Regional cinema matters: Beyond Bollywood looks at rich history of south Indian cinema
There’s an asymmetric attention given to Bollywood over regional language cinema though Hindi cinema is ‘bland’ and often lacks the riches seen in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films.books Updated: Oct 12, 2017 08:31 IST
Indian cinema’, ‘national cinema’ and ‘Hindi cinema’ or ‘Bollywood’ are often incorrectly used as synonyms to denote the same. To see such references from the ‘industry’ in suburban Mumbai smacks of dense simplicity. And it is this flawed, “asymmetric” attention given to Hindi cinema over regional language cinema that is discussed in the introduction by MK Raghavendra, the editor of Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India.
He argues that while Bollywood’s geographic market could be a reason for this, Hindi cinema is “bland” because it “addresses a larger territory....and needs to do so without causing local annoyance”. Regional cinema, on the other hand, he says is “richer than Bollywood”.
Beyond Bollywood comprises four essays discussing the major south Indian cinemas. N Kalyan Raman, a Chennai-based writer and translator, reflects on Tamil cinema; Raghavendra, a film critic and scholar, analysis Kannada cinema; Elavarthi Sathya Prakash, author and faculty at the University of Hyderabad, examines Telugu cinema; and, Meena T Pillai, a writer and faculty at the University of Kerala, looks at Malayalam cinema.
Not the coffee-table variety
The introduction spells out the book’s importance, and sets the tone for the essays. It clearly establishes Beyond Bollywood as a serious, academically-researched work — and not the coffee-table variety that doles out daily collection report (DCR) figures or tawdry industry gossip.
The essays look at the four cinemas predominantly in a chronological order, and it’s done by juxtaposing films with the social and political developments at the time they were produced. The cultural history, however, is weaved in at places, but is not necessarily a constant reference point.
The changing themes
A good example of this is how Pillai points out the absence of mythological themes during the genesis of Malayalam cinema. Cinema in the other three languages had a heavy dose of mythology- and religion-based cinema in its initial years. This is also true for Tamil cinema, which one would have thought would not be the case given that it was the fountainhead of the Dravidian movement. However, Malayalam cinema kicked-off with ‘social’ themes. It got its first mythological film, Prahalada (1941), only 13 years after its first cinema — and Prahalada bombed at the box office.
While it is a fact that the initial decade or so in Tamil cinema saw many religion-based films being produced, Raman explains what could have been the reason behind this: The superior quality of production and easy availability of prints ensured that films imported from the United States were a big hit among the people. Thus focusing on puranas was more of a commercial decision.
The shifting political mood in India also found reflection in Tamil cinema. If the initial themes were religious, soon nationalistic messages found currency. The World War II put a check on this trend and gradually Dravidian, or Tamil identity, thoughts found their way into cinema. This later gave way to the era of binaries in Tamil cinema: Modernity vs tradition, individual vs family, and the modern woman vs the traditional woman.
The problem with women
The last binary is important because for a major part of Tamil cinema’s evolution the portrayal of women has been anything but problematic. The ’70s saw a burst of women-oriented films, but it was conceived and delivered through the eyes of men.
Raman makes a very astute observation as to why there was the rise of misogynistic cinema after the ’90s. He attributes it to the rise of caste power in politics and the shift to market economics. He also sheds light on the influence of caste and caste hierarchies in Tamil cinema with an interesting example: Dr Balasaheb Ambedkar (2000), produced by the government, is yet to be cleared for exhibition in Tamil Nadu. One wonders what could be the reason.
Born out of tragedies
The initial few Malayalam films were commercially doomed and the makers suffered great financial losses. JC Daniel, known as the “father of Malayalam cinema” had to sell his house and property to pay off the debts he incurred for Vigathakumaran (1922), the first Malayalam film. The first talkie, Balan, after initial delays, was released in 1938. It went on to become a hit.
Pillai’s essay notes that though ‘social’ cinema was made from the beginning, it was not without its pitfalls. Kerala, which would only come into existence much later, was undergoing a social change: Matrilineal families were collapsing, caste and class silos were crumbling and in the midst of all this men were trying to assume their place in the hitherto unknown ‘modern’ society.
For all its ‘social’ and contemporary themes, the public space for women in Malayalam cinema was cruelly restricted — the socially aware Malayali man who was fiercely guarding his masculinity on screen was just not ready to share screen space with the woman.
Kerala has the dubious distinction of socially ostracising and nearly lynching PK Rosy, Malayalam cinema’s first heroine. Pillai records how stones and footwear was hurled onscreen when she appeared, threats were issued to her, she was spat on at public places, and in a desperate move Rosy ran away from Thiruvananthapuram. This marked the “unstated yet obvious social agenda of exclusion of women from either visibility or participation in the emerging body politic of Kerala”.
Malayalam cinema, while grappling with the change from matrilineal to patrifocal, also explored more subjects by intertwining social realism and melodrama.
A regressive ‘classic’
Probably the highlight of Pillai’s essay is the critique of Thakazhi S Pillai’s Chemmeen, which was brought to life onscreen by Ramu Kariat. Pillai argues that at a time when more women were stepping out into the labour force and becoming independent, Chemmeen pulled them back to become the “domestic ideal”.
In many ways an explanation to the current portrayal of women onscreen and the attitude towards female actors in both these cinemas can be found in the past of these industries.
Beyond Bollywood is a treasure trove of information that makes it a good read — rather a must read — if you’re a cinephile.
The author tweets @VijuCherian