Kollywood: The 100 years of South Indian cinema

First South Indian movies
The year 1916 marked the birth of Tamil cinema with the first Madras production and South Indian film release Keechaka Vaadham (The Destruction of Keechaka), produced and directed by R. Nataraja, who established the India Film Company Limited.[8] During the 1920s, silent Tamil language film 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. 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. They established a long-lasting precedent of focusing exclusively on religious themes; Nandanar, Gajendra Moksham, and Matsyavatar, three of their most famous productions, centered on religious figures, parables, and morals.
Bhakta Prahlada, the first south Indian talkie film directed by H. M. Reddy
In 1931, the first South Indian film with audible dialogue, Bhakta Prahlada, was produced by H.M. Reddy. 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 in lead roles, the film attracted unprecedented numbers of viewers to theaters and thrust the young film industry into mainstream culture.

During the same time, the first Kannada talkie, Sati Sulochana, 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
The Madras presidency was divided into linguistic States, known today as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala 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. One such film, Jeevitha Nouka (1951), was a musical drama which spoke about the problems in a joint family. This movie became very popular and was probably the first “Superhit” of Malayalam cinema. Earlier, dozens of immensely successful ‘social films’, notably Prema Vijayam, Vandemataram and Maala Pilla, have ben 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.

A still from Chandralekha, the first successful pan-Indian film
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. The politicizing of movies by the Congress virtually stopped soon after Indian Independence in 1947.[19] With the introduction of electricity to rural areas in the 1950s Dravidian politicians could implement movies as a major political organ. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was the first — at the time the only — party to take advantage of visual movie media.[18] 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.[20] The movies not only made direct references to the independent Dravida Nadu that its leaders preached for but also at many times displayed party symbols within the movie.

Meanwhile, Tamil film Chandralekha crossed all language borders and became the first all-India blockbuster. 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. A posthumously Bharat Ratna winning actor, he has won also the hearts of millions of Tamils, exemplified by dozens of deaths out of hysteria during his funeral. 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 Kannada cultural icon Rajkumar shot to fame. Rajkumar acted in more than 200 movies, but won his National Award for singing the song Naadamaya Ee Lokavella from the movie Jeevana Chaitra. He later turned towards politics and spearheaded the Kannada language movement, followed by millions of his fans. Rajkumar was kidnapped by Veerappan in the year 2000 and was released only after 108 days.


If Bombay was the hub of early cinema the other centres were not far behind; Calcutta and Madras with their own patriarchs were also making path breaking films. Chandidas a film glorifying the Bhakti movement and castigating casteism, directed by Debaki Bose in 1932 for New Theatres, was lauded for its use of background music and dramatic narrative. K. Subrahmanyam’s Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) and Seva Sadan both advocated women’s rights and selfdependence. Seva Sadan also introduced to the world through the silver screen, the great singer M.S. Subbulakshmi, who came to be immortalized for her role in and as the poetsaint Veera both in Hindi and Tamil.


While it is almost impossible to even list all the luminaries of Indian cinema over ten decades, the Wadia Brothers deserve special mention, before going into the different genres. JBH and Homi Wadia were the forerunners of the stunt film _ the thirties was a period in Indian cinema when `Wadia’ and `Nadia’ were synonymous. Australian by birth, Mary Evans came to India with a dance troupe. She was asked to do a number for JBH’s NooreYinan; she changed her name to Nadia. “Besides being a lucky name, it rhymes with Wadia”, she is reported to have said, and through various circumstances she became stunt actress for the Wadias, earning the sobriquet “Fearless Nadia”. The Wadias had a fixation for trains and made a number of films titled, Toofan Mail, Flying Ranee, Punjab Mail and so on. Nadia got so used to sitting on roof top of trains for her stunts that she became reluctant to step off and even demanded her lunch be sent up! The true stunt woman, she grappled with a lion, did the trapeze, carried a calf and a man over running trains — it is unlikely there could ever be another actress like Nadia. She married Homi in 1960, and breathed her last recently.

The forties was a tumultuous decade; the first half was ravaged by war and the second saw drastic political changes all over the world. Filmmakers delved into contemporary themes. V. Shantaram, the doyen of lyrical films, made Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani _ a tribute to Dr. Dwaraknath Kotnis who went out with a medical team to China and died there. Shantaram’s other films were reformist but visually appealing, like, Do Aankhan Barah Haath, Pinjra, Chaani. But there were films where pure artistic merit supersedes social message as in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje and Geet Gaya Paltharon ne. South Indian films also gained great footing. AVM and Gemini were two of the most prolific producers turning out social drama in the South Indian languages as well as in Hindi. While the thespian actor Shivaji Ganesan delivered mind boggling soliloquies on screen, many of the politically inclined writers and actors of the south Indian screen began to use the medium for reaching out to people. The DMK stalwarts, Annadurai, Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran did not even resort to subtlety. “Naan anaittal adu nadandu vital…” sang MGR, (if I could be the decision maker, the poor of this world will not suffer….”) The very titles of the films were chosen with care; Rickshakaran (Rickshaw Driver), Muttukara Velan (cowherd Velan) and En Kadamai (my duty) to convey his identification with the masses. No wonder he was hailed Makkal Thilagam (gem amongst people). Just how effective was the use of the medium was amply proved with the party coming to power and MGR getting voted Chief Minister of the state.

The other star who used the screen image to great advantage was N.T. Rama Rao of Andhra Pradesh. The veritable screen god, NTR played the role so often that he began believing in his divinity. Apparently so did a lot of other people in Andhra, which is why we had a second screen hero from south as Chief Minister.

While the south was busy wooing the public for votes, Bombay was either turning out escapist fare, light, happy, musical films with Dilip Kumar, Rai Kapoor, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Kishore Kumar, Nargis, Madhubala, Nutan, Geeta Bali, Mala Sinha and others or gave the audience absolute tear jerkers with social melodrama. This was the golden era of music. ShankarJaikishan, O.P. Nayyar, Madan Mohan, C. Ramchandra, Salil Chaudhury, Naushad, S.D. Burman – all had their distinctive sway. Each vied with the other to produce some of the most unforgettable melodies India has ever known. This was also the age of innocence; the screen was black and white, the vamp and the heroine did not merge, they had their domains, there were no shades to the hero, a man was all good or rotten to the core. No double entendres were woven into the songs and even the vamp was decently attired on the screen. This was the era of Raj Kapoor, of Shree 420, Awara, Boot Polish, Jagte Raho, Chori Chori and of course his magnum opus Mera Naam Joker – he was still making and acting in enduring films, the tramp who is not able to cope with the pace of the world. He caught up with times and his films changed with Sangam, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Dilip Kumar and Guru Dutt were excellent foils to the chocolatefaced heroes as tragedy kings. So were Meena Kumari and Bina Rai amongst the heroines. But such was their versatility that they could also carry
off comedy effectively. Two outstanding Hindi films of the fifties that deserve mention are K. Asif’s MughaleAzam (took 14 years to make and is one of the most lavishly produced historical of Indian cinema) and Mehboob Khan’s Mother India which is said to have gained the status of Gone With the Wind.

In the meantime in Bengal, the man who was to take Indian cinema to the international arena and win accolades from the greatest filmmakers, Satyajit Ray, released his first film, Pather Panchali (1955). After his trilogy there was no looking back for him or for cinema from Bengal. Mrinal Sen conveyed his quiet commitment to socialism through films like Calcutta, Oka Orie Katha (Telugu) and Bhuvan Shome. Director Ritwik Ghatak gave us memorable films Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha. Although Bengal also came up with films that asked for a willing suspension of disbelief, these were exceptions rather than the rule as in Bombay films, where the Mukherjis, Sippys, Chopras, Chakraborty and Manmohan Desai produced one bonanza after another for the masses and laughed all the way to their banks. There was no market for serious films, it was felt, and the classics that failed to break even like Gutu Dutt’s Kagaz ke Phool and Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker, only strengthened the conviction. The former committed suicide and the latter resorted to the populist fare with Bobby.

It was only after the government set up the Film Finance Corporation (FFC, which in 1980 came to be known as NFDC i.e. National Film Development Corporation) that several small but serious film makers got the wherewithal to make films, notable among them being Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and GV Iyer (with his maiden venture in Sanskrit, Adi Sankaracbarya). The Corporation also partnered the making of Attenborough’s Gandhi and financed Satyajit Ray’s
to be one of the last films of the master.

Like cinema in Bengal, Malayalam cinema too was meaningful but it took a longer time to get noticed. In fact it was Ramu Kariat’s melodious tragedy Chemmeen winning the President’s gold medal in 1965 that drew attention to Malayalam cinema. Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Swayamvaram) and others all gained similar recognition in the years to come. With actor Prem Nazir doing stellar roles in a record breaking 600 films, Malayalam films have come to be characterized by simple narration of powerful stories, authentic locales and low cost production.

The Karanth (BV) — Karnad (Girish) combine have produced two milestone Kannada films Vamsa Vriksha and Samskara, both essentially iconoclast in treatment. Though much talked about, the critique of caste brahmins, the theme of both films was later seen to be rather extreme. In this context it is worthwhile to mention two films made in Tamil on the same subject. Vedam Pudithu directed by P. Bharatraja and Ore Oru Gramathile by K. Jyothi Pandyan. Both carried strong indictments against caste hierarchy and the common man’s struggle to overcome it, but retained a balance – rather unusual for Tamil films.

With government funds available for making films, the seventies saw an unhealthy divide between the existing commercial or mainstream cinema and the new parallel cinema or art films. The former was condemned unequivocally by the critics but continued to fill the coffers while the latter got rave reviews, bewildered the masses and created deep dents in government resources. Fortunately this situation did not last long, for soon there came a crop of film makers who realized that meaningful films need not necessarily incur heavy losses. Shyam Benegal, (Ankur, Nishant, Manthan) proved that there was an audience for films without frills but with a strong story and interesting narration. Govind Nihalani, Jabbar Patel, Mahesh Bhatt, K. Blachander, Bharati Raja, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, all fell into this category.

Around this time, the singular phenomenon, the angry young man with his dark looks, smouldering eyes and mesmerizing voice, Amitabh Bachchan, began to stride the scene like a colossus. He introduced to cinema for the first time as a cult, the negative or the antihero. Special screen plays were written for this hero seeking vengeance and taking on singlehanded an unsympathetic establishment and inadequate legal system.

The eighties saw the advent of women film makers, Vijaya Mehta (Rao Saheb), Aparna Sen (36, Chouwringhee Lane, Parama), Sai Pranjpye (Chashme Baddoor, Katha, Sparsh), Kalpana Lajimi (Ek Pal and, later the much acclaimed Walt), Prema Karanth (Phaniamma) and Meera Nair (Salaam Bombay). The most commendable thing about these directors is their individuality. Their films have strong content and are told with passion, (only Sai has tackled light hearted subjects).

In the nineties, Indian cinema faces tough competition from television; the cable network gives viewers any number of channels and though the most popular channels continue to be the filmbased ones, the cinema halls have taken a beating. Nevertheless, films like Aditya Chopra’s maiden effort, Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge and Suraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Kazin have broken all records, because they recall the innocence of the fifties, a novelty in this age of sex and violence. This gives hope.

Cinema in India can never cease, it has gone too deep into our psyche. It may undergo several reverses in fortune. With other mediums opening up, there will be a smaller market for films. Living as we are in a global village today, we are becoming a more discerning audience. No longer are we going to lap up every mediocre fare dished out by the moghuls of cinema; only the best will survive. And this is just as well.

by Jaya Ramanathan India Perspectives 

About Naufal Khan

Naufal Khan was the Publisher at ADISHAKTI MEDIA and the editor-in-chief of the South African Indian news service Indian Spice. Khan was former Sunday Times journalist and also an occult fiction and non-fiction writer with several published titles.