From Kamal Haasan to Dulquer Salmaan and Parvathy, many south Indian actors have ventured into Bollywood.

Bollywood calling How have south Indian actors fared outside their own industry
Flix Entertainment Thursday, November 16, 2017 - 16:23

Malayalam superstar Dulquer Salmaan has just wrapped his first Hindi film Karwaan, written and directed by debutant Akarsh Khurana, co-starring Irrfan Khan and Mithila Palkar.  He is only the second male actor of his generation from the Malayalam industry to have taken the ‘big leap’ into Bollywood. Prithviraj tried it in 2012 with Aiyyaa opposite Rani Mukherjee.

While Dulquer fans professed their delight over the actor’s new innings, he had this to say—"I don’t think I want to play a fancy lead role in Hindi films just for the sake of it. I would prefer to do interesting roles. If I get a memorable role, it would have a bigger impact than debuting as a lead in a film where nobody knows me.”

The message is loud and clear; he is just testing waters in Bollywood, and has no intention of setting base there. Malayalam cinema will always be the priority. It’s probably this sense of security on home ground that often curtails south Indian male actors’ exploration of Bollywood at length.

Drawing a trajectory: from Kamal Haasan to Dhanush

“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. I think proximity to the industry was a major part, they didn’t want to give up their mega stardom down south,” - Baradwaj Rangan, Film Companion South editor.

Though Sivaji Ganesan had a cameo in Dharti (1970), it was Kamal Haasan who made his big Bollywood debut as a hero in K Balachander’s Ek Duuje Ke liye (1981). He played a Tamilian who falls madly in love with a north Indian girl (this thread was later reconstructed in various Hindi soaps and films).

Out of the 18 films he did, most of them were either remakes or dubbed version of his own south Indian films. Probably Ramesh Sippy’s Saagar (1985) and Raaj Tilak (1984) are the only quintessential Bollywood films he was part of. Despite his talent, Kamal Haasan was never a sought-after hero in Hindi. 

Rajinikanth has done around 20 films in Hindi, and there have been quite a few hits, but he was never able to replicate the phenomenal success from down south. Unlike Kamal, Rajinikanth took on original roles in Bollywood. Interestingly, both actors put a lid on their Bollywood goals post their superstardom in Tamil cinema.

Malayalam superstars, Mammootty and Mohanlal were also part of an odd film or two. Mammootty was the hero in a highly forgettable Dhartiputra (1993) and Sau Jhooth Ek Sach (2004). While Mohanlal won rave reviews for his Palakkad based Police Commissioner in Company (2002), he gained nothing from being part of the awful Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007).

Chiranjeevi and Venkatesh, superstars of Telugu cinema have also starred in one or two Hindi films (most of their Telugu superhits were dubbed into Hindi) but it’s Nagarjuna who tasted some amount of success with films like Criminal (1995) and Khuda Gawah (1992).

Kannada superstar Kichcha Sudeep surprisingly made more fruitful inroads into Bollywood than many of his contemporaries (with Ram Gopal Varma films like Phoonk, Rann, Phoonk 2, Raktha Charitra 1 & 2).

Prithviraj made an unconventional debut with Rani Mukherjee in Aiyya where he played a Tamil man who becomes a Marathi woman's object of lust. He played a character with grey shades in Aurangzeb and had an extended cameo in Naam Shabana, but success still eluded the young actor in Bollywood.

Chiranjeevi’ son Ram Charan’s Hindi debut, Zanjeer (2013), which was a remake of the Amitabh Bachchan starrer of the same name, sank without a trace. Then there is Dhanush who made a notable debut with Raanjhanaa (2013), won the Filmfare for best debut actor and starred alongside Amitabh Bachchan in Shamitabh (2015).

Not many of the young male superstars down south seem keen to experiment in Bollywood. There have been infrequent outings (including Ajith in Asoka, Surya in Raktha Charithra) but only two actors have managed to make some headway in Bollywood -  R Madhavan and Siddharth. While the former has been adept at balancing both industries, the latter has made an impact with the few Hindi films he did.  Telugu star Rana Daggubati has also done his share of Hindi films (Department, Dum Maro Dum, Ghazi Attack) without being pigeonholed as a south Indian character.

The women who charmed the boundaries

“In the 80s there were a lot of heroine oriented films being made that required a certain level of acting proficiency than glamour. But now it’s more a sporadic event. Look at how Aramm is being celebrated as a heroine-oriented movie,” - Baradwaj Rangan.

There have been widespread discussions on the dwindling success rate of south Indian male actors in Bollywood in contrast to female actors. Female actors have always succeeded in blurring the linguistic and topographic boundaries in cinema—from Padmini, Vyjayantimala, Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi, Jayaprada to Asin.

The heroines who made the crossover were all fair-skinned and once there, they were quick to fit into the Bollywood mould. Sridevi had a lot of substantial roles come her way but she was careful to even it out with enough glamour outings.  Ditto with Rekha.

Hema Malini was sought out mostly for scripts that had a meaningful woman lead. And they stood head and shoulders with the reigning superstars in Bollywood.

“Also at that time south heroines came with a certain skill set. They could dance, emote,” says Rangan.  However, no woman actor from the south has since been able to create that kind of impact in Bollywood. Although Aishwarya Rai is from the south and she made her debut in the Tamil film Iruvar, she grew up in Mumbai for the most part. 

Among the younger lot, though Asin struck gold with the Hindi remake of Ghajini, she soon found herself being relegated to playing the ‘girl-next-door’. Her innings hardly went beyond 7 films. “There has always been a flavour of the month in southern industry. Not so much about acting, but about looking good and that means fair skin was the need of the hour. Especially post '90s. As the profile of the movie changed, the actresses also changed,” recalls Rangan.

At the same time, Tamannaah and Kajal Aggarwal are north Indian women actors who have set their base in the south, with occasional and forgettable Bollywood outings.  Taapsee Pannu is an exception in this case as, unlike her peers, she has invested in better characters in Hindi. Ironically, it’s when she migrated to Bollywood that she was accepted as a good actor.

Dubbing artist-turned-actor Bhagyalakshmi once said in a TV interview, “When it comes to north Indian actresses doing films in south, since their voices are dubbed, it’s easier to find acceptance in regional cinema. Simran and Jyothika had the same dubbing artist. It’s only recently that even Nayanthara started using her voice. Initially Sridevi and Rekha had dubbing artists and it’s once they were established that they started doing their own dubbing. Asin dubbed for herself in Hindi and Tamil. That’s also one reason why male actors struggle in either industries because voice is part of their popular image.” 

But Parvathy who recently made her Hindi film debut in Tanuja Chandra’s Qarib Qarib Singlle opposite Irrfan Khan was received warmly by the critics and audience alike.

“This film’s beating heart is Parvathy. She is such a breath of fresh air, such a break from the dressed-up dolls of Bollywood: a breathing, alive young woman, sensitive to those around her, searching, but not too desperately, not for that mythical One, but for Someone who may be a right fit,” says Indian Express film critic Shubra Gupta in her review. Another notable aspect is that she has dubbed for herself in the film.

Bollywood was largely ruled by south Indian women actors for a long time but not a single male actor was able to gain a foothold in the industry. The marked 'south Indian' look of many actors doesn’t work in a typical Bollywood rom-com or potboiler, and their heavily accented Hindi also acts as a deterrent.  One look at some of their roles and we realise that it never falls in the typical mould of a Bollywood hero. They are either a character with a south Indian background, or with some patent difference in behaviour, characteristics or ethnicity.

The two-way street of typecasting...

 And it’s a two-way street when it comes to male actor’s acceptance in either industries. Except for cameos by Amitabh Bachchan, Amjad Khan, Shah Rukh Khan or Anil Kapoor, Bollywood male actors have never dared to play leading roles in any south Indian film as the same rule applies to these actors of north Indian origin. They have instead preferred to remake some of these mass films into their language. Four out of Akshay Kumar’s ten top grossers have been remakes of south Indian films (Rowdy Rathore, Singh is Bling, Holiday, Gabbar is Back) while five of Salman Khan’s all-time biggest hits (KickReadyBodyguardWanted, Jai Ho) were remakes of Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu films. 

Interestingly the south has also always beckoned the north Indian actors for the role of hard-nosed villains. For a long time, every mass Telugu/Tamil film featured a blue/grey-eyed, russet haired villain:  Atul Kulkarni, Sonu Sood (who made a successful career out of it), Sayaji Shinde, Rahul Dev, Pradeep Rawat, Vidyut Jamwaal to name a few.

...Ending in misrepresentations!

Baahubali 2, which is the second highest grossing film in India after Dangal can be credited for obscuring the wide margin between south and north Indian cinema in the recent past. But at what cost we may wonder? A lot of cinemagoers in north India now believe that this epic fantasy action film represents all cinema down south. It speaks a lot about the Bollywood-isation of Indian cinema.

Even as Bollywood continues to feed into the dark, huge, curly haired rowdy stereotypes (remember Chennai Express) for south Indian men, and pale, pretty and blue-eyed stereotypes (remember, well, everyone from dusky-turned-fair Rekha to Aishwarya Rai!) for all women, we hope that in times to come with independent cinema swallowing the gap between mainstream and offbeat, the south-north demarcation in Indian cinema will take a backseat.  Perhaps then, quality content and quality actors will triumph over topography and ethnicity. 

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