same financial and corporate transformations as the more outward-looking Hindi-language film industry in Mumbai. “It is really at a transition stage,” says leading Tamil film-maker Mani Ratnam, who last year made Raavan in both Tamil and Hindi for Reliance. “New financing and methods of marketing films are coming in. It has always been the way that producers here have a one-shot business strategy instead of thinking about the next 25 years. But that has to change and we’re seeing the start of that now.”
Producers are also starting to think more about international markets. Tamil films are exported to diaspora populations in North America, the Middle East and South-East Asia, but the industry is also starting to make films that cross language barriers.
Robot (Enthiran), starring Rajnikanth, distributed outside India by Eros-owned Ayngaran International, was released in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi versions and became India’s highest-grossing film ever, raking in $88m worldwide. Rajnikanth is now working on this next behemoth, Rana, for release in 2012.
Robot was propelled by Rajnikanth’s star power, but according to Ayngaran managing director Arun Pandian, Tamil audiences also pay attention to directors: “Our industry is star-driven, but unlike with Hindi cinema, I can also release director-driven film overseas.”
However, the US and Bollywood studios knocking on Kollywood’s door are mostly interested in the industry’s huge local market. What they have found in these early stages is that it can sometimes be difficult to work with the industry. Film-makers are not accustomed to sticking to the script and financing is disorganised — producers tend to borrow money at high rates of interest and are pressured into bad distribution deals to get their films finished.
Outsiders will also find politics and film-making go hand-in-hand in the state of Tamil Nadu, with politicians and their families involved creatively or running whole sections of the industry. A change in state government, as happened earlier this year, can cause major disruptions.
But they will also find an industry that pays huge attention to story-telling and a new generation of film-makers who are experimenting while still working in the mainstream. Tamil storylines often feature romances thwarted by arranged marriage with a set number of fight sequences and songs. But when film-makers deviate from the formula, their films are usually embraced by the audience. Recent examples include Ayngaran’s Angadi Theru, about young workers in a Chennai shopping mall, and Prabhu Solomon’s unconventional love story Mynaa.
“The mainstream can be progressive because it’s a regional industry — Bollywood is trying to cater to all corners of the country,” Ratnam explains.
The industry is also becoming more open to the influence of US and Mumbai studios, not least because the old haphazard methods of financing do not really work.
“We have brought in a professional way of making films,” explains former Moser Baer executive G Dhananjayan, who now heads UTV’s south India business. “Everything is paid by cheque — we stopped the black-money business — and we’ve brought in structured agreements so producers don’t have to beg, plead and borrow towards a film’s release. Also, the artists and technicians know they’ll definitely get paid.”
The changes are not only coming from outsiders — Chennai-based media conglomerates such as broadcaster Sun TV are making the business more transparent, along with director-producers such as Gautham Menon who recently listed his production outfit, Photon Kathaas, on London’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM).
“We want to act as strategic producers, not just raise money,” Menon says.
Kollywood is also being tapped as a source of talent and stories for those aiming at the Hindi market — which with 400 million Hindi-speakers is the largest Indian film audience worldwide. Many Bollywood hits, such as AR Murugadoss’ Ghajini, are remakes of Tamil films and now the US studios are also mining the industry. Fox Star is understood to be remaking both Solomon’s Mynaa and Menon’s Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa in Hindi.
But with a 70 million-strong audience of its own, Tamil-language cinema will continue to flourish.
“South Indians love film even more than the north — cricket and cinema are everything to life,” Dhananjayan says. “The only problem is how they consume films, because families say multiplexes are too expensive and that opens the door to piracy. But slowly, slowly things will change.”
Five Kollywood talents to Watch
A former assistant to Rana director KS Ravikumar, Cheran has gained a reputation for directing films that combine strong social messages with entertaining stories. He has won three prizes at India’s prestigious National Film Awards, for Vetri Kodi Kattu (2000), Autograph (2004) and Thavamai Thavamirundhu (2005). He also acts in both his own and other directors’ films.
With a string of critically and commercially successful movies, Menon has earned the freedom to experiment, though his last film, psychological thriller Nadunisi Naaygal, proved too grisly for Tamil audiences. While he works mostly in Tamil, he also directs Hindi and Telugu remakes of his biggest hits. He recently listed his production company, Photon Kathaas, in the UK and is setting up an international distribution outfit.
One of Tamil cinema’s better known directors internationally, Ameer attended the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008 with his third film, Paruthiveeran, which received a special mention from the Netpac jury. He recently shot his fourth film, Aadhi Bhagavan, in India and Thailand, which he describes as a commercial film with an innovative narrative structure.
Known for his experimental approach to camera angles and styles of narration, Mysskin has directed four ground-breaking films since 2006, most recently crime thriller Yutham Sei starring Cheran. Naming himself after a character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Mysskin is also influenced by Japanese films and manga. He is currently working on Tamil super-hero project Mugamoodi, featuring extensive martial arts, for UTVV.
Solomon won rave reviews for his most recent film, Mynaa, which examines how society affects the relationship of a young couple who run away from their families. Innovative in both story and structure, the film is being remade by Fox Star Studios in Hindi. Solomon is also working on Tamil project Kumki about the plight of Indian elephants which are losing their natural habitat.