How a single film came out of the blue and transformed the North-South dynamics in Bollywood.

A long time ago, in an India far, far away, the South and the North were like the fractious neighbours in K Balachander’s “Ek Duuje Ke Liye”, with the Vindhyas standing in for a glass-shard-encrusted compound wall. We thought they ate shocking things like meat. They thought we ate boring things like idli. They sneered at our frugal ways. We laughed at their lavishness. We thought they emerged from their mothers’ wombs shaking their shoulders and doing the bhangra. They thought we emerged squalling with cries of aiyaiyo. And when we grew up, they thought we furrowed our foreheads with religious markings and shaved our heads around a lonesome tuft of hair, best exemplified by the scary spectre of Mehmood in “Padosan”. And we thought they grew up to be moneylenders in pillbox hats and round-rimmed spectacles, best exemplified by the numerous evil seths who lived off penurious peasants with vampiric fervour. This may not have been how it was in life, but this is how it was in the movies.

And then Christopher Nolan made “Memento” and changed everything. Or perhaps we should say that the director A.R. Murugadoss, who was spurred by “Memento” to create a similar memory-deprived avenger in the Tamil blockbuster “Ghajini”, changed everything. For, had he not made “Ghajini” and had Aamir Khan not seen it, the latter wouldn’t have commissioned the Hindi version, and Bollywood’s first hit to gross over Rs. 100 crore in the domestic market would have been “3 Idiots”, released a year later. And who knows whether “Ready”, “Singham”, “Bodyguard” and “Rowdy Rathore” would have followed? If there is the scent of science fiction in this account, it isn’t surprising. The history of cinema, like the best sci-fi stories, is an incessant variation on the what-if. A film is released. It makes lots of money. A hundred clones are manufactured in its mould. And what if that film hadn’t been made? Then we shift to a parallel universe, populated by the clones modelled on another money-spinner.

See a trend here?

So what if “Ghajini” hadn’t become the first Rs. 100-crore Hindi movie? To crack that hypothetical conundrum, let’s look at the next three biggest hits of 2008, along with the top-three hits of the two previous years. We get two Anees Bazmee-directed action-comedies (“Singh is Kingg” and “Welcome”), three Hollywood rip-offs (“Race”, “Partner” and “Welcome”, though the last one may also owe its origins to the Korean comedy “Marrying the Mafia”), one Hollywood-style action-thriller (“Dhoom 2”), one Hollywood-style superhero saga (“Krrish”), one old-fashioned romantic drama (“Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi”), one über-kitschy Bollywood throwback (“Om Shanti Om”), and one whimsical dramedy (“Lage Raho Munnabhai”). In the absence of a towering game-changer like “Ghajini”, the success of these other films would have ensured more clones in the Hollywood and Bollywood moulds. (“Lage Raho Munnabhai” is too rare, too unique a creature to beget similar offspring.)

It’s only when we look at the remaining hits that rounded off the top 10 films of these three years — 2006 through 2008 — that we taste the flavours of the South, in a paltry two features, both helmed by the then-ubiquitous Priyadarshan. “Bhagam Bhag” was adapted from the Malayalam comedy “Mannar Mathai Speaking”, while “Bhool Bhulaiyaa” was the reincarnation of a supernatural thriller that first appeared in Malayalam (“Manichitrathazhu”), then in Kannada (“Apthamitra”), and subsequently in Tamil and Telugu (“Chandramukhi”). We should not forget, of course, the notorious sequence in “Om Shanti Om”, where Shah Rukh Khan was possessed by the spirit of Mehmood — only, the tuft and the forehead markings had given way to a Stetson and a horseshoe moustache. The Masterji from “Padosan” had transformed into Quick Gun Murugan, though the accent remained, thick as a brick. The South, in other words, was still a presence in Bollywood, but either reshaped with plastic surgery intended to snip away all traces of “southernism” (“Bhagam Bhag” and “Bhool Bhulaiyaa” looked like Vogue fashion shoots in comparison to the originals) or as frenzied caricature.

Turning point

But the success of “Ghajini” changed all that. This was not just an adaptation of a Tamil hit, but one that opted to retain the Tamil flavour (and the Tamil director). The result? The decade’s fourth biggest blockbuster, topped only by “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham”, “3 Idiots” and “Gadar: Ek Prem Katha”. The subsequent year, 2009, saw a little bump — two remakes in the top five hits, “De Dana Dan” (which Priyadarshan adapted from his Malayalam comedy “Vettam”) and “Wanted” (from “Pokkiri” in Telugu, which was remade in Tamil with the same name), along with “Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani”, a film whose first half was essentially a compilation of what would pass for a “comedy track” in a Tamil film, the kind of cheerfully lowbrow humour that multiplex Hindi cinema was too horror-stricken to touch with a 10-foot pole. (And “Kambakkht Ishq”, at No. 6, styled itself after the Tamil comedy “Pammal K Sambandham”.)

In 2010, all hell broke loose. The year’s No. 1 film was “Dabangg”, which, if not wholly derived from a southern hit, was certainly shaped with a southern sensibility, with a moustached protagonist avenging the wrongs done unto him. The must-haves of the Tamil/ Telugu potboiler were dutifully ticked off. The hero was introduced in an action sequence where battened-down godown doors were shattered by his flying torso, and after he crashed feet-first into the villains’ hideout, he hosed them down and announced, with a wink, “I’ve given you a bath. Now I’m going to take you to the cleaners.” Hindi cinema, after what seemed like ages, got itself a hero whose pronouncements came through “punch dialogues”. And he made a style statement as well, depositing his sunglasses on the rear of his collar, so he could see front and back. And in the climactic showdown, the treacherous villain had to suffer the ignominy of having to physically tear his shirt off, while the hero’s shirt burst its seams simply on account of being unable to accommodate his burgeoning muscles.

A flood of remakes

If “Ghajini” steered Bollywood’s interest towards Tamil/ Telugu masala (southern spice, in other words), “Dabangg” opened the floodgates for an increasing number of investments. That year, there was only one other remake in the top five — “Housefull”, adapted from the Tamil comedy “Kaadhala Kaadhala”. But 2011 saw “Ready” (from the Telugu film of the same name), “Singham” (from the Tamil film of the same name) and “Bodyguard” (from the Malayalam film of the same name) — even the names were being retained, as if possessing talismanic powers at the box office, which did seem to be the case — gross over Rs. 100 crore, along with “Ra.One”, whose leading man, named Shekhar Subramaniam, hummed Vatapi Ganapatim Bhajeham and then sat down to a meal of noodles slathered with curd.

And the 100-crore movies this year? “Housefull 2” (from the Malayalam film “Mattupetti Machan”, which also resulted in the Tamil comedy “Banda Paramasivam”) and “Rowdy Rathore” (adapted from the Telugu action-comedy “Vikramarkudu", whose Tamil remake was called “Siruthai”).

In retrospect, what Aamir Khan and A.R. Murugadoss did, with “Ghajini”, is to remind Hindi audiences of the action-comedy-sentiment mix that drew them to theatres before a spate of NRI-oriented movies swept away action from the picture, along with a certain made-in-India sensibility. In some ways, though certainly not in quality, “Ghajini” is this generation’s “Himmatwala”, which, in 1983, made the south Indian potboiler the flavour of screens all over northern India. In fact, we seem to be reliving the 1980s, when the mass-oriented masala movie coexisted comfortably with a steady trickle of NFDC-sponsored parallel/other cinema — except that the latter has reinvented itself as multiplex cinema, where a bit of pandering in order to obtain commercial success isn’t seen as a deadly sin. “The Dirty Picture” may well be the defining movie of this new era, a Bollywood blockbuster based on a south Indian screen siren. It’s an only-in-the-movies happy ending: the two sides of the Vindhyas finally bridged, North and South holding hands and walking happily ever after into the bank vault past the sunset.