Weekend • July 14, 2007
RECENTLY, Outlook, one of India's top news weeklies, did a cover story on how South India has stolen a march over the North by almost all indicators of development in the past 60 years.
The only territory (so to speak) that remains unbeaten from the great South Indian wave is Bollywood, that world-famous Hindi film industry based in Mumbai in Maharashtra state.
But can this situation remain unchanged?
After all, the South, too, has a thriving film industry in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The most successful of these southern Indian film industries is Kollywood, the Tamil film industry which is concentrated in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
In terms of industry size, Kollywood (about 150 films per year, annual turnover of about US$500 million, or $758 million) is only second to Bollywood (about 250 to 300 films per year, annual turnover of more than US$1 billion).
Like Bollywood, Kollywood too has big-name film stars, big budget producers and big-time hits.
After Bollywood films, Tamil films have the widest overseas distribution, especially in Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia.
Some Tamil films (Rajinikanth's Muthu, for example) have markets even in countries like Japan, South Africa, Canada and the United Kingdom. Big-budget Tamil films such as Chandramukhi, Anniyan, and Sivaji: The Boss are getting simultaneously released in the major foreign markets.
The most recent example is the success of Rajinikanth's Sivaji: The Boss in the overseas market. In Malaysia, the crowd went mad and sabotaged a theatre for a delay in showing the film.
In UK alone, Sivaji collected 13.6 million rupees ($513,000) showing on 12 screens on its opening weekend, in contrast with the much-hyped Bollywood film Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, which only collected nearly Rs 23 million, despite being shown on 47 screens.
Of course, Rajinikanth is more of an exception. After all, he is India's highest-paid actor, commanding fees in the range of 200 million to 300 million rupees per film, many times higher than the fees commanded by Bollywood superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.
In terms of star power, if Bollywood has Amitabh, Ashkay and the three Khans, Kollywood too has Rajinikanth, Kamal Hasan, Vijay, Surya and Vikram.
So, can Kollywood surpass Bollywood in the future? Or if that is too ambitious, can Kollywood do a Bollywood in terms of gaining international recognition and presence?
Gitesh Pandya, the editor of United States-based BoxofficeGuru.com and a film commentator on CNN, told Today: "Tamil cinema definitely has a large built-in fan base around the world. Rajinikanth's latest film proved how big an audience the right film can generate.
"However, it will need to take a few more major steps before reaching the level of Bollywood.
"The top stars need to raise their profile with non-Tamil moviegoers and the films need better distribution in markets like the US and UK. Here in the US, it is relatively easy to find Bollywood films in the major cities, but Tamil films play in fewer theatres and lack the same marketing and distribution push."
Mr Pandya is bang on target.
Like Bollywood, Kollywood has a good base of a Tamil-speaking diaspora (about 10 million Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils) spread around the world, with an audience that spans Sri Lanka, UK, US, Canada, Italy and South-east Asia.
But this market is still not as big as Bollywood's. The latter's foreign market, at 30 million, is thrice the size of Kollywood's.
Apart from this, other factors have also worked against Kollywood in its attempts to raise its international profile a la Bollywood.
Bollywood, from the beginning, has had pan- Indian and crossover appeal. Its movies have been popular in Asia, the Middle East, Russia and even Africa for a long time now. Despite the language barrier, its unique, often melodramatic narrative style, wrapped in its song-and-dance drama format, has appealed to people worldwide.
The other good thing that has happened with Bollywood is that it has learnt how to ride on the success of the Indian diaspora, supported by banks and Indian business bodies like the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
After the Indian economy's liberalisation in the 1990s, India's film exports surged as the Bollywood film-makers began to tailor their narratives with the Indian diaspora in mind. This move has paid off handsomely. The result is that the Indian film industry — which incorporates the output from all of India, including from regional industries like the Tamil, Telugu and Bengali film sectors — is now worth about $4.5 billion.
The pack is, of course, led by Hindi films from Bollywood.
With the Indian diaspora growing in number and influence, all major countries want Bollywood at their doorstep. And what better way to welcome Bollywood than to let it host its annual IIFA Awards, which has been held in London, Johannesburg, Amsterdam and Singapore, among others.
If Kollywood wants to raise its profile internationally, it, too, has to go the Bollywood route: Fashion narratives that appeal to a larger audience (including the non-Tamil Indian diaspora), promote the films worldwide, and make their stars more visible.
Kollywood has woken up to this idea ... just a bit late in the day. But the signs are good. Tamil film- makers such as Shankar, P Vasu and Mani Ratnam are crafting such movies. Shankar's Anniyan was dubbed in Hindi and French, among other languages. Rajinikanth plays a successful non-resident Indian in his smash hit film Sivaji. You get the drift of things?
Also, the inaugural International Tamil Film Awards ceremony is being held in Singapore this Saturday. That is a step in the right direction.
Clearly, the Tamil film industry also wants to come closer to its international viewers through such events. And why not? It can only mean better business for Kollywood.
Published in Weekend Today dated July 14.