The recent announcement of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award this year for South superstar Rajinikanth is celebrated by all Indians, in India and abroad. Actually, it is quite strange, since the Indian film industries as well as their stars are accepted only among their own regional followers and in their own local languages.
All South Indian language films have their superstars. Although South actors, when popular, do have the advantage of working in more than one South language film, the language superstar is usually a homegrown actor. While the Tamil audience may accept a Telugu star’s film and vice versa, when it comes to a star from the Hindi film industry, it is a no-go in the South.
The Hindi film industry and filmstars have this advantage of acceptance by a wider audience due the Hindi language being understood and followed in most parts of India, though in the South, Hindi is understood only by a few. The biggest of Hindi film stars have not been able to make a dent in the South. Neither Rajesh Khanna nor Amitabh Bachchan, with whom the people may have been familiar with, but that was that.
Yes, the one Hindi film actor who was very popular and whose films did excellent business in the South is Mithun Chakraborty.
Mithun’s musical action films and his contemporary dances (in those days) were loved. There was no system of dubbing Hindi films for region-specific languages. But then, Mithun’s films were about action and dance and those suffered no language barrier.
The Hindi screen actors who are most popular in the South are the villains. They as good as dominate the South films while the local villains there have now been turned into playing comic roles. Vidyut Jammwal, Pradeep Rawat, Mukesh Rishi, Rahul Dev, Mukul Dev, Sayaji Shinde, Ashish Vidyarthi, Ashutosh Rana, Mukesh Tiwari, Yashpal Sharma and Sonu Sood are prominent examples.
Besides that, people remember certain characters from the film “Sholay” (maybe, also some other films just for the characters they played), which I witnessed first-hand. It was during the shooting of producer Yash Johar’s film “Duniya” in Cochin. The film starred Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Rishi Kapoor. A horde of media was invited to attend the shoot. One of the artistes in the film was Mac Mohan and, on seeing him, the usual crowd that gathers to watch a film shoot started shouting in chorus, calling him “Oye Samba”. “Sholay” had run for five years in a Mumbai cinema and had also enjoyed a fair share of success in the South.
Rajinikanth, the South star who lasted the longest on the Hindi screen, could do so because he played to the gallery. Also, he was always cast in parallel roles. Producers preferred to cast him with Amitabh Bachchan because, even for a Bachchan film, the South market was not lucrative. The idea was to combine him with the South superstar, Rajinikanth, and that combination spelt money. Rajinikanth is one star who enjoys a fan following across the world, and especially so in the Southeast Asia. In fact, his film “Muthu” was a blockbuster in Japan, having run for over 20 weeks.
Some of the South stars could have stayed longer in the Hindi industry, but opportunists flooded the market with the Hindi dubbed versions of these actors’ South Indian hits thus killing their prospects.
It is probably the characters that an actor plays that the South audience takes a liking to. Stardom or glamour matter little or not at all. That is probably why the South stars don’t carry their starry image in real life as one may have seen with Rajnikanth, who never hides his bald pate and appears in the traditional dress in public.
Similarly, one watched the erstwhile Telugu superstar Krishna shooting in the afternoon, dressed up for his role and justifying his superstar status. The same evening, at a media get-together, he appeared sans his hairpiece and in traditional mundu.
While Mumbai stars rarely get a chance to feature in South films except in a guest role or as second fiddle, the South actors have had more opportunities to break into the Hindi film industry. After all, Hindi films guarantee all-India acceptance. Quite a few actors from South language films entered Hindi films and with a bang, with jubilee hits for their debut films.
Kamal Haasan made his Hindi debut with the film “Ek Duuje Ke Liye”, an all-India hit. Thereafter, he did get a few more opportunities to find a foothold, but could not. Similarly, the Telugu star Chiranjeevi entered Hindi films with a home production, “Pratibandh”, followed by “Aaj Ka Goonda Raaj”, both hits, and that was that in Hindi films for him.
Similar was the case with Nagarjuna who made a dashing entry in Hindi cinema with “Shiva”, a campus-versus-underworld movie. But what followed was mostly a few side roles. Venkatesh, son of the doyen of South industry, D. Rama Naidu, was launched in the home production, “Anari”, which was a hit. Not much was heard of him thereafter. Then, there was Harish who got a bigtime break with D. Rama Naidu’s “Prem Qaidi” with Karisma Kapoor, but was reduced to playing side roles in the few Hindi films he was offered.
As for Rana Daggubati, his grandfather D. Rama Naidu had big plans to launch him on the Hindi screen if his debut Telugu film had succeeded. But it was not to be and Rana was also left to do side roles in Hindi movies. There were a few others who tried without success. Among them were the Kannada stars Ambareesh and Vishnuvardhan, besides the Malayalam stars Mammootty, Mohanlal and Prithviraj.
Then there was the legend, Rajinikanth, recipient of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award this year (the award took its time coming, though!), who has crossed all regional and language barriers that the film industries in India face and emerged as the National Icon. While, the films in the South still catered to the family audience, Rajinikanth brought in loud style and mannerisms, and captured the youth and mass audience instantly. He devised his own unique style to toss a cigarette between his lips or to juggle his goggles as he placed them on his nose or toss and tilt his head. This was accepted because he played mainly negative characters.
But, when he was cast as the main lead, his fans wanted to see the same style he had become popular for. The South movie lovers have made icons out of many filmstars but Rajinikanth stands a notch above. Many a star has been awarded the Phalke award but the reception and reactions to the award to Rajinikanth has been overwhelming pan-India. His popularity is limited by no barrier.
While it is not easy to break the sound barrier, it is even tougher to break the language and region barriers when it comes to Indian films. Rajinikanth has achieved the rare feat. He is aptly titled Thalaiva, the leader.
–By Vinod Mirani