Why you should care

Because we’re about to digest a brand new India, and it tastes nothing like chicken tikka masala.

You might not have hopped off the plane to see the Hollywood sign, but if you really know the movie industry, you might also be familiar with Bollywood — the multibillion-dollar Indian film industry that makes its home in Bombay. Just 20 years ago, Bollywood was unknown to most people outside of India, but now? Bollywood’s yesterday, baby, and it’s time to get to know its younger, brasher cousin in South India, where an entire industry has emerged around Tamil-language cinema in “Kollywood.”

Kollywood is the nickname for Kodambakkam, a neighborhood in the southeastern coastal city of Chennai that’s home to many of the Tamil movie industry’s studios. Along with Hindi, Tamil is one of India’s 22 official languages and is spoken across the Tamil Nadu province and South India.

The infatuation with Rajinikanth is so intense fans have created temples in his honor. NYU’s Ganti characterizes the actor’s fame as a “cult of celebrity around him.” Last year’s popular Hindi-language movie “Chennai Express” paid homage to Rajinikanth with a song and dance that became a YouTube sensation.

“In terms of [the Tamil and Telugu industries’] established distribution infrastructure, it’s much smaller, and yet they are making films with about the same kinds of budgets that the Bombay (Hindi-language) filmmakers are,” said Tejaswini Ganti, an associate professor of anthropology who studies Bollywood cinema at New York University.

Everyone knows that in the film business, you follow the money. And right now, Kollywood is just a blip in the bucket at about $170 million — but as it changes the Indian film industry, which keeps making inroads to Los Angeles, well, that’s something worth watching.

Aside from the difference in language, film experts distinguish Kollywood movies by their different aesthetic and themes. If Bollywood is dreamy dance sequences and intense romance, Kollywood is glorified heroes saving the day from thugs in action-packed scenes — while wooing the heroine at the same time.

Confident man in action walking towards camera

”Vishwaroopam,” a 2013 Tamil spy thriller

But if you thought Bollywood’s trademark dance sequences were absurd, “Hindi films may often appear a lot more subdued in comparison to some of the South Indian films,” Ganti said.

Better brace yourself.

The most important name to know in Kollywood today is 60-year-old Superstar Rajinikanth (“Superstar” is indeed part of his colloquial name). One of the most celebrated Tamil actors of all time, he has appeared in 200 or so movies since the 1970s and was the star of 2010’s Enthiran. The hit sci-fi movie also featured Aishwarya Rai, a mega-celebrity who married a member of the Bachchan family, Bollywood royalty, in the equivalent of a “Brangelina” merger.

Top Tamil movies in the last year — according to the International Business Times India — include Arrambam, an action movie starring Ajith Kumar, and Vishwaroopam, a spy thriller that generated controversy for its its terrorism plotline and portrayal of the Islamic community.

Kollywood churns out 150 to 160 films a year on average, according to G. Dhananjayan, the chief of South Indian business for Disney UTV studios. And the Tamil industry is just one engine contributing to the thousands of Indian films produced annually.

Dhananjayan, author of The Best of Tamil Cinema, says the Tamil industry has seen lots of changes in the last 80 years. In the 1940s, “people started watching Hollywood films in Chennai thanks to the British government.… Everybody started getting influenced by Hollywood films’ making, the style of making, and the techniques used and everything.” Watch a classic Tamil film and it’s easy to pick out the Hollywood influences.

Consuming culture tells us more than we’d otherwise suspect about a national identity, political or otherwise.

But by the 1980s, Dhananjayan says people started using rural settings and depicting realistic issues facing the population in the region. He points to iconic films that addressed water scarcity (Thanneer Thanneer), anti-defection laws (Achamillai Achamillai), the caste system (Vedham Pudhithu) and female infanticide (Karuththamma). Films like these catalyzed discussion of — and political responses to — major societal issues of the day, he explained. For film to both capture the zeitgeist and drive reform is no small achievement.

Karuththamma, for example, was released in 1994, the same time India made it illegal for expectant parents to find out the sex of their fetus.

“Tamil cinema played a very lead role in creating that kind of awareness on social, economic and political issues of the people,” said Dhananjayan.

Sure, Thomas Friedman took us on a walk around Bangalore and Infosys a few years ago and told us the world is getting flatter … and then came Monsoon Wedding. But since then, India itself has gone through changes. And as we all know, consuming culture tells us more than we’d otherwise suspect about a national identity, political or otherwise. Which is why it’s a big deal that Kollywood is catching up to Bollywood.Tamil cinema continues to tackle social issues, but much like the stores, restaurants and music in the region, everything is becoming more and more Americanized. And Kollywood is catching up to Bollywood.

Especially as Kollywood itself is going a little Westward ho.

It goes both ways: Tamil movies continue to incorporate Western themes and culture, while Western culture is gradually embracing Kollywood. English movies have even been remade in Tamil with a Kollywood cast and setting: Bill Murray’s What About Bob? turned into Thenali, and Mrs. Doubtfire starring Robin Williams became Avvai Shanmugi.

In Toronto, home to one of the largest Tamil diasporas in the world, movie website Review Raja has emerged to bring crossover appeal. Written by a Canadian film critic who is not a native Tamil-speaker, the site has attracted a large following for English video reviews of Kollywood movies.

Certainly, Kollywood’s global distribution still pales in comparison to Bollywood’s; NYU’s Ganti said it’s because Bollywood has more established distribution channels to get movies to audiences both in and outside of India. AMC Theaters, for example, is venturing into Indian cinema with its Bollywood initiative. So select theaters that might play the latest Brad Pitt flick, might also show the newest Shahrukh Khan blockbuster. In regions with large Indian communities—the San Francisco Bay Area and New York/New Jersey — there are a handful of theaters devoted solely to Bollywood, Kollywood and Telugu films.

And these days, you don’t even have to leave your couch: Netflix now features six Tamil-language movies for streaming in its foreign section. So the next time you’re looking for something different to watch, slip into the colorful world of Kollywood.

At least there are subtitles.

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