Bilinguals in south Indian cinema are not a new phenomenon. Even though the four major languages of the south are distinct and have their own scripts, there are many similarities among them. The popularity of stars from one state spills over to others and actors, especially women who play the heroine, have for long worked across industries.
Further, for several years, Madras (now Chennai), used to be the centre where most south Indian films were made. The Tamil and Telugu industries, especially, are closely connected and many films have been made in both languages simultaneously, right from the '50s.
Of late, with expanding budgets, the explosion of social media, and the multiplex culture, bilinguals have become increasingly common. The more number of people the film is made for, the better the returns.
Besides, a vast majority of these big budget films are set in urban areas with universal themes. Culturally, there isn't much variation that the filmmakers need to make in the scripts for the different films. Characters can sport the same look and have similar lifestyles without looking "off".
In the recent bilingual release Solo, for instance, the stories are not restricted by place. The action shifts from one place to another and is not bound by cultural specificities. The film has been made in Tamil and Malayalam - the overarching themes being love, betrayal, revenge, and deception, the responses to the film are not likely to be radically different between the two audiences.
Before Solo's release came the AR Murugadoss thriller Spyder which was made in Telugu and Tamil. With Mahesh Babu and Rakul Preet in lead roles, the film had a massive release in all three states. Even though this was Mahesh Babu's first Tamil film, the Tamil audience was already familiar with him. Besides, AR Murugadoss has given blockbusters with top actors from Kollywood and is an established name in the industry.
Prakash Raj, who is well-known in the southern film industries made Idolle Ramayana in Kannada and Telugu (Mana Oori Ramayanam) and also starred in the lead role. Director Alphonse Puthren of Premam fame made his debut with the bilingual Neram which had Nivin Pauly and Nazriya in the lead roles.
While the lead cast is likely to be the same, filmmakers may change the supporting actors, especially the comedian. This is because their appeal may be limited to their respective audiences unlike that of the big stars.
Will it work across the board?
However, bilinguals run the risk of looking too generic.
It's impossible to make say, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum or Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu as a bilingual because these films are so rooted in their social milieu. The landscape, the dialect spoken by the characters, the incongruities of their behaviour, even just how everybody in the film looks - it cannot be easily adapted to another culture.
A remake can certainly be made, in different locations and with different actors, but the film will not work merely by changing the language.
The ensemble cast in a bilingual usually features actors from across industries so they hold an appeal to different audiences. The disadvantage of this, however, is that many a time, they appear miscast and the unfamiliarity with the language sticks up as a sore point. This is a criticism that has been leveled against several films, including the latest release Solo.
Moreover, each industry has a certain sensibility which has been shaped by the history of its cinema. Making a bilingual while paying heed to this is a difficult ask. Already, even for the release of dubbed versions, we see filmmakers deliberately including sequences that they believe are necessary for the film to appeal to the "other" audience. Exaggerated fight scenes or "item" numbers may be included because that's the norm in an industry that has the big monies.
Even though the US and the UK make films in English, the ones made in Hollywood and Britain are vastly different. It's not just the accent, it's everything - from cultural representations to even the sense of humour. When it comes to India, with its immensely diverse population, it's not always possible to hit the right note when you are making a film for two different cultures. While the audience may expand, the realm of ideas for subjects becomes narrower.
One understands that films need to make money for the industry to survive and thrive but hopefully, this trend will not restrict big budget filmmakers from exploring subjects closer home. As Twitter taught Shabana Azmi recently, upma and poha are not one and the same even if they may share similarities.