Come June and at least four people will be chewing their nails, wondering what will happen when the film Raavan releases. One, of course, will be the movie’s director, Mani Ratnam. Then actors Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan will hope that the magic of their coupledom will transfer itself on screen. But the person in Raavan who is likely to be the most tense will be Vikram, the superstar of the South. This isn’t the first time Vikram has faced a camera. He’s a big star back home, with fan clubs and even temples consecrated in his honour. Still, the thought of the release of Raavan gives him the jitters. "It’s my debut in the baap of film industries – Bollywood," says Vikram. "The Hindi film industry is the biggest in India. So I am a bit nervous, yes."
Vikram’s nervousness is shared by at least two other stars of the southern film industries who will debut in Bollywood this year: Suriya, who arrives on the Hindi screen in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rakta Charitra; and southern movie moghul D Ramanaidu’s grandson Rana Dagubatti, who stars in Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maro Dum. Earlier this year, actor Sudeep made a critically acclaimed debut in Ram Gopal Verma’s Rann, and other southern stars, like Siddharth and R Madhavan, who have been around for some time, got their big breaks only recently. Siddharth’s first solo, Striker, opened to critical acclaim and Madhavan hit a new high in 3 Idiots.
All these men have hit films to their names in the southern film industries, a powerful box office status, and fan followings that say much about their talent – and the way they look. Because they have something that the boy next door-looking Bollywood heroes don’t have. Strong, rugged looks. With perfectly worked-out bodies and chiselled features. At least three of these actors from the South, then, are hoping to make it in Bollywood this year… which is not exactly new. From Rajnikant to Kamal Haasan, Mohan Lal to Mammooty, very few southern stars haven’t attempted to acquire a wider appeal by making movies in Hindi. Many of their films were hits and critically acclaimed, but not one of them became a fully filmi hero. Why?
“There has never been an explanation for that,” says director Ramesh Sippy who directed Rajnikant and Kamal Haasan in Zameen and Sagar respectively and is now producing his son Rohan’s film Dum Maro Dum, which stars Telugu star Rana Dagubatti. “It wasn’t lack of talent. In fact, in many cases, the southern stars had more talent than most Bollywood actors. But it’s hard to pinpoint one essential reason why southern stars never survived in the Hindi film industry.” Instead, there’s a variety of reasons. “For instance, it sounds superficial but at least till Amitabh Bachchan made it, the audience in the North was infatuated with fair-skinned Punjabi good looks,” says Ramesh Sippy. “As an industry, we were sceptical of the darker image. And we liked our screen gods to be drop dead gorgeous. Stars from the South, on the other hand, looked more rustic and grounded. Their heroes could get away with pot bellies, ours couldn’t. Mainstream commercial cinema almost always always needed the extra punch that came with looks.”
Language was another factor, says Pankaj Parashar, who directed Rajnikant in the superhit Chaalbaaz. “To give a character an edge it is necessary to understand the nuances of a dialogue and emote accordingly,” he explains. “But when one does not know the language, the portrayal of the character is unnatural and unconvincing. So southern stars had a big disadvantage.”
But essentially, what worked against southern stars in the past was their refusal to relocate to Mumbai. “For them, Hindi cinema was an experiment. “They never really tried hard enough to make it big here,” says Parashar. “To be fair, they didn’t need to. Whether it was Rajnikant, Kamal Haasan, Nagarjuna or Venkatesh, by the time they came to Mumbai, they were already big stars in their homeland. No one wanted to stop working back home and antagonise their fan bases just to make it big in an almost alien industry.”
Siddharth, star of Striker, believes that this is true. “And anyway, why should it be taken for granted that every southern actor wants to go to Mumbai?” he asks. “Of course, we want to experiment with new roles and characters. But that should not be taken as an inclination to give up the place we come from.”
There also wasn’t any particular need for stars from the South to shift base, points out Rohan Sippy. “Earlier, our films were restrictive when it came to scripts and characters,” he explains. “We made masala flicks that followed a pattern and did not give actors scope to experiment. Since southern heroes did not really fit the audience’s demand for an archetypical hero, they were mostly cast in character roles and while they got good responses and critical appreciation, it was not enough to keep them in Mumbai.”
Happy new age?
That was then, however. Now, in 2010, will men entering Bollywood from the South set the screens on fire? “With a completely new genre of films being made, the demands, definitions and dynamics of filmmaking and characters has changed,” says Rohan Sippy. “So that gives a lot of scope for experiments in terms of characters and scripts.” His father agrees. “Hindi films are now very global in nature, with no set rules,” says Ramesh Sippy. “It’s become easier to cast a foreigner or a person from any other state and amalgamate him into the cast. The audience too is more accepting now.”
The filmmaking idea these days, says director Chandan Arora, who made Striker with Siddharth in the lead, is to cast the right person in every role. Adds Pankaj Parashar, “Today most filmmakers do not bother about star status. What they see is the requirement of the role. If a certain person fits a character, he is in. The director couldn’t care less where he comes from.”
And, says Rohan Sippy, the stars from the South are bringing something new to Bollywood – their looks. “These stars have new faces,” he says. “Their dark, brooding looks are no longer shunned. In fact, their expressive faces give them an edge over most of the other stars.”
Actor Madhavan defines this edge as something macho. “At the cost of sounding politically incorrect, the stars from the South are giving Bollywood a macho image that it has lost,” he says. “Aside from Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan, I don’t think there is another star who can be put in that bracket. The southern guys are filling in the gap.”
Welcome to the West
But, as Siddharth asked earlier, do these men really want to be in Bollywood? Given the way that they are working to fit into the industry, it looks as though they’re giving Hindi films their best shot. “Bollywood looks at Hollywood for inspiration and we in the South look at Mumbai,” says Rana Dagubatti. “So it’s only natural to try and meet the demands of the place we want to be in. This is an industry that is going global, so I only see advantages in that.”
Language isn’t an issue, says Rana, because most cities have become cosmopolitan and Hindi is not alien in the South. “Everyone speaks a bit of every language, and in any case, we are brushing up our Hindi,” he says. There’s also a big effort to look the part of a Hindi movie hero, adds Tamil superstar Vikram, so everyone is working out. “After all, we can’t have round figures when all the northerners have six packs, can we?” he laughs. Which brings us back to the big issue – are these men in Bollywood to stay? Well…
“I wouldn’t want to move completely,” says Vikram. “But with such great communication available and travel far easier these days, striking a balance between the two industries is not going to be tough.” But a balance is always hard to maintain, points out Madhavan, who has been in and out of Hindi films for some years. “We have to be completely Hindi in Hindi cinema and completely Tamil or Telugu back home,” he says. “We have to perfect the duality. As they say, a Hindi film star can never be a success in the Tamil industry till he perfects picking up his veshti, wrapping it around his waist and walking down the road. The same applies to the Mumbai industry.” Still, agree Bollywood’s filmmakers, there is a chance that this time, the crossover will be successful. Meanwhile, Bollywood’s audiences have chilli hot men to contemplate.
Rana Dagubatti Telugu star
Best known for: His debut film in Telugu, Leader
Bollywood debut: Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maro Dum
Cinema is in his blood. Rana is the grandson of movie moghul D Ramanaidu and son of producer D Suresh Babu. Actors Venkatesh and Nagarjuna are his uncles. Naturally, he had to do films. But acting wasn’t the only thing on Rana’s mind. He established a state-of-the-art post-production digital services company that brought southern films into the 21st century, and produced a film, A Belly full of Dreams, in 2006. It won him the National Award for best film. “I was lucky. I was born in a family that had the amenities to fulfill my desires,” says Rana. “Thankfully, I didn’t disappoint them.”
Then he decided to try acting. But only after intense training. “Nothing is not serious enough for me,” says Rana. “Acting had to happen and I decided to give it my best.” His debut film, Leader, where he played a man who takes on the system, became a box office hit. But even before it was released, Rana was signed on by Rohan Sippy for Dum Maro Dum, a film based on Goa’s drug mafia. “Rana fit the bill perfectly. His looks, attitude and style of acting fitted my character,” says Rohan Sippy.
Since he’s just one film old, Rana is still testing the waters. “If I get good roles in Bollywood, I do not mind shifting base to Mumbai,” he says. “Also, Bollywood is where every actor wants to be. The scope of work, the potential is just so big. Bollywood is also becoming more experimental, unlike back home. For instance, I may want to shoot in Goa but I will never be able to do that in a southern film because it will not fit the script. But I’ll always keep my options open down South. That’s home.”
Hero with a twist
Vikram Tamil star
Best known for: Sethu, Pithamagam, Anniyan
Bollywood debut: Mani Ratnam’s Raavan
He could well be called the Aamir Khan of the Tamil film industry given his penchant for ‘character’ roles rather than ‘hero’ roles. But it took Vikram John Kennedy Vinod aka Vikram 10 years of struggle to achieve that position. “Acting was the only thing I knew and was sure I wanted to do. So I didn’t even have the guts to give up,” he laughs. Which was fortunate, because when he acted in Sethu (remade in Hindi as the Salman Khan starrer, Tere Naam), Vikram became an A-lister once and for all.
But Vikram never wanted to be a ‘hero’. Just an actor. “Every character I essayed needed a certain edge. I like playing dubious characters. Regular guys bore me,” he says. That’s why he was attracted to Mani Ratnam’s bilingual love triangle, Raavan, in which he plays the hero in the Hindi version and the villain in the Tamil one. “It was confusing because we were shooting in both languages simultaneously and my characters in both versions are dramatically opposite,” he says. “It took a lot of effort.” But it was that effort – and Mani Ratnam – that made Raavan attractive enough for Vikram to contemplate Bollywood. “I was never inclined to go North, but I did want a bigger audience and moving to Bollywood is the only way to expand my horizons,” he says. That doesn’t mean he’s shifting to Mumbai. “Why should I? I have a huge fan base back home. But I am open to good offers.”
Suriya Tamil star
Best known for: Nandha, Pithamagam, Ghajini , Vaaranam Aayiram
Bollywood debut: Rakta Charitra
Suriya is possibly the hottest star in the South today, quite a catch for the Hindi film industry, according to trade pundits. Born in Chennai, he started his film career in 1997 with Nerukku Ner and established himself as a ‘lover boy’ capable of delivering both commercial and critically acclaimed hits. Married to actress Jyothika (who also made a foray into Bollywood with Doli Saja Ke Rakhna in Hindi), Suriya is said to have agreed to do Ram Gopal Verma’s Rakta Charitra only after intense discussions about the role and the script.
Not an idiot
R Madhavan Tamil film star
Best known in Bollywood for: Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein, 3 Idiots
One of the two most established southern stars in Bollywood, Madhavan has done TV serials like Banegi Apni Baat and Sea Hawks and films like Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein, Guru and now 3 Idiots. Perhaps the industry – and audience – accepted him so easily because he never had the typical South Indian accent. “I was born in Jamshedpur and grew up in Mumbai and Chennai. So I never felt out of place anywhere,” he says.
Madhavan started his film career in 1997 but his big break happened with Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey. He went on to do many films in Tamil and Malayalam and also dabbled in Hindi films – “but only when the role excited me.” Though he was recognised on both the small and big screens, his solo Hindi flicks such as Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein and Ramji London Wale did not do well.
“The scripts were good but I guess the presentation didn’t work,” he says. But his latest release, 3 Idiots, has finally made him one of the most sought after actors in Bollywood. “Suddenly the world seems to have changed,” he says. “There are so many scripts and so much work coming in that it’s quite amazing.” So will he relocate to Mumbai? “I live in Mumbai half the year anyway,” says Madhavan. “I have a house there. In any case, I always do one or two films in Tamil and maybe one in Hindi every year and that will continue. But the work needs to excite me.”
Siddharth narayan Tamil and Telugu film star
Best known in Bollywood for: Rang De Basanti, Striker
He assisted Mani Ratnam before heading to the front of the camera in 2003 with the Tamil film, Boys. Commercially successful films like Ayayutha Yuzhuthu (this was dubbed into Telugu and remade in Hindi as Yuva) and Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana followed.
In Hindi cinema, Siddharth was first seen as the rebel son of a big industrialist in Rang De Basanti in 2006, which got him both popular and critical acclaim. Then came his solo hero film, Striker. Though the film did not do well commercially, it received critical acclaim and was watched by almost a million people on Youtube. But Hindi cinema is just another medium of expression, says Siddharth, who insists that it isn’t necessary to shift to Mumbai to be well received. “Why should I move base? Most southern stars are very popular back home and it is foolish to leave everything for newer pastures,” he says. He also refuses to do character roles or second leads in Bollywood. “Why should I do second leads in Hindi if i can be the star in a Tamil or Telugu film? If a script is as strong as a Rang De Basanti, then maybe. But not otherwise,” he says.
Siddharth is one of only two southern stars to have made an impact in Bollywood so far. Perhaps that’s because he was brought up in Delhi and Mumbai, and so has the advantage of good Hindi.
Southern belles were always superhits
Southern actresses have always tended to make it big in Bollywood. Waheeda Rehman, Vyajanthimala, Rekha, Hema Malini and Sridevi in the past, and Asin today, did and do have a strong presence in Bollywood – primarily because they were able to shift to Mumbai. “The women did not have to worry about their fan bases in the South because they were never very big anyway,” says director Pankaj Parashar. “So it was very easy for them to shift to Mumbai and be available as and when required.”
And – this is important – they could dance. “In most of the earlier films, good looks and dancing ability were the only two defining factors for an actress,” says Ramesh Sippy. “And the southern actresses were brilliant in both aspects.”
Many of the southern film industries’ superstars did Hindi films too, but they never really made it big here
Even big hits like Ek Duje Ke Liye, Sagar, Appu Raja and Hey Ram could not put him in Bollywood’s top bracket
A demi god of the Telugu and Tamil film industries, he did hit films like Asli Nakli, Bhagwaan Dada and Chaalbaaz
His films Shiva, Drohi, Khuda Gawah did fairly well at the box office, but not enough to make him a Bollywood star
He starred in films like Dushmano Ka Dushman, Pratibandh and Aaj Ka Goondaraaj, but they didn’t help
He did Dhartiputra and Sau Jhooth Ek Sach, but could not establish himself with the Hindi film audience
He made his debut opposite Karisma Kapoor in Anadi which was a hit. But that was about it for him
He had big hits like Roja and Bombay to his credit, but quit his promising film career to pursue business aspirations
A great dancer, he was a huge sensation in the South. But that wasn’t enough for the average Hindi film audience