Malayalam movie stars are willing to take on negative roles like Fahadh Faasil did in the film Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum Image Credit: Supplied

Bollywood — mainstream cinema in Hindi from Bombay — leads Indian cinema in terms of number of films produced annually and boasts a global reach. But precisely because the other regional cinemas have smaller markets, they are often more rooted; and their scripts and audiences take more risks, enabling them to punch above their weight.

A number of factors enable regional cinemas beyond Bollywood to be agile: infrastructure, multiplex density, government subsidies for film production and protectionist reservation of shows for local language films (Marathi cinema enjoys the last two, for instance). Original scriptwriters and cinematographers can distinctly shape regional cinemas as well, which is much tougher in Bollywood star vehicles.

India produced 1,986 feature films in 43 languages and dialects in 2017, so it is easier to address this diversity in cinemas region-wise. 

Northern cinema

The north has always been dominated by Hindi cinema, with a few films in Punjabi or Urdu crossing over to other states, though Bhojpuri films hold their own. Last year, Bollywood Hindi mainstream and indie cinema gave us offbeat films, including Badhaai Ho, Raazi, Andhadhun, Manto (Hindi, Urdu), Soni, Gali Guleiyan, October and Manmarziyan.

Bejoy Nambiar is one of the few true-blue crossover film-makers, having directed Shaitan, Wazir and Dobaara in Hindi, been creative producer or line producer for Mani Ratnam’s films (Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Raavan in Tamil), and written the story for Karwaan, directed by Akarsh Khurana.

“Hindi cinema has indies like Tumbbad and Stree break away from the mainstream narrative, with actors who are not a massive commercial draw,” he observes. “The success of all these films has made the audience as well as the trade sit up and take notice. Pariyerum Perumal and Ratsasan (Tamil) and Sudani from Nigeria and Ee Ma Yau (Malayalam) were some of the runaway indie hits in other languages. Audience exposure to strong content from across the globe is changing how audiences are consuming and accepting films. So it’s not that the south is doing way better than Bollywood. It’s a constantly changing and evolving space, with new, distinctive voices gathering steam.”

Southern cinema

South Indian cinema, especially Malayalam and Tamil, is by far the liveliest of Indian cinemas, with bold risk-taking and greater audience appreciation for good stories and films, even without stars. Exciting, recent Malayalam films include that delightful gem, Zakariya Mohammed’s Sudani from Nigeria (on an African footballer playing for a small village team in Kerala), Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee Ma Yau and Angamaly Diaries, Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Maheshinte Prathikaaram, B Ajithkumar’s Eeda, Venu’s Carbon and Jayaraj’s Bhayanakam.

“The Malayali audience, which appreciates a good story or experiment, is our strength,” says Pothan. “They don’t ask who is the star of a new film, they ask who is the director and writer.” He adds that writers such as Syam Pushkaran and Sajeev Pazhoor have their own fan base, while cinematographers like Shyju Khalid, Rajeev Ravi and Girish Gangadharan get star billing on the posters. Besides, many stars are willing to experiment, for instance, Fahadh Faasil’s negative role in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum.

“As the industry is much smaller than Bollywood, film-makers are also more supportive of each other,” says Pothan, who is also a versatile actor. “I’ve acted in Aashiq Abu’s and Amal Neerad’s films; if I have an idea, I will discuss it with Lijo. We have to stand together. Also, our films are ‘handmade films ’— smaller and personal.”

Tamil cinema’s recent A-list offerings include award-winning director Vetri Maaran’s Vada Chennai (a sprawling gangster epic) and Visaranai (Venice film festival; India’s Oscar entry), C. Prem Kumar’s bittersweet romance 96 and Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal, on an inter-caste romance. Maaran shares fascinating insights into Tamil cinema: “Bollywood has to cater to many worlds, including the Tamil audience, so the integrity of the film is compromised. It remains generic, it can’t afford to make a film that’s rooted.”

For instance, Queen was an urban feminist film, but 96 — a Tamil love story with stars Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha — holds both urban and rural appeal. However, the superb Pariyerum Perumal has an all-new cast and director. Also, it is easy to love 96, a feel-good film, but Visaranai (on brutal police torture of suspects) is hard-hitting, yet made good money, bringing in nearly Rs80 million on a Rs27.5 million budget.

“The Tamil audience is among the most evolved in the world. Pirated DVDs of international cinema has played a major role in shaping their tastes, so they demand cinema of world standards from Tamil directors,” Maaran continues. “I have watched pirated DVDs with my friends. Those selling the DVDs said Bollywood film-makers would buy pirated DVDs worth Rs70,000 to Rs100,000 at a time and send them by truck to Mumbai!

These DVDs would then make their way from Tamil Nadu to Kerala and Bengaluru in Karnataka. Tamil audiences are also more politically aware because, since before Independence, Tamil cinema has been used as a tool to express political ideology as well.”

Telugu cinema has delivered good films in recent years as well, including the brilliant Mahanati (biopic on the legendary actress Savitri) and C/o Kancharapalem, while Kannada cinema rounds off the talent down south with showpieces such as Balekempa and Thithi.

Eastern cinema

Srijit Mukherji’s Ek Je Chhilo Raja and Pratim D. Gupta’s Ahare Mon were among the finest Bengali films last year. The first is a period drama based on a real-life legal case involving royalty. Ahare Mon is a jewel: four love stories woven together with a modern, liberal climax that surprises.

“Risk-taking directors in Bengali cinema would include Kaushik Ganguly, who can make a film on the love story of a transvestite or of dwarves, or me who could pull off stories on necrophilia in commercial mainstream Bengali cinema,” says Mukherji. “Then there is Q, Bengal’s irreverent and audacious answer to censor board-driven, popcorn-friendly entertainment. And Aditya Vikram Sengupta, who wields silence like a painting brush, when narrating seemingly niche, but delightfully accessible cinema.

“Bengali cinema is able to take risks that may be harder for Bollywood to pull off because of much lower financial stakes, more receptive audiences, easier access to stars and actors, and lesser bureaucracy and the paraphernalia of film-making.”

Western cinema

Marathi cinema is going strong in Mumbai and Maharashtra, despite Bollywood breathing directly down its neck. The finest recent Marathi films include Ravi Jadhav’s Nude/Chitraa (on a woman who models nude at an art school), Prasad Oak’s Kaccha Limbu, Sachin Kundalkar’s Gulabjaam, Sandeep Modi’s Chumbak and Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti’s Naal. In Goa, Konkani cinema’s best includes Miransha Naik’s Juze, on an oppressive landlord-labourer relationship, and Nilesh Karamunge’s Mahaprayan, a satire that is an astonishing 83-minute one-take film.

Kundalkar, who is currently shooting Pondicherry, in Pondicherry, on an iPhone, in Marathi, Tamil, French and English, says, “Kaccha Limbu and Nude (which he wrote) are among the strongest recent Marathi films. I loved Hindi films such as Kapoor & Sons and October. A lot of big Bollywood films tanked last year, while many good, small films were successful. In Marathi cinema, if I have a good script, I can simply contact a good actor and make the film. But Hindi cinema is like a fortress, which stops people from entering or retiring. Producers such as Zee Studios’ Nikhil Sane have had a visionary, long-term view and consistently backed good Marathi films, from Killa to Sairat. Our actors are our biggest assets, bright, open and hungry — you feel like writing for them. I asked Sai Tamhankar, who is a glamorous star, to just wash your face and shoot without make-up. She had faith in me and agreed.

“If you’re brave, you can also have a film ending that is honest and doesn’t end with a calculation,” Kundalkar continues. “October was brave enough to have a sad ending, as the girl dies and there is no hope.

“I could also end Gulabjaam with the couple neither marrying nor dying: Marathi audiences can handle a couple separating in the end.”

Meenakshi Shedde is the South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival and a National Award-winning film critic