This period has seen some landscape-altering developments in the cinema of the four southern states. A look at the breakout talents of this movement
In the five years that Film Companion has been in existence, what has been the most explosive development south of the Vindhyas? Well, Film Companion South, of course! But seriously speaking, this period has seen some landscape-altering developments in the cinema of the four southern states. Here's a ready reckoner, featuring the single most-important trends.
In Telugu cinema, it was the return of the mega-movie, thanks to the mind-boggling success of Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and its sequel. For the longest time, conventional wisdom was that only Hindi films could penetrate every pocket of India, given that (1) the reach of Hindi cinema is a pan-Indian phenomenon, and (2) even the biggest hits of Tamil and Telugu cinema have been consumed only in their respective states and among the diaspora. But SS Rajamouli dynamited this belief. The Baahubali films showed that people don’t care where a film is from (and who stars in it) as long as you give them a reason to visit the theatre, and their impact can be felt across other southern industries as well, from KGF (Kannada) to Mani Ratnam’s upcoming historical epic, Ponniyin Selvan (Tamil).
Breakout Actor: Vijay Deverakonda got noticed in the coming-of-age drama Yevade Subramanyam (2015) and got a hit in the rom-com Pelli Choopulu (2016), but nothing prepared the world for his star turn in Arjun Reddy (2017). He snarled, smouldered and swaggered his way through this blockbuster and became the biggest Telugu star to emerge in a long time. Safer choices like Geetha Govindam (2018) suggest that he may have bought into his stardom and we won't be seeing much envelope-pushing in the future, but the actor remains an exciting representative of “new-age” Telugu cinema.
In Tamil cinema, it was the return of the director (or we could say, the demise of the star). The big three (Rajinikanth, Ajith, Vijay) continue to be a guaranteed draw, but the other stars are finding that the audience won’t come out just to see them. They need to smell a good film, and that’s where the younger filmmakers have come in. Directors with barely one or two releases – but with sensibility and vision – are being courted by stars who wouldn’t have given them the time of day a few years ago. Rajinikanth pioneered the trend, by working with Pa Ranjith and Karthik Subbaraj. The others have been quick to catch on. The biggest news right now is Ajith’s Pink remake, with the two-film-old H Vinoth.
Breakout Director: It’s hard to pick one filmmaker among many who have made stunning debut films over the last few years, and if I choose Karthick Naren, it’s because his Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru (2016) inaugurated a long season of winning films by first-timers. This stylish crime thriller came out of nowhere to become one of the highest-grossing debuts in Tamil cinema and the films that followed (by others) have shown a strong auteurist streak. This generation seems to not just want hits. They seem to want to craft cinema that’s utterly unique. The most heartening thing is that the stars have bought into them, too.
In Malayalam cinema, it was the return of... well, Malayalam cinema. That is, what we used to know as Malayalam cinema before it turned to templatised, testosterone-fuelled knock-offs of the Tamil/Telugu “mass” movie. Yes, there’s still the odd Pulimurugan (2015), with Mohanlal and a computer-generated tiger and blockbuster grosses - but the films that stood out in the past five years are those by newer, younger filmmakers, where flesh-and-blood (and flawed) human beings negotiate life as it happens. Whether we are talking Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum or Mayaanadhi or Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela or Take-Off or Virus, the industry’s young male and female stars submit to the vision of the brilliant writers. For them, star power isn’t about hogging every scene. Instead, it’s about using their clout to get a certain kind of movie made.
Breakout Writer: Syam Pushkaran made his screenwriting debut with Salt N' Pepper (2011), and in the last five years, he’s truly come into his own, with a “signature”. He appears to be fascinated with cinematic codings of masculinity. His first solo outing was the marvellous Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016) which took the time-honoured “macho” trope of revenge and turned it on its head. His subsequent works - Mayaanadhi (2017), Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2018), Kumbalangi Nights (2019) - prove that the writer is the backbone of Malayalam cinema today.
In Kannada cinema, it’s the return of a certain section of the middle class, who had stopped going to theatres, because the “mass” films were far from what they were used to – namely, the dramas with Rajkumar, Anant Nag, Ambarish and Vishnuvardhan. After a long time, Lucia (2013) made them curious enough to venture back to the cinemas, and Ulidavaru Kandante (2014) made them curiouser. By the time Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (2016) was out, it was a mini-movement. The director, Hemanth Kumar, told Film Companion, “People message me and say that they hadn’t watched a Kannada film in the theatre for nearly 15 years and my film was the one to bring them back.” The recent Ondu Motteya Kathe (2017), about the travails of a balding teacher, was a bona fide hit. It has helped that the hitherto insular industry is opening up, releasing films in other states. It has also helped that streaming services have made available a huge untapped audience. The future is here.
Breakout Film: K.G.F. Chapter 1, directed by Prashanth Neel. I can't say the film worked for me. (I would choose Hemanth Rao's Kavaludaari, Rishab Shetty's Ricky and Kirik Party, or Mansore's Nathicharami as films that made more of an individual statement.) But for far too long, the Kannada film industry has struggled under the shadow of its bigger (Tamil, Telugu) and better-regarded (Malayalam) southern counterparts, and K.G.F. was a sorely needed "mine is bigger than yours" mega-production. It quickly became the highest-profile Kannada film of all time, and with a second part in the pipeline, the industry will hopefully sustain its improved visibility outside the state.