Why The North And South Debate Is Hurting The Indian Cinema
To unravel this dinner table and twitter floor debate, let’s go back to the very beginning. Bollywood (Bombay + Hollywood) actually was never spearheaded by the native Hindi speakers when it started to grow. It was mainly the two sides of Bengali and Punjabi artists who made the backbone of what we know today as the quintessential Hindi cinema.
Arguably the two most popular composers of Bollywood have been RD Burman and AR Rahman. One is from Bengal, another from Tamil Nadu. The exquisite line of directors from Phalke, Asif, Dutt, Roy, Ray, Kapoor, Kapur, Benegal, Karnad, Mukherjee to Chopra weren’t born with a Hindi mother tongue but they elevated and popularised Bollywood cinema for both the masses and the classes. The big sponsors made Bombay the singular hub for large scale productions but in the last decade or so that’s pleasantly changed with corporations from all around the country coming to invest in multiple languages anchored in different cities. The original idea of Bollywood was like Bangalore bringing the best of startup aspirants to one vicinity, it wasn’t intentionally meant to become divisive. But it’s indeed time for all the different woods of each state to become the Indian ocean of exceptional unified talent.
Before going further on this north-south discussion - for the record: Just like South Indian food doesn't mean only Idli Dosa, South Indian movies don't mean Pushpa. So don't go back in time by painting the gorgeously different art forms, subjects and styles of Malayalam (like Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25), Tamil (like Jai Bhim), Telugu (like Bahubali) and Kannada (like KGF) cinema as one flavoured ice cream.
Now coming back, another dagger brought into this civil war is how Bollywood is a hub of nepotism and southern industries aren’t. Surely that can’t be true with Ram Charan, Allu Arjun, Daggubati, Mahesh Babu, NTR Jr, Vijay, Suriya, Dhanush… all hailing from the film industry families. And for every Sudeep and Yash there are Ayushmann and Nawazuddin. The women stars barring a few are mostly self-made from Anushka Shetty to Anushka Sharma. Culturally the scales are the same across the nation. It’s time the lenses with which we see them are too.
This new trend of using appellations like ‘Pan India cinema’ by either industry/s in an attempt to sound ‘above all of these regional movies’, is counterproductive and isn’t helping the cause. Dubbing in multiple languages has been happening here since as early as the 60s and if a movie is really good all kinds of audiences will watch it - be it a Mughal e Azam, Titanic, 3 Idiots or RRR. Not above, together please.
Quite honestly the bigger issue in this North-South debate is the blatant disregard of East India and West India cinema. Making this possibly the most elite mass debate of recent times. Shouldn’t this opportunity be used to give the big podium to every region, language, style and story bottled for a century for having their moment in the Sun? Share the national multiplex screens generously and take those myriad reels to eventually every corner of the world. The brilliant work of Marathi, Bengali, Gujrati and Assamese movies are rarely discussed outside their states. And in place of bringing democracy to the art, aren’t we just changing the king on the throne?
The real gold that should actually be discussed around the nation are Sarpatta Parambarai and Swades but Kabali and Om Shanti Om, much more comfortably (and expectedly) rake in the big money. Let’s not then blame the market we have ourselves created. Like every single entertainment industry in the world, ours too is reactionary to audience vote and we need to share the accountability. So, grace yourselves for watching at least two dozen big budget movies in the next five years dripping in machismo and adrenaline. We have told the markets: to quadruple their revenue - ‘this is the formula’.
And now quickly touching the sensitive topic of “adaptions”. Neither is it a local north-south phenomenon, nor always a result of lack of imagination. Hamlet, Sherlock, Little Women to A Star Is Born have seen multiple lenses telling the exact same story. Amitabh Bachchan’s Don has been remade with Rajnikant, Shahrukh and Prabhas. Remakes can also be a homage to the original, a sign of respect to a well appreciated craft. There would have been no American Departed without Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs, no Raghavan’s Andhadhun without the French L'Accordeur or the iconic Hera Pheri in Hindi without the Malayalam Ramji Rao Speaking.
Those dissing now on the early NRI cinema palate like DDLJ and K3G's of the world that made Bollywood too ‘westernised’, need to understand the big part they played in taking the soft power of Indian pop culture global.
They are the same people who say art is relative, and ironically while wearing Levis and eating burgers, call them not Indian cinema because they don’t show a wishful one general idea of India. The multiple Oscar winning movie Parasite or one of the most watched shows of the last decade - Squid Games, do not show the grandeur and history of South Korean culture but depict the reality of classism with extraordinary nuance. Can Pariyerum Perumal be an INR 1000 crore movie here? Or is it Bahubali or nothing? Look deeper, the debate isn’t north south, it is the desire of one narrow idea of India over several other beautiful shades and personalities it comes with.
In an era fighting for local supremacy become Dhoni and Rahman, sharing unadulterated love and reverence from all four corners. It's a blessing to have so many niche cultural stories to tell in so many magical languages. Most countries have at best three major languages, and none have a history as rich as ours. To show the realistic cinema of a clerk in a village trying to make ends meet in a corrupt system, a larger-than-life period drama of a lost golden era to the escapist fun modern movies of a multi-millionaire investment banker who can also fight, dance and change the society while doing it, is a luxury we have. Embrace everything. You don’t need to eat Vada Pav, Dhokla or Aloo Dum if you only love Butter Chicken, just try not to patronise the others and get them off the menu altogether. There was, is and especially after OTT will always be a market for everyone. Isn’t it a great thing that globally now both Satyajit Ray and Rajamouli are known as “Indian Cinema”. Choose what you love, and the market anyway will filter on its own what the majority doesn’t.
The same social media fanning this north-south debate still comes together to enjoy a Money Heist in Spanish, Crash Landing On You in Korean and Stranger Things in English without making it a language, region or concept comparison issue. If next year a Kannada, Hindi or Punjabi movie win at the Oscars or Cannes, will we celebrate as a state or a nation? Let's elevate each other's work here by frequently collaborating with the best amongst ourselves to become the pinnacle of entertainment in the world.