Guide to Indian regional cinema


Guide to Indian regional cinema

These films will make you rethink Bollywood

By Deepa Menon  July 30th, 2015

Regional cinema seems to have two things going for it: tiny budgets and small audiences. These seeming disadvantages mean more freedom for the filmmaker, who needn’t focus all his energy on making it to the 100-crore club or juggling star egos. Nishikant Kamath, who directed the National Award-winning Dombivali Fast (Marathi) as well as the block-busting Bollywood movie Force, said in an interview with Indian Express, “In regional films, I can experiment, take newcomers, take risk with the story. But when I am doing mainstream where lots of money is involved, I have to take bigger stars, have a set up…”

Outside Mumbai, film budgets are more sensible, the star culture is less hysterical — except in Tamil and Telugu cinemas — and the audience demands more authenticity because regional cinema is rooted in a specific culture. So a character played by Mohanlal will adhere somewhat to the way the average Malayalee man speaks, acts and fights in a lungi, whereas the average Salman Khan character looks and behaves like no human being anywhere on earth. Rajnikanth is, of course, exempt from this — and every other — rule.

Think of regional cinema as a specialty restaurant, offering authenticity and variety from Bollywood’s multi-cuisine mishmash. Regional films can be as escapist and divertingly illogical as anything by Rohit Shetty, most of whose hits are Tamil and Telugu remakes. But they are also often more personal, courageous and unpredictable. Thanks to them, and the multiplexes, distributors and film festivals bringing them to your neighbourhood, you never have to sit through another bad Hindi — or English — film just because there’s nothing else to watch. The alternative is here and it’s speaking in tongues.

The movies everyone’s talking about

Sweeping the reviews: Killa (Marathi)
The comparisons with Pixar’s Inside Out were inevitable, given that this is also a story of a childhood uprooted. Eleven-year-old Chinmay is struggling to deal with the new situation at home — his father died a year ago and his mother’s job has moved them to a quiet town with limitless possibilities for boredom. Chinu’s adventures, making friends and exploring the rain-drenched Konkan landscape is drawn from debutante director Avinash Arun’s own frequent uprootings as a child. Reviewers have praised this award-winning film for its lush cinematography, restrained storytelling and spirited performances.

Sweetest story: Kaaka Muttai (Tamil)
Apart from Dhanush, who produced the film, there are no stars attached to this project. It marked the debut for the main leads and the director, but went on to win two National Awards and big box office returns. The story revolves around two little boys from a Chennai slum set off on a quest to taste their first pizza. Any Indian viewer can predict the hurdles ahead: they have to first acquire enough money and then enough respectability to be allowed to enter a restaurant. It’s about as heart-breaking a plotline as is possible with the word pizza in it. But first-time director M Manikandan’s even hand and eye for beauty saves the film from being a heavy exploration of class issues. At least, the presence of these issues doesn’t weigh down the joy of watching the brothers use all their resources and enterprise in the pursuit of pizza.

Festival favourite: Asha Jaoar Majhe (Bengali)
First-time director Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s work has been likened to Satyajit Ray’s finest, and there is no higher praise possible for a Bengali film. It portrays a day in the life of a couple in Kolkata whose long hours at gruelling jobs are out of sync — he works nights, she works days — so they can only really be together in their fantasies. Hailed for its poetic narration and languid yet masterful pace, this silent film won honours and special mentions at the National Awards, and the New York Indian and the Venice International film festivals. The director has said the story’s tone was set by an Italo Calvino short story, The Adventure of a Married Couple.

Multiplex hit: Bela Seshe (Bengali)
On the 50th anniversary of a marriage complete with children and grandkids, a man asks his wife for a divorce. What keeps people together, anyway — love or the habit of years? Looking under the hood of marriage and relationships, and handling what it finds with affection and humour, this family drama ran to packed houses in Kolkata weeks after its release. One of the very few regional language films to be distributed by Eros, it travelled to the rest of the country and won raves wherever it went. Amitabh Bachchan, fresh from his own portrayal of a grumpy Bengali patriarch in Piku, raved about it on his blog. Is that a remake we smell?

Small budget, big heart: Nachom-ia Kumpasar (Konkani)
While Bombay Velvet opened in May after months of hype over its big names and bigger budget, another film set in the same era and inspired by the story of the same Goan singer who ruled the city’s jazz scene, had a quiet release in December last year and went on to gather more critical acclaim than its Bollywood counterpart. This Konkani film by Bardroy Barretto about Bombay’s jazz era stars, saxophonist Chris Perry and singer Lorna Cordiero, and many other beloved Goan musicians of the time, took home two National Awards this year for its “nostalgic recovery of a distinctive musical legacy”. Nachom-ia was crowd-funded and made on a budget of Rs 2.5 crore. Place it beside the Rs 120 crore Bombay Velvet and you’ll see why size isn’t everything.

Watch this space

Director and writer Anjali Menon tells stories of the urban Malayalee without resorting to clichés or contrived coolness. The most successful of her feel-good dramas was 2014’s Bangalore Days, which is being remade in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Her next film as screenwriter will also be a love story.

Documentary filmmaker KR Manoj’s first feature film promises to be interesting. Kanyaka Talkies (Malayalam) explores the intersection of religion and pornography, through the story of a B-grade movie theatre in small town Kerala that’s converted into a church.

Kannada theatre and film actor Sanchari Vijay is a critics’ darling. He won a National Award for playing as a transgender woman in this year’s Naanu Avanalla… Avalu. Watch out for him in Ram Gopal Varma’s next, Killing Veerappan.

Director duo Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukhopadhyay’s Bengali films manage to tell stories about seemingly unsexy things in a way that’s dramatic and engaging. They plan to remake in Hindi their most recent triumph, 2014’s Ramdhanu, about the gnarly world of school admissions.

Techie-turned-director Karthik Subbaraju’s hit Tamil black comedy, Jigarthanda (2014), is an account of an aspiring filmmaker’s cinematic dive into Madurai’s underworld. Subbaraju’s work is said to genre-bending and stylish, and you can get a sampler in this year’s Bench Talkies, a collection of shorts by six directors.

Hometown heartthrobs

Dulquer Salmaan (Malayalam, Tamil)
Boyish face and beefy bod to prove the apple didn’t fall far from Mammootty. Watch him play cool gamer dude in O Kaadhal Kanmani (Tamil)

Rana Daggubati (Telugu, Tamil)
Tall, ripped, bearded goodness. Watch him play smouldering warrior person in Baahubali (Telugu).

Nivin Pauly (Malayalam)
The nice guy and hopeless romantic. Watch him play the repeatedly rejected and lovelorn George in Premam.

Parvathy (Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada)
Sparkly-eyed and smart, plus dimples. Watch her play the fiercely independent RJ Sarah in Bangalore Days (Malayalam).

Subhashree Ganguly (Bengali)
All cherubic charm and honeyed skin. Watch her hold up her end of a love triangle in fluffy rom-com Khoka 420.

Samantha Ruth Prabhu (Telugu, Tamil)
Statuesque, model-esque. Watch her play the hero’s diabetic love interest in this year’s big hit S/O Satyamurthy (Telugu). 

As the crore flies
The most expensive Indian film ever made is Baahubali, a two-part epic in the mould of Hollywood’s 300 that was made simultaneously in Telugu and Tamil. Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions has brought the rights to the Hindi remake. The swash-buckling period film, touted as India’s biggest motion picture, has cost over Rs 250 crore. Most of that money went into CGI effects, cutting edge technology and sets of breath-taking scale.

Bhojpuri revenge
Long considered a bit of a joke by the mainstream media, the 52-year-old Bhojpuri film industry suffers no serious blow to its self-esteem and recently asserted its pride with the launch of BIFA, the Bhojpuri International Film Awards, held in Mauritius, which has a sizeable immigrant population that speaks the dialect. The audience is spread across UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, as well as Pakistan, Jamaica and Fiji. Bollywood A-listers like Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgn and Mithun Chakravarthy have acted in Bhojpuri films and according to a report by the Economic Times, the industry generates revenues of over Rs 200 crores each year.

Crossover action
Malayalam backstory
The highest grossing Malayalam film of all time, the 2013 crime thriller Drishyam has been remade in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil. The Hindi remake with Ajay Devgn playing Mohanlal’s role is out this month.

Mother of all comebacks
A homemaker has an awakening when her self-worth is validated outside the house. The details change across languages but the basic premise has stayed the same through three versions of this story, all featuring leading ladies making a comeback after taking a break to raise their children IRL. Sridevi returned after 15 years with English Vinglish (2012), Manju Warrier came back after 14 years as well with How Old Are You (Malayalam, 2014), and this year, Jyothika returned to the screen after eight years with 36 Vayadhinile (Tamil). There’s news of the Malayalam plot being remade in Hindi with Kajol and Ajay Devgn, which brings us full circle.

Director’s cut
Nishikant Kamath steps lightly across language barriers, like most filmmakers today. He remade his award-winning Marathi film, Dombivali Fast, in Tamil (Evano Oruvan). Then he remade a Tamil film (Khaaka Khaaka) in Hindi (Force). This year he’ll release his Hindi remake of the Malayalam film, Drishyam, as well as Rocky Handsome, a Bollywood adaptation of a Korean film. 

Regional cinema seems to have two things going for it: tiny budgets and small audiences. These seeming disadvantages mean more freedom for the filmmaker, who needn’t focus all his energy on making it to the 100-crore club or juggling star egos. Nishikant Kamath, who directed the National Award-winning Dombivali Fast (Marathi) as well as the block-busting Bollywood movie Force, said in an interview with Indian Express, “In regional films, I can experiment, take newcomers, take risk with the story. But when I am doing mainstream where lots of money is involved, I have to take bigger stars, have a set up…”

Outside Mumbai, film budgets are more sensible, the star culture is less hysterical — except in Tamil and Telugu cinemas — and the audience demands more authenticity because regional cinema is rooted in a specific culture. So a character played by Mohanlal will adhere somewhat to the way the average Malayalee man speaks, acts and fights in a lungi, whereas the average Salman Khan character looks and behaves like no human being anywhere on earth. Rajnikanth is, of course, exempt from this — and every other — rule.

Think of regional cinema as a specialty restaurant, offering authenticity and variety from Bollywood’s multi-cuisine mishmash. Regional films can be as escapist and divertingly illogical as anything by Rohit Shetty, most of whose hits are Tamil and Telugu remakes. But they are also often more personal, courageous and unpredictable. Thanks to them, and the multiplexes, distributors and film festivals bringing them to your neighbourhood, you never have to sit through another bad Hindi — or English — film just because there’s nothing else to watch. The alternative is here and it’s speaking in tongues.

The movies everyone’s talking about

Sweeping the reviews: Killa (Marathi)
The comparisons with Pixar’s Inside Out were inevitable, given that this is also a story of a childhood uprooted. Eleven-year-old Chinmay is struggling to deal with the new situation at home — his father died a year ago and his mother’s job has moved them to a quiet town with limitless possibilities for boredom. Chinu’s adventures, making friends and exploring the rain-drenched Konkan landscape is drawn from debutante director Avinash Arun’s own frequent uprootings as a child. Reviewers have praised this award-winning film for its lush cinematography, restrained storytelling and spirited performances.

Sweetest story: Kaaka Muttai (Tamil)
Apart from Dhanush, who produced the film, there are no stars attached to this project. It marked the debut for the main leads and the director, but went on to win two National Awards and big box office returns. The story revolves around two little boys from a Chennai slum set off on a quest to taste their first pizza. Any Indian viewer can predict the hurdles ahead: they have to first acquire enough money and then enough respectability to be allowed to enter a restaurant. It’s about as heart-breaking a plotline as is possible with the word pizza in it. But first-time director M Manikandan’s even hand and eye for beauty saves the film from being a heavy exploration of class issues. At least, the presence of these issues doesn’t weigh down the joy of watching the brothers use all their resources and enterprise in the pursuit of pizza.

Festival favourite: Asha Jaoar Majhe (Bengali)
First-time director Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s work has been likened to Satyajit Ray’s finest, and there is no higher praise possible for a Bengali film. It portrays a day in the life of a couple in Kolkata whose long hours at gruelling jobs are out of sync — he works nights, she works days — so they can only really be together in their fantasies. Hailed for its poetic narration and languid yet masterful pace, this silent film won honours and special mentions at the National Awards, and the New York Indian and the Venice International film festivals. The director has said the story’s tone was set by an Italo Calvino short story, The Adventure of a Married Couple.

Multiplex hit: Bela Seshe (Bengali)
On the 50th anniversary of a marriage complete with children and grandkids, a man asks his wife for a divorce. What keeps people together, anyway — love or the habit of years? Looking under the hood of marriage and relationships, and handling what it finds with affection and humour, this family drama ran to packed houses in Kolkata weeks after its release. One of the very few regional language films to be distributed by Eros, it travelled to the rest of the country and won raves wherever it went. Amitabh Bachchan, fresh from his own portrayal of a grumpy Bengali patriarch in Piku, raved about it on his blog. Is that a remake we smell?

Small budget, big heart: Nachom-ia Kumpasar (Konkani)
While Bombay Velvet opened in May after months of hype over its big names and bigger budget, another film set in the same era and inspired by the story of the same Goan singer who ruled the city’s jazz scene, had a quiet release in December last year and went on to gather more critical acclaim than its Bollywood counterpart. This Konkani film by Bardroy Barretto about Bombay’s jazz era stars, saxophonist Chris Perry and singer Lorna Cordiero, and many other beloved Goan musicians of the time, took home two National Awards this year for its “nostalgic recovery of a distinctive musical legacy”. Nachom-ia was crowd-funded and made on a budget of Rs 2.5 crore. Place it beside the Rs 120 crore Bombay Velvet and you’ll see why size isn’t everything.

Watch this space

Director and writer Anjali Menon tells stories of the urban Malayalee without resorting to clichés or contrived coolness. The most successful of her feel-good dramas was 2014’s Bangalore Days, which is being remade in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Her next film as screenwriter will also be a love story.

Documentary filmmaker KR Manoj’s first feature film promises to be interesting. Kanyaka Talkies (Malayalam) explores the intersection of religion and pornography, through the story of a B-grade movie theatre in small town Kerala that’s converted into a church.

Kannada theatre and film actor Sanchari Vijay is a critics’ darling. He won a National Award for playing as a transgender woman in this year’s Naanu Avanalla… Avalu. Watch out for him in Ram Gopal Varma’s next, Killing Veerappan.

Director duo Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukhopadhyay’s Bengali films manage to tell stories about seemingly unsexy things in a way that’s dramatic and engaging. They plan to remake in Hindi their most recent triumph, 2014’s Ramdhanu, about the gnarly world of school admissions.

Techie-turned-director Karthik Subbaraju’s hit Tamil black comedy, Jigarthanda (2014), is an account of an aspiring filmmaker’s cinematic dive into Madurai’s underworld. Subbaraju’s work is said to genre-bending and stylish, and you can get a sampler in this year’s Bench Talkies, a collection of shorts by six directors.

Hometown heartthrobs

Dulquer Salmaan (Malayalam, Tamil)
Boyish face and beefy bod to prove the apple didn’t fall far from Mammootty. Watch him play cool gamer dude in O Kaadhal Kanmani (Tamil)

Rana Daggubati (Telugu, Tamil)
Tall, ripped, bearded goodness. Watch him play smouldering warrior person in Baahubali (Telugu).

Nivin Pauly (Malayalam)
The nice guy and hopeless romantic. Watch him play the repeatedly rejected and lovelorn George in Premam.

Parvathy (Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada)
Sparkly-eyed and smart, plus dimples. Watch her play the fiercely independent RJ Sarah in Bangalore Days (Malayalam).

Subhashree Ganguly (Bengali)
All cherubic charm and honeyed skin. Watch her hold up her end of a love triangle in fluffy rom-com Khoka 420.

Samantha Ruth Prabhu (Telugu, Tamil)
Statuesque, model-esque. Watch her play the hero’s diabetic love interest in this year’s big hit S/O Satyamurthy (Telugu). 

As the crore flies
The most expensive Indian film ever made is Baahubali, a two-part epic in the mould of Hollywood’s 300 that was made simultaneously in Telugu and Tamil. Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions has brought the rights to the Hindi remake. The swash-buckling period film, touted as India’s biggest motion picture, has cost over Rs 250 crore. Most of that money went into CGI effects, cutting edge technology and sets of breath-taking scale.

Bhojpuri revenge
Long considered a bit of a joke by the mainstream media, the 52-year-old Bhojpuri film industry suffers no serious blow to its self-esteem and recently asserted its pride with the launch of BIFA, the Bhojpuri International Film Awards, held in Mauritius, which has a sizeable immigrant population that speaks the dialect. The audience is spread across UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, as well as Pakistan, Jamaica and Fiji. Bollywood A-listers like Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgn and Mithun Chakravarthy have acted in Bhojpuri films and according to a report by the Economic Times, the industry generates revenues of over Rs 200 crores each year.

Crossover action
Malayalam backstory
The highest grossing Malayalam film of all time, the 2013 crime thriller Drishyam has been remade in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil. The Hindi remake with Ajay Devgn playing Mohanlal’s role is out this month.

Mother of all comebacks
A homemaker has an awakening when her self-worth is validated outside the house. The details change across languages but the basic premise has stayed the same through three versions of this story, all featuring leading ladies making a comeback after taking a break to raise their children IRL. Sridevi returned after 15 years with English Vinglish (2012), Manju Warrier came back after 14 years as well with How Old Are You (Malayalam, 2014), and this year, Jyothika returned to the screen after eight years with 36 Vayadhinile (Tamil). There’s news of the Malayalam plot being remade in Hindi with Kajol and Ajay Devgn, which brings us full circle.

Director’s cut
Nishikant Kamath steps lightly across language barriers, like most filmmakers today. He remade his award-winning Marathi film, Dombivali Fast, in Tamil (Evano Oruvan). Then he remade a Tamil film (Khaaka Khaaka) in Hindi (Force). This year he’ll release his Hindi remake of the Malayalam film, Drishyam, as well as Rocky Handsome, a Bollywood adaptation of a Korean film.