Cinema of South India

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The Cinema of South India is used to refer collectively the four distinct film industries of Southern region of India - Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada film industries – as a single entity. They are based in Hyderabad, Chennai, Kochi and Bengaluru respectively.

Although developed independently for a long period of time, gross exchange of film performers and technicians as well as globalisation helped to shape this new identity in Indian Cinema.[1] The industry is regulated by the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce. The combined revenue of Telugu and Tamil film industries represent nearly 40% of the total revenue of [2] Indian cinema.


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).[3] 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.[3] 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.[3] 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 Du Pont and set up a business as film exhibitor.[4] He erected tents for screening films. His tent cinema became popular and he travelled throughout the state with his mobile unit.[5] In later years, he produced talkies and also built a cinema in Coimbatore.[6]

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.[3] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] They established a long-lasting precedent of focusing exclusively on religious themes; Nandanar,[12] Gajendra Moksham, and Matsyavatar, three of their most famous productions, centered on religious figures, parables, and morals.[13]

Bhakta Prahlada, a 1932 Telugu talkie film directed by H. M. Reddy[14]

The first Tamil silent film, Keechaka Vadham, was made by R. Nataraja Mudaliar in 1918.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]

During the same time, the first Kannada talkie, Sati Sulochana,[18] 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 influences and 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.[17] 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.[19] 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.[20] The politicizing of movies by the Congress virtually stopped soon after Indian Independence in 1947.[21] With the introduction of electricity to rural areas in the 1950s Dravidian politicians could implement movies as a major political organ.[20] Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was the first – and at the time the only – party to take advantage of visual movie media.[20] 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.[22] The movies not only made direct references to the independent Dravida Nadu that its leaders preached for[20] but also at many times displayed party symbols within the movie.[20] 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.


  1. ^ ET Bureau. "Southern movies account for over 75% of film revenues". The Economic Times. The Economic Times. Retrieved 1 January 2011.
  2. ^ "The Digital March Media & Entertainment in South India" (PDF). Deloitte. Retrieved 21 April 2014.
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  12. ^ Land Marks in Tamil Cinema Archived 10 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ 1916–1936 Archived 21 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ "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.
  16. ^ Velayutham, Selvaraj (2008). Tamil cinema: the cultural politics of India's other film industry. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-415-39680-6.
  17. ^ a b "Reliving the reel and the real". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 19 January 2007. Archived from the original on 1 May 2007.
  18. ^ "First film to talk in Kannada"[Usurped!] article in The Hindu
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  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ Hardgrave, Jr, Robert L (March 1973). "Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu: The Stars and the DMK". Asian Survey (JSTOR) 13 (3): 288–305