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Southern stars shine bright in the north
Superstars like Kamal and Rajni may have found it difficult to find a foothold in Bollywood but the Kolaveri star has become all the rage.
Filmmaker Anand L Rai is a disturbed man. For all the praise and box-office luck that has come his way in the last week since the release of his Hindi film Raanjhanaa, there's just one question he gets asked over and over: Why did you cast two south Indians in your last two films? There was R Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and now it's the turn of Dhanush, who is collecting critical acclaim and female fans for his 'cuteness' in Rai's Banaras-based love story. "I chose Dhanush because he was right for the role. I had watched Aadukalam (the 2011 Tamil movie that fetched Dhanush a national award) and wanted an actor like him. Since I didn't get anyone else, I cast him,"says Rai, who remains baffled by the north-south question. "Nobody would ask me why you are casting Punjabis if I had chosen Sunny Deol or Akshay Kumar one after the other. Then why this question as Dhanush's act is such a beautiful crossover?" Rai might be indignant but the crossover he talks about has never been smooth for male actors from the south. While women migrated in hordes - from Vyjayanthimala Bali to Asin from Tamil to Hindi, and Khushboo to Hansika from Bollywood to Tamil and other south Indian languages - the men have always been conspicuous by their absence. "Somewhere, a hero has to fit into this unwritten code of masculinity of a region. It is difficult for a male figure to be accepted, " says filmmaker and writer Uma Vangal.
So, even when there was furious exchange of talented technicians in the 1930s, as audiographers and cinematographers from Kolkata and Mumbai came to the south, actors kept to their domains. One of the first migrations occurred when south studio mogul SS Vasan decided to recover the production cost of his magnum opus Chandralekha (1948) by releasing it in Hindi, says actor and film historian Mohan Raman. AVM, the other big south studio, followed suit by coming out with bilinguals such as Ladki (1953) and Bhabhi (1957).
Though stars like Gemini Ganesan and Sivaji Ganesan made their appearances, it was up to Kamal Haasan to make the big splash with his portrayal of a lovelorn Madrasi in K Balachander's tragic love story, Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981). But Kamal and his Telugu counterparts Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna couldn't prolong their stay.
The other Tamil superstar and Dhanush's father-in-law, Rajinikanth, played it safe by appearing mostly in multistarrers in the 1980s. "His Robot (2010) made money but that could be due to special effects rather than star power, " says Vangal. Videographers, editors and technicians from the south have for long been in demand in Bollywood for their skill.
So what ails the southern stars? The villain could be language and not so much looks, says film critic Bhawana Somayya. "Hindi cinema is deeply rooted in Punjabi culture where you celebrate a tough handsome hero like Dharmendra or a highly cultured Dilip Kumar, where the language is all about diction, poetry and stealing the hearts of women, " she says. And half the battle is lost when the south Indian actors start speaking. "The way they speak Hindi, they look so uncomfortable, " says Somayya.
Mohan Raman says the language factor is unavoidable as one generation of Tamilians skipped learning Hindi due to the staunch anti-Hindi politics of the ruling Dravidian parties. "Hindi films were kept away from theatres by the politicians. It took a Bobby and a Yaadon Ki Baaraat to break it, " he says. But even if you know the language, the accent remains a butt of aiyyo amma jokes. "So, imagine the plight of the actors who don't know Hindi, " says Raman.
But filmmaker Sachin Kundalkar, who bravely cast Malayalam star Prithviraj as the object of desire in Aiyyaa (2012), says times are changing. "There is conventional Bollywood, and then there's Hindi cinema. If you are a filmmaker in the latter category, casting an actor from any part of India makes sense as there is a lack of talented actors, " says Kundalkar.
Once talent is in place, newer dubbing technologies can easily straighten the problematic accent, says Raman.
To Rai, who is already planning another movie with Dhanush, the language talk is irrelevant. If Indians could accept a Gandhi played by a highly tanned but talented Britisher, Ben Kingsley, then why not a Chennai boy as a Banarasi babu? The stage seems set for a different act.
Actors who managed the crossover. . . Telugu actor Siddharth in 'Rang De Basanti' Tamil actor Madhavan in 'Rang De Basanti', '3 Idiots' and 'Tanu Weds Manu' Malayalam actor Prithviraj in 'Aurangzeb'
Some southern stars weren't able to make much of an impact in Hindi Tamil star Suriya in 'Rakhta Charitra' Telugu actor Rana Daggubati in 'Dum Maaro Dum' Tamil star Vikram in 'Raavan'
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