Blurring cinematic boundaries

From Chandralekha in 1948 to RRR in 2022, South Indian films with a pan-India appeal have changed the landscape of Indian cinema

April 28, 2022 05:29 pm | Updated April 30, 2022 10:23 am IST

A scene from RRR.

A scene from RRR. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The term ‘pan-Indian’ is the new magic mantra that sets the cash registers ringing at the Indian box-office. With films such as KGF 1 & 2, and Rajamouli’s RRR making a record collection of more than ₹800 crores, the term has gained a special significance for films from the South.

At the outset, a ‘pan-Indian’ film would mean featuring popular actors from various language industries playing important roles, which makes the film resonate with a wider audience and saleable across the country. With their epic scale and high production value, such films are usually made on a big budget, which means expansion of its market.

For national appeal

In OTT, we have the advantage of watching a film in any language with subtitles. In the movie theatre, it’s a big plus, when apart from subtitles, the language of the State in which the film is released also has actors who hail from the region. For instance, Sanjay Dutt plays the antagonist Adheera to Yash’s Rocky Bhai in KGF and his existing popularity in the Hindi speaking regions would garner extra mileage for the film.

While this is one aspect to assess whether a film made in the South is pan-Indian or not, there are other filters like content to check what kind of stories lend themselves to people across the country. With the cumulative release of these hugely mounted films in the last few months, it may look like South Indian cinema began to gain acceptance across India only with Rajamouli’s Baahubali 1 and 2. However, it would be good to understand if this pan-Indian wave is a recent one. Actor-director Gautham Vasudev Menon posed this question to director Mani Ratnam during a conversation at the Dakshin Summit, organised by the CII recently.

A scene from Chandralekha.

A scene from Chandralekha. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Gautham Menon pointed out that Mani Ratnam’s films such as Roja, Bombay, and Dil Se were examples of pan-Indian films from the South, as early as 1992. “In fact, as early as S.S. Vasan’s Chandralekha,” quipped Mani Ratnam. The story of Chandralekha, a historical-adventure film made in 1948, appealed to the entire country (it had a travelling caravan of circus artistes). The film had huge sets and choreographed dance pieces and was the story of two brothers vying for the throne and the heart of dancer Chandralekha T.R. Rajakumari). Originally made in Tamil by S.S. Vasan, the film did not fare well at the box-office. And when Vasan came up with a more polished Hindi version, it was a success.

Chandralekha (Tamil) took five years to make (today we look at KGF in awe when two versions are made across eight years, or at Rajamouli, who makes his films in four years) and it also made Vasan bet his all on this one film — his wealth and creative talent, as the original director left halfway through and a film of this expanse became Vasan’s directorial debut. He inspired our filmmakers to dream beyond the South Indian landscape.

Making an epic film

A scene from Vishwaroopam.

A scene from Vishwaroopam. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Many years later, another actor-writer-director created history with an ambitious film, which had post-Independence politics as its crux. Kamalhaasan made his epic, Hey Ram, where Hindi actors including Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee spoke Tamil in sync-sound. The film was shot simultaneously in Hindi.

Kamal Haasan was a superstar not just in Tamil, but also in Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada, and was also the first actor to speak the language of the film in which he acted in. He paved the way for actors from the South to stretch their market.

Actor Prabhas seen as Mahendra Bâhubali in the film Baahubali - The Conclusion.

Actor Prabhas seen as Mahendra Bâhubali in the film Baahubali - The Conclusion. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Today, the heroes from all the four South Indian languages have their calling cards – Prabhas (Baahubali), Allu Arjun (Pushpa), NTR and Ramcharan (RRR), Yash (KGF), and actors from Malayalam films like Prithviraj, Dulquer Salman, and Fahadh Faasil are doing the lead roles in multi-lingual films. Also, actors like Nassar and Prakashraj, play important roles in pan-Indian films, with their ability to speak many languages (Prakashraj is the only actor to have dubbed for his role in all five languages for KGF 2).

Language, actors, and scale of the film apart, the story is also what decides the ‘pan-Indian’ nature of a film, and it is a phenomenon rather unique to films made in the South. As Anil Kapoor (who debuted in Telugu, and did a Kannada film with Mani Ratnam before doing a Hindi film) said in a recent press meet, “South [Indian] films have made history in the past, and will continue to do so.”

The writer is a content producer, writer, artiste and curator.

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