To outsiders, Indian cinema has often, and incorrectly, been identified via Bollywood, the glitzy Hindi-speaking film industry based in Mumbai. But in a country with more than 20 official languages, each with its own movies, Bollywood’s unofficial status as the representative of films from India has often been begrudgingly questioned.
It’s also a flawed status that events such as the South Indian International Movie Awards (Siima), to be held this weekend in the UAE, is trying to correct.
And for Vishnu Induri, the founder and managing director of the company that’s bringing it here, it’s really a no brainer. “When you compare the box office collections of a Bollywood film versus a south Indian film in India, it’s almost at par in terms of revenue. But overseas, south Indian films don’t even make 15 or 20 per cent of what Bollywood films collect,” he says.
“For instance, in the Middle East, the Malayalam-speaking population is huge. Malayalis [people from Kerala] watch Tamil [spoken in Tamil Nadu] films too. Yet, Bollywood film collections are much, much more than any other films from India.”
The main reason, says Induri, is the exposure Bollywood has. “That’s why we want to build Siima as a catalyst which can accelerate the growth of south Indian films worldwide.”
Encompassing films from the four main south Indian states, including Kerala, where Malayalam is spoken, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka (official language is Kannada) and Andhra Pradesh (Telugu), Siima will see some of the biggest stars from each state come out to play for over two days, on Thursday and Friday, at the Sharjah Expo Centre.
Awards will be given in different categories for each language’s films. And because of similarities in some of the languages, stars are often shared among the four industries.
In its second year — the first event was held in Dubai last year — Induri, says the plan now is to take Siima around the world every year.
“We are not trying to distinguish ourselves from Bollywood. We are just saying we are equally big,” he says. “Bollywood cinema is growing globally. And every year, Bollywood is making four to five remakes of films from the south, all of which are blockbusters. So, when the world is observing Bollywood, Bollywood is observing the south. So, the world has to observe the south. We want to make enough noise.”
To do that, Siima has picked three young stars to represent its event this year: Shriya Saran, who has appeared in multiple south Indian films as well as Bollywood; south Indian heartthrob Rana Daggubati who recently made his debut in Bollywood, and Arya, one of the most bankable stars in the Tamil film industry, who is hugely popular in all south Indian states. The three, along with Bollywood star Sonu Sood, who has also starred in south Indian films, will host the main awards night on Friday.
“These actors can create that impact we want. We want to show the world we are trying to create a difference and we want the world to notice us,” says Induri, whose company also owns the Celebrity Cricket League, a non-professional cricket league made up of actors from across India.
South Indian films are unique because of their mix, says actor Arya, who popularly goes by one name. “Films from each state has a different style of filmmaking and narration. It’s like a collage of so many variety of talents and so many stories. And that’s our strength,” he says.
Arya, a massive star in Tamil Nadu who made his debut in 2005 with Arinthum Ariyamalum, has also starred in Malayalam and Telugu films. He says south Indian films have always had a major influence on Bollywood — and it’s time the industry got its due.
“The scripts from so many blockbuster Bollywood films came from the south. Also, 90 per cent of all the technicians who work in Bollywood are from the south, from sound engineers to camera people,” he says.
“So artistically, we are rooted in Bollywood. And I don’t think it’s fair to really make this about them and us. We’ve always worked together for all these years.”
Daggubati, who made his debut in Telugu film Leader in 2010, comes from one of the biggest film families in the south: His grandfather, Daggubati Ramanaidu is one of the most respected producers in the country, and his uncle, Venkatesh, is one of Andhra Pradesh’s biggest stars.
He believes sharing the stage with Arya, Saran and Sood sends out a positive signal about the south Indian film industry.
“I think having such a massive platform equal to any other industry plus having all of us on stage, who come from such diverse industries, is a great initiative. And it’s a good message to send within or outside the industry,” he says.
While south Indian states have been working together for many years, film industries in general are merging in many different ways, he adds.
“Me being accepted in a Hindi film was a crossover,” says the 28-year-old who made an acclaimed debut in Bollywood film Dum Maaro Dum in 2011.
“Right now, I’m filming a tri-lingual film, which is being shot in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil at the same time. I think that is a real crossover.”
But it’s Saran who can claim to be a true cross-over actress. The north Indian model and star has massive appeal both in the south and in Bollywood, and has also starred as the lead in the Hollywood film, The Other End of the Line, along with Jesse Metcalfe, and recently in acclaimed director Deepa Mehta’s controversial adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children.
“I feel really humble and grateful to God that I’ve had the opportunity of a lifetime to see a lot of good actors perform,” she says. “I feel humbled because people from India have accepted me and welcomed me, a nobody and a small town girl who is accepted and being loved. I’ve had the opportunity to explore so many different cultures and feel blessed to have done that.”
Saran, who attended Siima last year, will perform as well as host the show.
Of all the south Indian languages, she finds Malayalam the most challenging. “It’s slightly more complicated than the others,” she says laughing. “I’m not very good with languages. My first language is Hindi and I grew up speaking English. So I am most comfortable arguing in Hinglish.”
The 30-year-old says she is going to “have a lot of fun” at the awards night. “I am going to make sure you enjoy and go back home with lots of memories,” she says.
Daggubati adds: “It’s going to be a fun, entertaining night. Come, relax and enjoy the show.”