The streams of South Indian cinema
The way different regions of South India influenced and cross-fertilized each others arts and culture is one of the most fascinating aspects of our history. But did the same kind of relationship between them continue into the modern era? In the modern period, all our regions became part of the rest of the world due to the acceleration of processes of internationalization resulting from the growth of world-unifying factors like the emergence of print media and increased means of communication. We could now talk not only to our neighbors but also to our far-off brethren. The advent of electronic technology further intensified exchanges across oceans and continents. Ideas and practices, images and symbols, fashions and cuisines can now travel as rapidly as they are believed to do in telepathic communication. A new trend has set in culture. Influential voices from far away are listened to far better than those of our not so influential neighbors. If we look at the histories of arts and culture in the modern period it becomes clear that the prevailing trends have born the greater impact of global tendencies. Global ideologies, political and aesthetic, played a very important role in molding our self expression in diverse fields such as verbal, visual and performing arts. New genres of art like photography and film from the west made inroads into our midst in a very big way. Cinema became the most influential art of the new world thanks to its immense potential for mass entertainment. India has now developed the biggest film industry in the whole world.
Within India, Bollywood is the biggest industry. But the second biggest industry, called Kollywood, is located in Chennai Tamil Nadu. The third biggest regional cinema, Tollywood, has Hyderabad as its headquarters. According to 2010 statistics 723 were produced in that year in South Indian languages as compared with 588 films in all other Indian languages including Bollywood. This formidable picture shows the power and popularity of cinema in South India. While Kannada and Telugu films cater to domestic audiences mostly, Tamil and Malayalam have sizable audiences abroad. Tamil diaspora in Sri Lanka and North America has also started making films adding to the variety of Tamil cinema. The extent to which cinema impinged upon people's lives outside movie halls is seen by the fact that two leading actors from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were catapulted to the office of Chief Ministers in those states. Though a similar feat was not repeated in Karnataka and Kerala the impact on people of someone like the most popular Kannada actor Rajkumar was no less immense.
The history of South India cinema reveals that major shifts in them happened more or less simultaneously: the advent of talkies, the rise of parallel and bridge cinema and the increasing uniformity of structure and style consequent upon globalization, for instance. Cinema in the South, been a means of popularizing classics, old and new, from literature, theatre, mythology and folklore, apart from casting a spell on masses and reaping profits. It is for this reason that its appeal was irresistible to stalwarts in other fields. In Tamil Nadu, DMK movement used cinema as a medium of disseminating its ideology. The luminaries of DMK politics became leading scriptwriters, actors and actresses, thus forging the close bond between cinema and politics in the region. In Karnataka, the former Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde acted in a film.The leading modern poets Sri Sri (Telugu), Kannadasn (Tamil)and ONV Kurup (Malyalam) were also prolific film lyricists in their languages. The Jnanpeeth Award-winning writers like MT Vasudevan Nair (Malayalam), Chandrashekhar Kambar and Girish Karnad(Kannada) tried their hands at film-making. MT is hailed as one of the best screen writers in the country. Leading soloists of classical music like Balamurali Krishna, MS Subbulakshmi, Seerkali Govindarajan and Jesudas have done considerable playback singing in South Indian cinema. Notable theatre like BV Karanth was drawn into film-making at some point of their career. By joining forces with native trends, south Indian cinema has played a crucial role in shaping linguistic identities of our people. Great actors like Rajkumar and NTR became most widely accepted symbols of regional cultures, thanks to the incomparable power of cinema.
In the past, regional cinemas of South India developed their own unique and identifiable cinematic dialects. A handful of cinematic genres were common to all of them: mythological, devotional and social. However, each regional cinema developed some genres better than others. Telugu cinema was at its best in mythological films. The stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had great appeal in Andhra. NTR's fame stemmed mainly from his unparalleled portrayals of the characters of the two great epics like Krishna, Arjuna and Bhima. His fans, I remember, would light agarbattis in Minerva talkies in Bangalore when he first appeared on screen as Lord Krishna in the movie 'Krishnavataram'. The way he played the role of Shiva in 'Dakshayagnam' was remarkable. Through such roles, he became deified in popular mind, and this became the foundation of his political triumph later. Mythhologicals were done in Kannada and Tamil also. 'Tiruvilaiyadal', a film directed by the well-known director, AP Nagrajan was an immensely successful film in Tamil. One of the greatest character actors of India, Shivaji Ganeshan played the role of Shiva in that classic with great finesse. Similarly, mythological films like 'Babruvahana' and 'Ramanjaneya Yuddha' in which Rajkumar played the role of Arjuna/Babruvahana and Rama respectively were remarkable successes in Kannada. But, in Tamil and Kannada, mythological cinema did not become as central as in Telugu.
The life-stories of greatest figures of our linguistic regions became the subject of the genre of historical movies. BR Pantulu produced a highly successful film on the life of Krishnadevaraya, the3 pride of Karnataka, in Kannada with Rajkumar in the lead role. The same director had earlier produced two films of great power on early protagonists of Indian patriotism. The first, 'Veerapandya Kattabomman' was a huge success. Shivaji Ganesan was at his best in the lead role where he made most of his special dialogue-delivering ability. This role won him an international award in a festival in Egypt. Equally successful was Pantulu's Kannada production based on the life of the great warrior woman of Karnataka, Kitturu Channamma whose role was played by the legendary actress B Sarojadevi, who ruled South Indian screen for more than two decades.
Social films form a major component of South Indian cinema. These include love stories, adventure stories, crime stories and family dramas. The heroes of such movies were basically of two types: fighting heroes and comic heroes. Though the content is social, the narrative structures of these films are still mythological for the most part. The characters still retain their archetypal coluring: heroes, heroines, villains and clowns. The feminine figure in the past used to be split into two characters; the good woman and vamp. The heroines used to be virtuous weeping willows. Actresses like Savitri and Pandhari Bai excelled in such roles. But in the more recent past two feminine poles are merging. These days the heroine with a heart of gold is also a hip-swaying cabaret dancer.
Devotional films were popular across languages. During the early period, the roles of great bhaktas were played by singer- actors like Tyagaraja Bhagvatar, Dandapani Desikar, KP Sundarambal(Tamil) and Honnappa Bhagavatar (Kannada).The vewrsatlle Kannada actor Rajkumar was unforgettable in his portrayal of Bhaktas in films like 'Bedara Kannappa', 'Kanakadasa', 'Saree Raghavendra Mahime' et cetera. Even style-king Rajanikanth managed the devotional character in the Tamil film on Raghavendra Swami admirably.
Each one of our languages have produced great actors and actresses, comedians, villains, photographers, music directors, song and script-writers and directors Some of them have enriched cinema in more than one language.
South Indian Cinema is no doubt one of the best in the world thanks to its variety and richness. But in the past decade, it has become a lot more technically sophisticated but stylistically uniform, thus losing its regional flavor and human content. How to retain identity in the era of globalization is a challenge germane to South Indian Cinema as well.
More about H S Shivaprakash
Prof H S Shivaprakash is an acclaimed English professor and writer. He is currently working as the Director, Tagore Centre, Berlin at Indian Embassy in Germany. He is also heading India's cultural mission in Germany. He was the Dean, Department of Arts and Aesthetics Studies at the JNU, Delhi. He was also the Editor of Kendra Sahithya Academy journal ' Indian Literature'. He Authored eight books of poems, nine plays, two books of criticism in Kannada and English. He is a recipient of Central Sangeet, Natak Academy Award and MHRD Fellowship for Literature.
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