I’ve been tossing around the idea of doing a post that tries to put Bahubali 2‘s all India success into context. And then both T.J Stevens and Cerusee indicated that they would be interested, so the poor Samarth-Mukherjee family has to wait another week for me to finish them, because I want to try a brief history of “regional” films.
Non-Usual Disclaimer: Hindi film is my area, I know all kinds of things about Hindi film, but I only have the tiniest knowledge of non-Hindi films from India. So I will do my best, but forgive me if I miss things.
Indian film did start in Bombay, everyone agrees on that. The actual film is disagreed on, it was either Raja Harischandra in 1913 or Shree Pundalik in 1912. But either way it was in Bombay where it started. And then film spread very very rapidly through out the rest of India, with multiple film centres popping up for each language.
And it wasn’t just a matter of different languages. Because a language isn’t just a language in India. You might as well say that the only difference between Spain and Sweden is language.
Bengali films tended to be literary, complex social issues and characters and so on. Marathi films had a kind of hearty earthy comedy. And the Telugu films were epic historicals. And so on and so forth.
In the silent era, there was some travel between industries, since it was a simple matter of swapping out intertitles to open up films between language groups. But there wasn’t as much travel as you would think, audiences liked what they liked, and it wasn’t just about the language the intertitles were in. It was about the stories being told, familiar stories from childhood, and the architecture, and the character names, and everything else.
(remember my epic Devdas posts? remake after remake after remake? Because each audience wanted a version in their own language. I didn’t even talk about the Telugu version!)
Sure, there were cross-overs. Bengali to Hindi was a common one in that era, Devdas and Parineeta. But the cross-overs tended to increase as there was actual mass migrations of ethnicities. So, after the Bengal famine, more and more Bengali filmmakers moved to Bombay, along with massive groups of refugees, and the Hindi industry shifted to accommodate them. And there was an influx of Urdu poetry and the creation of the “Muslim Social” genre after Partition, when masses of artists from the Lahore industry, along with more refugees, suddenly found themselves part of the Hindi audience.
(Chaudvin Ka Chand, in Hindi and Urdu, set in Lucknow, and produced and filmed in Bombay)
But, as we all know, the south was something different entirely. Bengali and Hindi, Urdu and Hindi, dozens of other smaller regional languages and societies had elements in common. The audience members shifted back and forth across borders, and so did artists. And a Hindi audience could vaguely follow a Bengali film, the architecture wasn’t that different, neither were the clothes or the religious festivals or any of the rest of it. It wasn’t the same, I definitely don’t want to say it was the same. But it was similar.
But the south, that was something different. Just as Bombay attracted artists from all over the north of India, so did Chennai/Madras start attracting artists from all over the south. And while the Tamil audience was not the same as the Telugu audience, they were similar. Much more similar than Tamil and Bengali, say.
I’m not talking about actual film styles here. Or not only about film styles. Bengali social dramas with strong female characters share a lot of Venn diagram elements with Tamil social dramas with strong female characters. But it’s the little things, the kind of pictures on the walls, the colors used in the costumes, the way of doing hair, it’s all just different if it’s not from your home region.
(Two strong 1970s heroines, but one is Tamil and one is Bengali and they look totally different. In little bitty ways)
And you combine that with the genre differences that are there, and it is all just too different to cross-over. If you are raised on Telugu historical epics and action films, with heroes wearing lungis and heroines who never wear Salwars, with mustaches on the men and heavy eye-liner on the women, and Bharat Natyam dancing instead of Kathak, than any other kind of film from anywhere else in India just isn’t going to feel “right”.
And so by the 1950s, Indian film had settled down into a nice segmented audience with a nice segmented map. Tamil films and Telugu films played side by side, each taking one half of the southern regions with the occasional blurry areas that they shared. Bengali films stayed fairly firm and steady in the East. And there were the smaller areas, each with their own little personalities, Bhojpuri and Malayalam and all the others. Tiny hidden gems.
And thinly smeared all over north India, like butter that can’t quite cover the toast, was Hindi. Every other genre has this strong identity, specific to particular ethnicities, but Hindi kind of doesn’t. There’s quite a bit of Punjabi in there, and some Marathi, and a touch of Bengali, a little Gujurati, and this that and the other thing. But it is a rare Hindi film that makes you go “yes! That is exactly and specifically what it was like to grow up in my hometown!”
(Chashme Baddoor was one of those rare Hindi films that actually felt like it was in a real place, and then of course it got remade as a ridiculous sex farce)
Hindi played down south too, just not as much. But it did play at least. If you wanted to, you could see a big release anywhere in India. Unlike the southern films, which would rarely make it out of the southern half of the country, and even more rarely overseas.
And this was life from, say, 1950 to 1980. Everyone had their regional language films as a main course, with Hindi as a side dish. And in most areas in the south, you had your local films as a dessert on top of the Tamil and/or Telugu main course. Languages like Malayalam had their own industry, but they weren’t bringing out films every single week, if you wanted to go to the movies each Friday, you would primarily be watching Tamil/Telugu and the release in your own language would be a special occasion. And then there would be Hindi, if there was nothing else, or if there was something really remarkable, you might as well watch it.
And then in the 1980s, things started to shift. Not artistically at first, but technically. VHS came in. Suddenly if you had grown up in Madras and were now living in Delhi for work, you could just rent a movie from home instead of suffering in some Hindi theater. And if you were living in New York, you no longer had to suffer through some Hollywood film, you could rent a Hindi film from back home too.
(Aw, I’m all sentimental for VHS now!)
Hindi film went from being spread very very thinly all over India to being spread even more thinly all over the world. The flavor kind of got sucked out of it, you know? It became truly “Indian film” with no real specific identity. And I say that as someone who loves Hindi film! But if I watch it, I might pick up a few words of Hindi and a basic idea of the Ramayana and see Marine Drive in Bombay about a million times. But I will never really get an Idea of what it is like to live in a village in India, or on the streets of a city, or the political history of the country, or the artistic traditions, or any of the rest of it.
There was a lot of other stuff going on in the 80s too of course. Amitabh had kind of taken over the industry, with his action films, and the women and children were being driven out of theaters, there was a general artistic decline. And, this is my personal theory, but I think this artistic decline was self-perpetuating because great art attracts great artists. If I am a filmmaker in, say, Kerala. And I am watching amazing films coming out of Bombay in the 1970s, the heyday of Salim-Javed and Yash Chopra and all those other brilliant people. Then I will think “boy, I want to go to Bombay and work with these people!”. But if I am that same filmmaker in Kerala in the late 80s and I am watching the current Hindi films, one repetitive chauvinistic action film after another, I am going to want to stay where I am and work with all the other interesting people who are staying in Kerala as well.
(I really need to watch Aalkkoottathil Thaniye again. Also, this kind of deep character drama is what Kerala was making while Hindi films were cranking out Amitabh movie after Amitabh movie)
And so, in the 1980s, for the first time those regional films started to chip away at the traditionally solid Hindi audience. Tamil and Telugu hits started making waves in Bombay. And being remade in Bombay. Boney Kapoor, that’s how he made his money to start with, going down to Chennai and funding some southern stuff, and then taking those same scripts and remaking them in Bombay for the Bombay audience. Taking some southern stars along as well. Sridevi, of course. Also Mithun Chakraborty. Kamal Haasan and K. Balachander, on the slightly more artistic side, also made their way north in this era. And the Hindi industry started running scared.
Look at the old Agneepath, for example. It was supposed to be a major Amitabh hit. But not only was Mithunda brought in as a second hero, his character was aggressively southern, a desperate attempt to grasp at the audience that Hindi films could feel slipping away.
But there was nothing to worry about, really. It was just a natural shift of the industry. Hindi films were in an artistic funk, and were confused by the new reality that forced them to fight a bit harder to keep their audience.
And then it all got sorted out in the 1990s. Hindi films firmed up their domination globally, and started to find their new home in India in the slightly higher priced theaters, making going to the theater an experience again, something that no VHS tape could compete with. And regional films firmed up their audience as well. And found their own global presence, I’m sure we have all heard stories of how big Rajnikanth is in Japan. And obviously Tamil films rule Malaysia with no competition able to break through, and I am sure there are various other older pockets around the world I don’t know about.
This is also the era when the 3 biggest artistic breakthroughs from the south came up to Bombay. Which kind of proved that the boundaries were firm, I mean, we don’t talk about how Yash Chopra was a Punjabi filmmaker in the same way that we talk about Mani Ratnam as a Tamil director. Because he went back home, you know? He made Roja, it was dubbed in Hindi and released all over the country and became a massive hit. The first film (so far as I know) to do that. And then Ratnam went back home to Madras and kept working there. Heck, his production company is called “Madras Talkies”! And Ram Gopal Verma did the same thing, came up north to make Rangeela, massive hit, and Satya, massive hit, and then kept shuttling back and forth between Hindi and Telugu films, never really landing on one more than the other. And of course AR Rahman has made his commitments very clear, 3 Tamil films to every one Hindi or English. Mostly, we know the boundaries are firm because these are called “crossover artists” and their films are “crossover films”. Which means there must have been a border for them to cross over.
(If you want to know more about Ratnam and Rahman, you can check out my post on them)
And this brings us to the 2000s! When everything changed again, some more. Firstly, there was that global audience. It had just started to spread in the 80s/early 90s. But by 2000, it was firmly in place. Hindi films played in mainstream theaters all over the world. Non-Hindi films were slowly following their lead. They both started the same way, small community groups renting out church basements and playing reels they’d shipped over through some funky little distributor. And then slowly getting big enough to rent a theater in a multiplex and sell tickets, and get the reel from a real grown-up distributor that had started investing in Indian film. And finally getting so big that regular American theaters and distributors were dealing directly with Indian producers. Only, Hindi films started out like that in the early 90s, and non-Hindi films started out like that about 5-10 years later. They have been running to catch up ever since and just in the past few years, they finally have. (if you want to know more about the global audience, you can check out my thesis. And if you want to know more about Hindi film history in general, check out my book)
Let me back up for a second to that 50s-80s era when every language group had its own set audience and Hindi film kind of filled in the gaps. One huge thing to remember about this era is that there were no “all India hits” of the way we have them now. Because there were no all India releases. It was a simple matter of the number of prints made up. Back then, dozens of prints were a big deal. Now we are talking about thousands upon thousands of prints. Bahubali 2 supposedly took up 80% of all screens in India. I don’t believe that for a second, by the way, but just the fact that the producers feel comfortable making that kind of a lie tells us how big the releases are now.
So when I say “Hindi film filled in the gaps”, what that meant was that some Hindi print that had started out in Bombay and months later slowly made it’s way to Madras would be used to fill in an empty screen in a theater that was mostly playing first run Tamil stuff. Hindi film didn’t release all at once everywhere it the country and unite the entire audience with one story. No, it was more that some poor tired print would make it’s way very very slowly over the course of several years from Bombay to Madras to Calcutta to Hyderbad to Delhi, with a little jaunt over to New Jersey, and then maybe Egypt or Jamaica, and finally take its poor sad self over around a tour of the hinterlands of India, with whole reels missing and the sound cutting out and half the audience having already seen it somewhere else but still ready to watch it again. This was an “all India hit”. A movie that could play and replay for decades anywhere in the country. Not a film that released simultaneously in every theater everywhere. If you are talking about a film like that, arguably the non-Hindi films were more likely to do total coverage of an area. Just because they weren’t spread so thin. You could take those same 30 prints and manage to fill every major theater in the region, and every person in the region could watch the same thing opening day. Or at least opening month. Unlike Hindi, where those 30 prints would be split between Bombay and Delhi and Calcutta and Chandigarh and a handful of other cities. And only one or two theaters in those cities.
Now, coming back to the late 90s/early 2000s. Hindi film all of a sudden had soooooooooooo much money (blah blah, liberalization and industrialization and some other stuff you can read about in my nepotism post). And it started shifting from the idea of an “all India hit” being a film that could play and replay all over the country as it slowly traveled, to the idea of a hit that released all over India simultaneously and did equally well everywhere. And then, shortly after, a film that released all over the world and did equally well everywhere.
(Hum Aapke Hain Koun, first film to really crack the NRI market. By giving them a generalized happy family version of India)
And it worked, for a while. Because Hindi film had a lot of experience in appealing to everybody. Like vanilla ice cream. It’s not necessarily anyone’s favorite, but no one really hates it, you know?
But now Hindi film is beginning to hit another one of those draggy periods of artistic funk. And it’s lost track of it’s audience again. India as a whole is getting terribly divided. It’s the multiplex revolution, theaters that used to be a place where everyone watched together, maybe some in upper and some in lower stalls, but at least all in the same place, are now getting completely segregated. And Hindi film seems only able to appeal to the multiplex audience. It’s easier that way. Once you have gone to an English medium school, and then an international college, and now work for a multi-national corporation, all the rough edges are sort of scraped off and everyone is the same whether you grew up in Bombay or Hyderabad or New York. And you can all enjoy some movie with an NRI hero living in London, and a heroine who is a fashion designer, and dialogue that is half English and half very high class Hindi.
But no one else can enjoy those movies. It’s not just that the lower classes in India can’t relate to the characters, the second generation in America can’t either. Or the negative generation in America. “Negative” meaning the uncles and aunties and mothers and fathers who are brought over on Visas. It’s just the middle generation that gets some enjoyment out of the films. They’ve gone too far, gotten too neutral until they are less vanilla ice cream and more, I don’t know, skim milk. You still don’t hate it, but you don’t exactly enjoy it.
And thus, the rise of the non-Hindi films! Because they still have some flavor to them. And suddenly instead of Hindi films filling in the gaps in other regions, the other regions are filling in the gaps in the traditionally Hindi territories. Which, now, means London and New York and Sydney along with Bombay and Delhi.
One thing to remember, Bahubali excepted, is that the non-Hindi films still aren’t really breaking out of their regions. It’s just that the borders of their regions have expanded. Punjabi immigrants ended up in Canada and Australia, their films play really well there. Southern immigrants landed in America, Telugu and Tamil films do well here. Malayalam films do well in Dubai. But Punjabi doesn’t play in America, Telugu doesn’t play in Canada, and so on. The Global hit is as much an illusion as the All India hit.
(You see how this is a Punjabi territory for film?)
My interpretation of the current trends, again Bahubali excepted, is that things are bubbling back down to a healthy level. The future of Hindi films isn’t in Sultan and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, but in Badrinath Ki Dulhania and Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Hindi films can use their slightly higher degree of gloss and budget and so on to make movies that most people can enjoy. But they can keep their aim smaller, lower budgets and fewer screens, not trying to please everybody and ending up pleasing nobody. Go back to being the films that play very very well in some places, and can be more or less enjoyed everywhere, in between people watching their “real” movies. Whether they are watching their “real” movies in Toronto or Chicago or London or Kochi.