Why Bollywood must acknowledge it's the lesser film industry, open gates for collaboration and cross pollination – News9 LIVE

Akshay Kumar in and as Samrat Prithviraj
A shift has occurred in Indian cinema. Ever since Baahubali introduced the idea of the ‘pan-India’ film, audiences have begun to casually but tellingly absorb regional language cinema as a national piece.
The same acceptance hasn’t been shown to Bengali or Punjabi cinema yet but the southern states have certainly found a language that everyone understands despite the barrier of linguistics. Blockbusters like RRR, Pushpa and KGF: Chapter 2 have built upon Baahubali‘s creation of a new mythical demographic, and the pan-India film is now a form of reckoning that the Hindi film industry probably didn’t see coming a decade ago. It’s a seismic shift that has re-established cinema’s ability to blur the borders of language with the sprinkling of a near-universal formula.
As Akshay Kumar’s solo-anchored Samrat Prithviraj releases this week, the elusive formula will play out in competition to Prithviraj – in the collaborative spirit of the Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, and Fahaadh Faasil starrer Vikram.
In an interview after the release of RRR, Jr NTR, a megastar of Telugu cinema and one of the two protagonists of Rajamouli’s colonial epic, mentioned the importance of cross-pollination behind the rise of cinema from the southern states as a whole. “I think the last time two mainstream actors collaborated in a masala film as equals was in Karan Arjun (1995),” he says pointing to a systemic flaw in the Hindi film ecosystem.
This idea of cross-pollination that the actor mentions is not just about collaborating within the same landscape but also with people outside its traditional boundaries. Actors from the southern states, like Dhanush and Rajinikanth before him, have acted in Bollywood to relatively moderate effect because they have always been Hindi-washed rather than allowed to retain their cultural identities. At the height of Rajinikanth’s stardom, countless filmmakers cast him as the maverick lead in Hindi cinema, something that never quite sat right with Hindi audiences. The same could be said for R Madhavan, who never quite commanded the fan following of the other two.
The problem perhaps lies in the fact that the Hindi filmmaking ecosystem would rather remake films from the Southern states than collaborate with them, cast South actors as Hindi-speaking characters rather than write stories that make space for their cultural affirmation. And this is not just in the context of performers but also writers, technicians and directors.
Ideally, you’d want the same to happen in the southern states as well. But to be honest, at the moment, the need of Bollywood is greater. It’s not impossible to write stories that seamlessly assimilate actors from southern states. The Family Man‘s Muthu (Ravindra Vijay) and Ajji (Samantha) are cursory evidence that narratives can be spread far and wide without the need to Hindi-wash performers in the process. Kamal Haasan, at one point, tried to champion this spirit of cross-pollination in the late ’90s before being weeded out of an industry that simply wasn’t ready to open its gates.
Bollywood stars have always been reluctant collaborators. Whether it’s the competition between themselves or the brand value they feel they need to hold onto, the stiffness of the industry’s creative boundaries has meant that some of the industry’s biggest films, though successful, have never really experienced the exchange of fandom like films from southern states have begun to. Malayalam New Wave’s most popular face, Fahaadh Faasil, is set to essay a fully-fleshed role opposite Telugu star Allu Arjun in the sequel to the blockbuster hit Pushpa: The Rise. He will also of course be part of the upcoming Vikram. It’s this kind of exchange of both performance and cultural currency that expands cinema’s reach far beyond the conceptual ideas of studio execs.
The problem Bollywood faces right now isn’t about the subject or star power alone but also in terms of the technical craft and aesthetical treatment. The larger-than-life appeal and the visual authority displayed by directors and technicians from southern states puts them ahead of the Hindi film industry. It’s hard not to admire the world-building mechanics of KFG: Chapter 2, the stunning landscapes of Pushpa or the trademark excessiveness of Rajamouli’s RRR. There is then greater technical prowess on offer that can both be learned from and enmeshed into the Hindi film industry, that is as long as you don’t treat it as a threat.
Stoic filmmakers in Bollywood might still claim the Hindi industry does far more ‘meaningful’ work as compared to the masala cinema of the southern states, and that the Hindi industry, though it might be losing ground at the theatres, is still ahead in the OTT battle where ‘woke’ cinema usually resides. But your industry can only be as big as your last hit, and as crude as it may sound, Bollywood has been struggling to produce any.
Not everything can be answered by structural changes alone, but the simple acknowledgment that maybe the best of India’s talent is either working in the southern states or is headed there could still set Bollywood up for a self-preserving rescue act. The Hindi film industry has previously shunned many an outsider, but it is maybe time to welcome them in without appropriating them as Hindi-speaking or condescending them for being from ‘smaller’ industries.
Because this is a stick or twist situation. If Bollywood can’t read the writing on the wall and board this wagon for the cross-pollination of art, ideas, and the brightest creative minds of the country, then it might well perish.
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