South Indian actors breaking regional barriers

With dubbed films and OTT popularity, south Indian filmmakers and actors are no longer restricted to their geographies, and are making a mark across the country

Shailesh Kapoor, CEO and founder of Ormax Media, a specialised insights consulting firm for the Indian media and entertainment industry, says OTT platforms have made south Indian platforms readily available for the country’s audience.
Shailesh Kapoor, CEO and founder of Ormax Media, a specialised insights consulting firm for the Indian media and entertainment industry, says OTT platforms have made south Indian platforms readily available for the country’s audience.

By Reya Mehrotra

When Tamil drama Jai Bhim was released on Amazon Prime Video last month, little did its filmmakers realise that it would strike an instant chord with audiences across the country. Today, the film starring Tamil actor Suriya, Prakash Raj and Lijomol Jose has become the most rated movie of 2021, as per IMDb. The hard-hitting story of Dalit repression has received a 9.5 rating on IMDb, higher than even classics like The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption that have a 9.2 and 9.3 rating, respectively.

Noted south Indian film actor Priya Vasudev Mani, known professionally as Priyamani, made her OTT debut with the Manoj Bajpayee-starrer The Family Man in 2019 and was appreciated for her role of Suchi, the protagonist’s wife. In the second season, which was released in June this year, another popular southern actor Samantha Akkineni debuted on the show and received rave reviews.

Naga Chaitanya, who is actor Nagarjuna’s son and is a popular Telugu actor, too is set to make his Bollywood debut in Aamir Khan’s upcoming film Laal Singh Chaddha. While Vijay Devarakonda from Arjun Reddy (2017) is readying for his Bollywood debut alongside Ananya Pandey in Karan Johar’s Liger, his female co-star from the film, Shalini Pandey, made her Bollywood debut in the 2020 movie Bamfaad. Likewise, popular southern actor Rashmika Mandanna has, even before her Bollywood debut, bagged two movies in the Hindi film industry—Mission Majnu with Sidharth Malhotra and Goodbye alongside Amitabh Bachchan.

Earlier, south Indian actors, especially male, would have remained within the confines of regional cinema. But in the past couple of years, they are getting a pan-India reach with many cinematic works smashing the popularity charts. According to industry insiders, this has been widely made possible by the increased consumption of content from OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar and partly due to a lull in Bollywood.

Shailesh Kapoor, CEO and founder of Ormax Media, a specialised insights consulting firm for the Indian media and entertainment industry, says OTT platforms have made south Indian platforms readily available for the country’s audience. “Urban audiences are getting a taste of south Indian cinema. The language barrier is gone. It also helps that Hindi films are not releasing at the same frequency,” he says, adding Malayalam cinema’s realistic portrayal of life and Tamil and Telugu movies’ grandeur have been received well.

Baahubali meets Bollywood

When Prabhas lifted a shivalinga on his shoulders in Baahubali: The Beginning in 2015, the audience’s obsession with south Indian cinema and its stars had resumed— and in a way never seen before. The film was originally shot in Tamil and Telugu and dubbed in Hindi but that did not affect the way the larger-than-life movie was received by the audiences across India.

Bollywood remakes of southern films had been a common thing in the pre-Baahubali era. We had had Saathiya (2002), which was a remake of the 2000 Tamil film Alaipayuthey, Ghajini (2008) from the 2005 Tamil film of the same name, Rowdy Rathore (2012) from the 2006 Telugu film Vikramarkudu, Drishyam (2015) remade from the 2013 Malayalam film of the same name, Singham (2011) remade from 2010 Tamil film Singam, and so on. Yet undoubtedly, the movie proved to be a turning point in the way regional cinema was viewed for it went beyond the tradition of being remade into Hindi and opened gates for Bollywood offers for southern stars.

However, this was not the first time when viewers and filmmakers had turned their gaze down south. Back in the second half of the 20th century when the film industry was glowing with the charm of larger-than-life superstars and action-drama films were the flavour of the time, southern superstars were transported to Bollywood and then their fame knew no bounds. Often, especially for female actors, their arrival in Bollwyood was marked with glamorous makeovers. For instance, Sridevi and Rekha were reintroduced with a makeover that made them almost unrecognisable yet suited to the image of the typical Bollywood heroine.

Then there were superstars like Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and later in the 1990s, actors Nagma, Jyothika, Arvind Swamy, Madhoo, Akkineni Nagarjuna and Rambha who preserved their charm and charisma when reintroduced in the Hindi film industry. Leading actors like Aishwarya Rai and Deepika Padukone, who hail from the south, are also known to make their debuts in the south Indian film industry before making it big in Bollywood.

Throughout the 2010s and the early 2010s, southern stars like R Madhavan, Asin, Siddharth, Shriya Saran, Dhanush, Kajal Aggarwal, Shruti Haasan, Tamannaah Bhatia, Prakash Raaj, Ileana D’Cruz, Trisha Krishnan and Rana Daggubati switched between the two industries and most continue till date while some southern stars remained few-film wonders and returned to their respective industries.

Although Bollywood actors’ influx into southern cinema and vice versa has been the norm ever since cinema existed, with content and cinema undergoing a transformation, there has been an increased interest among the audiences to see actors from the south Indian film industry.

Cut back to Baahubali. Immediately after its release, veteran Telugu filmmaker SS Rajamouli, who excels in the fantasy action genre, rose to global fame. His brainchild, the Baahubali franchise, gained the reputation of being the highest grossing Indian films of all times and paved his path to larger than life multilingual and multi-starrer projects—his signature style. Now, the filmmaker awaits the release of his two other big projects—RRR and Mahabharat, both of which star top actors like Prabhas, Alia Bhatt, Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai and others from both the industries.

Even before Rajamouli forayed into the multilingual trajectory, southern filmmaker Mani Ratnam was making critically acclaimed films in Bollywood like Guru, Yuva, Dil Se and Bombay. In recent times, alongside Baahubali, KGF and Arjun Reddy have drawn audiences from across the country. When Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Arjun Reddy was remade into Hindi as Kabir Singh, the controversial movie—even though it was called out for its problematic approach to relationships—became one of the highest grossing films of the year. Now Vanga is in the process of making his second Bollywood film Animal along with Ranbir Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra.

The challenges

While Bollywood comes across as promising for regional actors, it also poses challenges—like language barrier, re-establishing a fanbase in a new industry, being stereotyped, taking risks, and fitting in culturally. This has been the reason why many actors have had to return to their industries due to lack of good roles or audience connection. Actors like Tamannaah Bhatia, Kajal Aggarwal and Shriya Saran have several successful southern films to their credit and have been a part of critically acclaimed movies but found fewer impactful projects in Bollywood to leave a mark.

Recently, during an interview on his Bollywood debut, actor Vijay Devarakonda said language plays a big role and that coming from Hyderabad he could never play a ‘Dilliwala’. “If I do Hindi cinema, it will be restricted to some kind of neutral cinema that works across cities and it’s not very rooted culturally,” he had said. Actor Parvathy, who has acted alongside Irrfan Khan in Bollywood film Qarib Qarib Singlle, also noted that language is a thought in which a character thinks and so she ensures that she talks to the director in the same language as the film to get the hang of it.

There are no rules anymore, there’s no dearth of good scripts: Pragya Jaiswal

A lawyer by education hailing from Madhya Pradesh, southern star Pragya Jaiswal, who debuted in 2014 in Tamil and Telugu films, was set to make her big Bollywood debut opposite Salman Khan in Antim. However, her portions were later edited out in the larger interest of the film.

She says films happened organically to her as she was good in academics and everyone in her family expected her to join the corporate world. “I had come to Mumbai to join a law firm. But there was a month to go, so I took up a few modelling projects and then landed the ad for Dove. When I saw big posters with my face in it, I thought this was my calling. I auditioned for my first film and got it. My family was hesitant initially, but my father has always had faith in me. So, he wanted me to pursue it,” she says.

Earlier, she was to debut in director Krish’s Gabbar is Back but when that didn’t happen, the director cast her in the Telugu film Kanche (2015) that won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Telugu. She says for a new actor, a good debut in a good film, irrespective of the industries, is the priority. “It doesn’t matter which language or industry I am working in until the theme and the script are good. For me, southern films happened in the right time when I was looking for a good break,” she says, adding she is open to working on OTT platforms as they are the future and she is open to different roles.

“There is no problem of audience connection today, no dearth of good scripts but the choice of films decides your path. Every script demands a certain look and character. You either fit or you don’t.”

She cites the examples of southern superstars Samantha Akkineni and Priyamani choosing the most unconventional roles for their OTT debut through The Family Man. “From being the biggest superstars to choosing something so unconventional proves that there are no safe rules to play by anymore,” she adds.

It is about being in the right place at the right time: Arjan Bajwa

We have seen several actors enter the south Indian film industry and then foray into Bollywood. This would make one think if the Hindi film industry was hard to enter for a newcomer (before the OTT boom). Actor Arjan Bajwa, who made his Tollywood debut in 2001 in the Telugu film Sampangi and entered Bollywood in 2004 with Woh Tera Naam Tha, thinks otherwise.

The actor, who got his due in 2007 in the critically acclaimed film Guru and since then has been cast in prominent roles in Bollywood films like Fashion (2008), Rustom (2016) and Kabir Singh (2019), says: “It can never be measured that way. Both the industries are equally professional and require a lot of hardwork to be a part of. I was fortunate that my first Telugu film director liked my audition and finalised me for a role, and so it happened in Hindi. It really doesn’t matter which industry you are a part of till you have talent and you are in the right place at the right time. You get a break if the director has the confidence that you will be able to carry out his vision,” he says.

He also disagrees with the fact that southern actors might be stereotyped. “Talent speaks for itself and it depends on the choices you make. After all, it’s not only about working in films in different languages but about making money as well. I believe cinema is a universal language and your talent as an actor shows irrespective of the language you are working in,” he says, adding that he looks forward to working in patriotic genres as he feels passionately about it. That is why chose State of Siege: 26/11 for his OTT debut.

As for the working cultures of the two industries, he says that there’s not much difference except for the language. He adds that in the southern industry, the filmmaking process has a time limit and is faster as there are no elaborate promotions like in Bollywood films. The Hindi film industry caters to a pan-India audience and the process is spread over a couple of months. He adds that he still has a lot of roles in mind to portray on screen.

I would love to do action film for my debut in Bollywood: Allu Sirish

No one could have imagined popular Telugu actor Allu Sirish shaking a leg on a typical Bollywood number. But when he did, the views crossed over 110 million. His debut album Vilaayati Sharaab with Heli Daruwala by Neeti Mohan and Darshan Raval gained massive success. He says that he does not have any concrete Bollywood offers for films yet, but if he was to make a Hindi film debut, he would love to do an action film. However, he is not pushing for it as he is more focused on the work in his hand. “I am waiting for the right script. I haven’t yet thought of moving to Bollywood as a career strategy but southern actors generally make good action heroes and that is why they are so popular in Bollywood. So, it’s good to play on strength for the starters and hence, a good action film will be well suited for my debut. But I believe in the director’s vision and there’s no hard and fast rule.”

His next are three big films—a love story and a coming-of-age multicast drama film, besides another pan-south Indian project. Thanks to OTT platforms and dubbing, he says, it is a great time for actors as the boundaries are blurring and content expanding. “Earlier, there was no scope. There was work only for Bollywood actors but now the volume of work has increased.”

He shares the only challenges for a southern star to make a mark in Bollywood would be the language as the grip on the language shows in the performance and adapting to the working cultures of Mumbai. But, he adds, the latter can be overcome. “If not familiar with the language, the efforts on the actor’s part will increase,” he says.

Other than that, he says the two industries are not much different. “Both are very professional. The content is slightly different and the scale is bigger here (in Bollywood),” he adds. As Bollywood loves southern remakes, he says if he was to work in any remake, it would be of his own film.

In the coming decade, we may see a lot of south Indian films gaining importance: Allu Aravind

Film producer and distributor Allu Aravind, who is the father of south Indian stars Allu Arjun and Allu Sirish, feels that although there were certain limitations in terms of language barriers in the past decade, that is slowly on the wane now.

Aravind, who is also the creative board chairman of Telugu streaming platform Aha, says, “Perhaps in the coming decade, we might see a lot of south Indian films gaining importance in the all-India market. I already see the big stars of one in every three films of south India insisting on a large-scale production and a pan-India release.”

Aravind has produced numerous films in the south including the Telugu dubbed version of Ghajini (2005) and the Hindi remake of Ghajini in 2008. He shares that apart from being involved with the streaming platform that he founded, Allu Entertainment, his production company has recently shifted its focus towards Hindi films and is coming up with three productions in the next two years—Jersey (scheduled to release on December 31), a remake in Hindi with Shahid Kapoor, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo remake with Karthik Aryan and Rohit Dhawan as the director and one more (at the verge of casting).

He says, “I see a lot of synergy and many more collaborative productions will come up in the next few years as all the big production companies from both north and the south are thinking alike.”

He also talks about de-centralising Bollywood. “For the most obvious reasons, Bollywood has been Bombay-centric for the last 15 years. And now, most of the big production houses are trying to break it to become all India-centric both while choosing their subject and the canvas. They have realised that just being Bombay-centric has a lot of limitations in the revenue generation.”

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