Why South starlets found more success in Bollywood

Sridevi’s superstardom and pan-India appeal was a legacy of her illustrious career spanning almost five decades and covering five film industries — Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam in addition to Hindi. While she might be the most successful, Sridevi wasn’t the only star who crossed over from the southern film industries to make a mark in Hindi cinema.

Few recall the south Indian lineage of veteran actor Waheeda Rehman, who was born in Chengalpattu in Tamil Nadu and began her career in Telugu and Tamil cinema before she was ‘discovered’ by Guru Dutt for Bollywood. Rehman went on to be one of Bollywood’s most successful stars during its golden era in the late 50s, 60s and early 70s, delivering a string of extraordinary performances in a number of commercially and critically acclaimed hits including Pyaasa, Guide, Teesri Kasam and Khamoshi.

Probably the first south Indian actor and dancer to woo Bollywood was the iconic Vyjayanthimala, who made her screen debut at the age of 13 through the Tamil film Vazhkai (1949) and Telugu film Jeevitham in 1950 — the former was remade in Bollywood as Bahar in 1951, in which she was cast again. One of the leading actresses of Bollywood’s golden era, Vyjayanthimala gave many outstanding and highly memorable performances in movies such as Nagin, Naya Daur, Ganga Jumna and Sangam, to name a few. Her inimitable charm as an entertainer was in part sourced from her dancing prowess, expressive eyes and ease in portraying city sophistication just as well as rustic mannerisms.

Popularly known as the Travancore sisters, the trio of sisters Padmini, Lalitha and Ragini from Kerala were actors, dancers and performers, who participated in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi films. Among the sisters, Padmini is also known for her roles in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hain and Mera Naam Joker opposite Raj Kapoor and Pardesi with his father Prithiviraj Kapoor.

“Tamil, Telugu and Hindi film industries were a lot more closely linked back in the day. They were largely making similar movies that would work across languages,” says Film critic and Film Companion south editor Baradwaj Rangan, adding, “Big production houses like AVM would either make movies in, say, three languages simultaneously or if the movie did well in one language, they would remake it internally in another language. So when a Vyjayanthimala movie like Vazhkai becomes a hit, it is remade in Hindi as Bahar. It also made sense to remake it with the same actor.”

Elaborate classical dance sequences and faceoffs were a common feature in many movies in the early decades of the Indian film industries. “Speaking of Kumari Kamala or Travancore sisters’ dancing fame, there was the culture of what is today known as an item song (albeit not as risque as it is today) that was put in a movie to create buzz around it as an ‘extra’ attraction,” explains Rangan. The movement of dancers across languages was therefore relatively common. (Even Helen performed a dancing number for the Tamil film Sri Valli!)

Hema Malini, who was dubbed as ‘Bollywood’s Dream Girl’ after her movie Sapno ka Saudagar in 1968, made her screen debut first in the Tamil films Ithu Sathiyam and Pandava Vanavasam as a dancer and supporting actor. Rekha, who had made her screen debut in Telugu cinema, was cast as a lead in the Hindi film Sawan Bhadon in 1970. Despite the film’s success, Rekha initially struggled with Hindi and was criticised for her dark complexion and unorthodox appearance by Bollywood standards, both of which she grandly overcame in the years to come.

Sridevi debuted in Bollywood with Solva Sawan in 1979 and went on to achieve superstardom in the 80s and early 90s. Jaya Prada too, at a time when she had a successful career in South Indian film industries, ventured into Bollywood and starred in a number of successful movies such as Sharabi, Sanjog and Tohfa in the 80s.

Opportunities to work in Bollywood have been looked upon as an excellent means of gaining exposure, visibility and pan-Indian popularity for actors of regional film industries. Experts also acknowledge that female stars have to grapple with a shorter shelf life, which may be have been an encouraging factor for the established ones to switch industry for newer, bigger opportunities.

From Padmini, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Rekha, Jaya Prada and Sridevi, south Indian female actors on the whole have been historically quite successful in blurring the linguistic and topographic boundaries in cinema than their male counterparts. Often adept in dance and consequently capable also of emoting with faces and bodies, most of them were fair complexioned and could thus easily fit into the Bollywood mould.

The listing of female actors only in the Bollywood migrations of south Indian actors is no coincidence. However, it is not as if mega movie stars of the south such as Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who ventured into Bollywood — mainly in the 1980s — did not deliver hits. “All of them had hits. Chiranjeevi had Gentleman, Rajinikanth had Andha Kanoon and Kamal Haasan had Ek Duuje Ke Liye. But they didn’t move bag and baggage to Bollywood unlike Sridevi or Jayaprada. They were not willing to give up the industry that made their name,” says Rangan. While the actresses often shifted base entirely, the male stars of south India likely never intended to permanently become Bollywood heroes.

In a male-oriented industry, the movies were typically headlined by the male actor (the hero). Those familiar with the southern film industry, fans look at a male star in a different way than a female star, especially in the south, where they start constituting a loyal base that prevents the star’s films from collapsing at the box office. Having achieved an almost demi-god status through their stardom in regional cinema, actors like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan would not have prioritised Bollywood over their home industries.

This isn’t the only possible explanation however. Generally speaking, language is the most significant barrier to cross pollination of actors between film industries. During their initial years in Bollywood, Sridevi and Rekha, for instance, were not well-versed with Hindi and had their lines dubbed by dubbing artists. Voice plays a bigger role in the image and popularity of male stars, compared to their female counterparts, and therefore with the option of dubbing precluded — male stars were less likely to avail opportunities in other language industries including Bollywood.

This is not to say that south Indian stars are not acknowledged for their talent, but there is a difference between good acting and finding stardom. The way Dhanush, for instance, is perceived in the south is completely different from the way he is perceived in the north, even though he has been acknowledged even in Bollywood for his acting skills. “He is not ‘hero-material’, he is just an actor”.

With inputs from Ashameera Aiyappan.

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