Cinema of South India

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Cinema of South India, refers to the cinema of the four major film industries in South India; primarily engaged in making feature films in the four major languages of the region, namely — Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. They are often colloquially referred to as Kollywood, Tollywood, Sandalwood and Mollywood.

Although the four industries developed independently for a long period of time, gross exchange of artists and technicians, as well as globalisation helped to shape this new identity.[1] By 2010, South India became the home for 6320, or about 62% of the 10,167 Cinema theatres in India.[2]

For the financial year of 2013, the combined net box office revenue of Tamil and Telugu film industries stood at 36% of the total net revenue of Indian cinema.[3] In 2021, the combined domestic box-office of the four South Indian film industries totalled 2,400 crore, surpassing that of Hindi film markets, where box office collection stood at 800 crore.[4] In 2021, Telugu film industry emerged as the largest film industry of India in terms of box office revenue.[5][6][7]


During the Madras Presidency[edit]

In 1897, a European exhibitor first screened a selection of silent short films at the Victoria Public Hall in Madras (Present-day Chennai).[8] The films all featured non-fictional subjects; they were mostly photographed records of day-to-day events. In Madras (present-day Chennai), the Electric Theatre was established for the screening of silent films.[8] It was a favourite haunt of the British community in Madras. The theatre was shut down after a few years. This building is now part of a post office complex on Anna Salai (Mount Road). The Lyric Theatre was also built in the Mount Road area.[8] This venue boasted a variety of events, including plays in English, Western classical music concerts, and ballroom dances. Silent films were also screened as an additional attraction. Swamikannu Vincent, an employee of the South Indian Railways in Coimbatore, purchased a film projector and silent films from the Frenchman DuPont and set up a business as film exhibitor.[9] He erected tents for screening films. His tent cinema became popular and he travelled throughout the state with his mobile unit.[10] In later years, he produced talkies and also built a cinema in Coimbatore.[11]

To celebrate the event of King George V's visit in 1909, a grand exhibition was organised in Madras. Its major attraction was the screening of short films accompanied by sound. A British company imported a Crone megaphone, made up of a film projector to which a gramophone with a disc containing prerecorded sound was linked, and both were run in unison, producing picture and sound simultaneously. However, there was no synched dialogue. Raghupathy Venkaiah Naidu, a successful photographer, took over the equipment after the exhibition and set up a tent cinema near the Madras High Court.[8] R. Venkaiah, flush with funds, in 1912 built a permanent cinema in the Mount Road area named Gaiety Theatre. It was the first in Madras to screen films on a full-time basis. The theatre later closed for commercial developments.[12]

Swamikannu Vincent, who had built the first cinema of South India in Coimbatore, introduced the concept of "Tent Cinema" in which a tent was erected on a stretch of open land close to a town or village to screen the films. The first of its kind was established in Madras, called "Edison's Grand Cinemamegaphone". This was due to the fact that electric carbons were used for motion picture projectors.[13] Full-fledged film studios were built in Salem (Modern Theatres Studio) and Coimbatore (Central Studios, Neptune, and Pakshiraja). Chennai became the hub of studio activity with two more movie studios built in Chennai, Vijaya Vauhini Studios and Gemini Studios. Thus, with the undivided Madras Presidency, being the Capital to most of South India, Chennai became the center for South Indian language films.

AVM studios in Chennai, the oldest surviving studio in India

First South Indian films[edit]

The first Madras production was Keechaka Vadham (The Destruction of Keechaka), produced and directed by R. Nataraja Mudaliar, who established the India Film Company Limited.[14] During the 1920s, silent Tamil language films were shot at makeshift locations in and around Chennai, and for technical processing, they were sent to Pune or Calcutta. Later, some films featuring M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar were shot in those cities as well. Telugu artists became active with the production of Bhisma Pratighna, a silent film, in 1921. The film was directed by Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu and his son R. S. Prakash.[15] The two, along with Yaragudipati Varada Rao, would go on to produce and direct dozens of films throughout the decade, casting theater actors in major roles.[16] They established a long-lasting precedent of focusing exclusively on religious themes; Nandanar,[17] Gajendra Moksham, and Matsyavatar, three of their most famous productions, centered on religious figures, parables, and morals.[citation needed]

Bhakta Prahlada, a 1932 Telugu talkie film directed by H. M. Reddy[18]

The first Tamil silent film, Keechaka Vadham, was made by R. Nataraja Mudaliar in 1918.[19] The first talking motion picture, Kalidas, was a multilingual and was released on 31 October 1931, less than seven months after India's first talking motion picture Alam Ara.[20] Popularly known as talkies, films with sound quickly grew in number and popularity. In 1934, the industry saw its first major commercial success with Lavakusa. Directed by C. Pullaiah and starring Parupalli Subbarao and Sriranjani, the film attracted unprecedented numbers of viewers to theaters and thrust the young film industry into mainstream culture.[21]

During the same time, the first Kannada talkie, Sati Sulochana,[22] appeared in theatres, followed by Bhakta Dhruva (aka Dhruva Kumar). Both Sati Sulochana and Bhakta Dhruva were major successes. But prospective filmmakers in Karnataka were handicapped by the lack of studios and technical crews. Sati Sulochana was shot in Kolhapur at the Chatrapathi studio; most filming, sound recording, and post-production was done in Madras. It was difficult, as well, to find financial backing for new film projects in the region; thus, very few movies in Kannada were released during the early years of Indian sound cinema. The first talkie in Malayalam was Balan, released in 1938. It was directed by S. Nottani with a screenplay and songs written by Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai. Malayalam films continued to be made mainly by Tamil producers until 1947, when the first major film studio, Udaya, was established in Alleppey, Kerala by Kunchacko, who earned fame as a film producer and director.

Social influence and rise of superstars[edit]

The Madras presidency was divided into linguistic States, known today as Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The division marked the beginning of a new era in South Indian cinema. Cinema was celebrated regionally and exclusively in the language of the respective State. By 1936, the mass appeal of film allowed directors to move away from religious and mythological themes.[21] One such film, Jeevitha Nouka (1951), was a musical drama which spoke about the problems in a joint family. Earlier, dozens of 'social films', notably Prema Vijayam, Vandemataram and Maala Pilla, have been released in Telugu. Touching on societal problems like the status of Untouchables and the practice of giving dowry, Telugu films increasingly focused on contemporary living: 29 of the 96 films released between 1937 and 1947 had social themes.[23] Attempts made by some Congress leaders in Tamil Nadu to use stars of Tamil cinema were limited since this media remained inaccessible to the rural population, who were in the majority.[24] The politicizing of movies by the Congress virtually stopped soon after Indian Independence in 1947.[25] With the introduction of electricity to rural areas in the 1950s Dravidian politicians could implement movies as a major political organ.[24] Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was the first – and at the time the only – party to take advantage of visual movie media.[24] Actors and writers of guerrilla theater, who were inspired by the ideologies of Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, brought the philosophies of Tamil nationalism and anti-Brahminism to celluloid media.[26] The movies not only made direct references to the independent Dravida Nadu that its leaders preached for[24] but also at many times displayed party symbols within the movie.[24] When the DMK began using cinema for political purposes and actors like MGR and S. S. Rajendran rode into politics on their popularity as actors, Tamil cinema began to be noticed by academics, S.S.Rajendran, as a film actor, became the first elected 'Member of legislative assembly in the industry from Tamil Nadu.

Meanwhile, Tamil film Chandralekha crossed all language borders. It was the time, when M. G. Ramachandran became one of the most remembered actors of India. His popularity enabled him to found a political party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which is regularly part of the Government of Tamil Nadu. He posthumously won Bharat Ratna.

The time was hailed as "the period of giants" in Malayalam film industry, due to the work of film stars Sathyan and Prem Nazir. Nazir catapulted to the row of the finest actors of India with the film Iruttinte Athmavu (1967). Playing a demented youth – Velayadhan, Nazir discovered his prowess as a dramatic actor of great intensity. Many critics have evaluated this role as his masterpiece, and as one of the finest onscreen performances ever. He holds the record for having acted in the most leading roles – about 700 films. Another record is for the most enduring screen team along with actress Sheela. They played opposite each other in 130 movies. It was also the time when Rajkumar shot to fame. Rajkumar acted in more than 200 movies who also won National Awards for singing songs like "Naadamaya Ee Lokavella" from the movie Jeevana Chaitra. His film Bangaaradha Manushya created a record at the box office for successfully running in the main theaters for more than two continuous years. He later spearheaded the Kannada language movement, followed by millions of his fans, however the star remained away from politics.

Characteristics and popularity[edit]

South Indian films, whether Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, or Tamil, have been predominantly rooted in their specific geography. They tell stories that are in tune with the culture, dialect, politics, social structure, and lifestyle of the people in their respective regions. This can be seen in the films of Padmarajan or Bharathiraja that were set in the Malayali or Tamil milieu respectively. Similarly, K. Viswanath directed films based on arts — performing and visual, aesthetics, social structure and lifestyle of Telugu people. South Indian cinema has been able to find audiences across India, and even outside because of its ability to remain rooted in a certain milieu, while appealing to the collective “Indian” sensibility, whereas Hindi films, of late aren’t able to strike this balance because of their essential non-rootedness. For many years, films in Hindi have gone urbane and elitist, while down South, they remained rooted in telling the stories of people in a way they can enjoy as their own.[27][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ ET Bureau. "Southern movies account for over 75% of film revenues". The Economic Times. Retrieved 1 January 2011.
  2. ^ "STATEWISE NUMBER OF SINGLE SCREENS". Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  3. ^ "The Digital March Media & Entertainment in South India" (PDF). Deloitte. Retrieved 21 April 2014.
  4. ^ Sambamurthy, Kashmeera (7 December 2022). "The rise of South Indian Cinema: How Southern movies are going national". Moneycontrol. Retrieved 11 February 2023.
  5. ^ S, Srivatsan (7 January 2022). "The 'pan-Indian' strategy of Telugu cinema". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 20 January 2022.
  6. ^ Mukherjee, Nairita; Joshi, Tushar (22 December 2021). "Is South cinema the new Bollywood?". India Today. Retrieved 20 January 2022.
  7. ^ "Tollywood | ఆ విషయంలో బాలీవుడ్‌ను వెనక్కి నెట్టేసిన టాలీవుడ్." Namasthe Telangana. 5 January 2022. Retrieved 20 January 2022.
  8. ^ a b c d Muthukumaraswamy, M. D; Kaushal, Molly (2004). Folklore, public sphere, and civil society. NFSC p. 116. ISBN 9788190148146.
  9. ^ "Pioneers In Indian Cinema – Swamikannu Vincent". Archived from the original on 9 May 2013.
  10. ^ Rajmohan, Joshi (2006). Encyclopaedia of Journalism and Mass Communication: Media and mass communication. Isha Books. p. 68. ISBN 9788182053663.
  11. ^ Brahmanyan (21 September 2007). "Down Memory Lane – Bioscope in Coimbatore". The Times Of India. Archived from the original on 30 June 2015.
  12. ^ "Cinema at Round Tana". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 25 June 2003. Archived from the original on 23 October 2003. Retrieved 26 September 2011.
  13. ^ "He brought cinema to South". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 30 April 2010. Archived from the original on 5 May 2010. Retrieved 26 September 2011.
  14. ^ Velayutham, Selvaraj (2008). "'India' in Tamil silent era cinema". Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India's Other Film wenr Industry. Routledge. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-415-39680-6.
  15. ^ "Telugu Cinema Biography". 3 May 1913. Archived from the original on 29 September 2011. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  16. ^ " – Articles – History Of Birth And Growth Of Telugu Cinema". Archived from the original on 10 April 2007.
  17. ^ Land Marks in Tamil Cinema Archived 10 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Narasimham, M. L. (10 September 2011). "Eighty glorious years of Telugu talkie". The Hindu. Chennai, India. Archived from the original on 4 November 2013. Retrieved 19 February 2015.
  19. ^ "Metro Plus Chennai / Madras Miscellany : The pioneer'Tamil' film-maker". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 7 September 2009. Archived from the original on 12 September 2009. Retrieved 29 June 2011.
  20. ^ Velayutham, Selvaraj (2008). Tamil cinema: the cultural politics of India's other film industry. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-415-39680-6.
  21. ^ a b "Reliving the reel and the real". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 19 January 2007. Archived from the original on 1 May 2007.
  22. ^ "First film to talk in Kannada"[Usurped!] article in The Hindu
  23. ^ " – Articles – History Of Birth And Growth Of Telugu Cinema". Archived from the original on 18 February 2012.
  24. ^ a b c d e Devdas, Vijay (2006). "Rethinking Transnational Cinema: The Case of Tamil Cinema". Scenes of Cinema. Archived from the original on 5 December 2008. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  25. ^ Sarah, Dickey (1993). "The Politics of Adulation: Cinema and the Production of Politicians in South India". The Journal of Asian Studies 52 (2): 340–372.
  26. ^ Hardgrave, Jr, Robert L (March 1973). "Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu: The Stars and the DMK". Asian Survey (JSTOR) 13 (3): 288–305
  27. ^ "The secret of the pan-Indian success of films from the south: Balancing the local and universal". 3 August 2022.
  28. ^ "Explained: Why Korean, Hollywood and South Indian remakes should be a big no for Bollywood-Opinion News , Firstpost". 4 August 2022.