Monday, Mar 27, 2023

Strength Of A Woman: Why South Indian Filmmakers Are Willing To Bet Big On Their Heroines

Female Actor

Strength Of A Woman: Why South Indian Filmmakers Are Willing To Bet Big On Their Heroines

The phenomenon of actresses successfully working both in commercial and women-centric movies is more common to the South than Bollywood

Power of a protagonist Keerthy Suresh in Good Luck Sakhi

Her performance in the recent Tamil film release, Saani Kaayidam, has got the audience talking about her acting chops and the possibility of bagging numerous awards. In the last few years, south Indian actor Keerthy Suresh has been choosing female-centric projects like Saani Kaayidam, Miss India, Good Luck Sakhi and Penguin, along with commercial films with top heroes like Vijay and Mahesh Babu, and has been straddling both worlds with ease. However, she is not the only female actor to pursue this career strategy, and nor is this a new phenomenon in South India.

This phenomenon where actresses successfully work both in commercial and women-centric cinema films is more common to the South than Bollywood. The number of Hindi films in recent years that have featured a female protagonist and have been a hit can literally be counted on one’s fingers. While films like Fashion, English Vinglish, Gangubai Kathiawadi, Raazi, Pink, Queen or Kahaani have been box office hits, these female-centric films are more the exception than the rule in the Hindi film world.

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Looking back at the history of Indian cinema, female actors have always been celebrated, but trends have changed across film industries. Formula-driven masala and mass films in B-town, woven around male stars, have been on a par for the course in the last decade and it’s only of late that actresses have taken the bull by its horns and are driving change by creating, producing and acting in women-driven films. Why are successful Hindi female stars not being offered more female-centric projects? And why do Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada film industries believe that female actors can carry a film by themselves?

Tailor-made roles
Most female actors in the South have made their mark on the silver screen playing second-fiddle to the hero in commercial cinema. From essaying the role of the innocent village belle and girl-next-door, to a college-going party girl and daughter of a millionaire, they have aced them all. But somewhere between these roles, where they are more often than not the pretty arm candy, these talented actresses have changed the rules of the game by carving a niche for themselves in female-centric performance-oriented mainstream films in the South.  

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Miss India (2020)
Miss India (2020)

Right from the times of Padmini, Savitri and Saroja Devi, actresses have always been popular, and this trend continued with Sridevi and Jaya Prada till now, believes producer G. Dhananjayan. “Actresses here always worked in heroine-centric films, not because they thought they were on par with heroes but because of their popularity. South heroines are very clear that they want to be paired with top heroes on the one hand, and on the other, work in heroine-centric projects as well. They believe that this ensures their longevity and a more fulfilling career and so they try to balance both these aspects,” he adds, citing actresses Manju Warrier, Samantha and Nayanthara as examples.

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Take Nayanthara, for instance. She is hailed as the Lady Superstar down South, not only because she commands the highest salary for a female star, but for being in a position to call the shots. She seized the opportunity to break new ground in films revolving around her like Netrikan, Maya, Kolamavu Kokila, Aramm and upcoming O2. Her acting prowess has been applauded, and because of the commercial success of her hero-centric films, women-centric smaller films like these were able to grab a bigger market too. Samantha’s career too has a similar trajectory, where she is working in mass commercial projects with top male stars like Suriya, Vijay, NTR Jr and Ram Charan, while also working in female-centric movies like U-Turn, Oh! Baby, Shakuntalam and Yashoda.

‘South heroines are very clear that they want to be paired with top heroes on the one hand, and on the other, work in heroine-centric projects.’ — G. Dhananjayan, producer

Director of Malayalam films like Take Off, C U Soon and Malik, Mahesh Narayanan believes that female-centric films have also made their mark in Bollywood, but in the South, filmmakers are writing roles specifically keeping in mind the female star, the kind of content they want to project and the opportunity to capitalise on the actress’ market. “If you look at Nayanthara, she has got huge success in terms of her commercial films with big heroes. Filmmakers have written female-centric roles for her and these films have been big box office hits as well, cementing her popularity,” he adds.

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Venerating culture

Actor-turned-politician Khushbu, the first and only Indian actress for whom a temple was built near Trichy in Tamil Nadu, was literally revered as a goddess. According to her, the phenomenon of hero or heroine worship is driven by the venerating culture that exists down South. “In Mumbai, the audience loves you but they don’t worship you. Whe­ther it was Puratchi Thalaivar M.G. Ramachan­dran, Dr Rajkumar, N.T. Rama Rao, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Ajith or Vijay, there is hero worship in the South, and this makes a lot of difference,” she explains. Deification of an actor or actress with mass appeal, who is a role model for fans, is a common practice, especially in Tamil Nadu, and every film release of theirs, especially of their heroes, is seen as a festival to be celebrated.  

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OTT: The gamechanger

India’s first over-the-top (OTT) platform SonyLIV was launched in 2013. This was followed by Hotstar, Netflix India, Amazon Prime Video, Zee5 and numerous regional ones. Thanks to OTT platforms, the entertainment game underwent a sea change, with the audience gaining access to multi-lingual and varied content from across India. Language was no longer a barrier since online content was dubbed in various languages and subtitled in English.

Filmmaker, actor and singer Vineeth Sreenivasan, whose recent Malayalam hit Hridayam is being remade in Hindi, says that the shift in the watching culture among audiences has also helped in the growth of female-centric films. “OTT has literally bridged the gap. Everyone is watching everything from across the globe and there is a lot more focus on content now,” he says.

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Two’s company A still from Tamil action crime film, Saani Kaayidam (2022)
Two’s company A still from Tamil action crime film, Saani Kaayidam (2022)

Content is king

One aspect the South’s film industries strongly believe is that good content drives for a film’s success, and that no matter who the star is, the movie will be a box office dud if the storyline is subpar. Strong content is where Malayalam cinema seems to score over other industries. It has started to redefine Indian cinema in the last few years, and thanks to OTT platforms gaining ground in the pandemic, the Indian audiences have been exposed to excellent films from Kerala.

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Given that Kerala has a thriving matrilineal culture, it could have been the impact of this culture that led to women-centric movies becoming a part of their cinematic universe. In recent years,the non-Malayalam speaking Indian audiences have discovered and appreciated films like Helen, The Great Indian Kitchen, Uyare, Take Off, Sara’s and Kho Kho. In fact, Helen and The Great Indian Kitchen featured lesser-known actresses like Anna Ben and Nimisha Sajayan, who gained fame upon their films’ release.

One aspect the south film industry believes in is that good content is the main reason for a film’s success, and that no matter who the star is, the movie will be a dud if the story is subpar

Filmmaker and actor Basil Joseph, of Minnal Murali fame, strongly believes that content is king. “Irrespective of whether it is a star or a lesser-known actor—male or female—the movie is driven by content. The audience will not flock to the theatre if there is no strong storyline, but only a big star in the film. It also does not matter whether it is a big budget film or a small-budget one. Helen was made on a small budget but became a hit across India. There are so many such examples in the Kerala film world,” he asserts.

Dhananjayan adds, “In Hindi cinema, biopics with female leads are popular and appeal to a pan-Indian audience. This is a big opportunity for Bollywood actresses, unlike ours. The stories written for a female leads have to connect with the local people, and this is where the script and story matter.”  

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Confidence in the female lead

While it is important to have a strong story, many from the South’s film industries feel producers and filmmakers are willing to bet big on their female actors. “They have confidence in female actors to pull-off a woman-centric film. At the end of the day, filmmaking is a business and banking on a female lead to set the cash registers ringing does need the producer to put their confidence and belief in them and their talent,” explains Khushbu, also a producer.

Younger filmmakers, writers and directors are shaping the South Indian film industries with new storylines and novel content. Producers, too, have realised that with an evolving audience, content needs to evolve. From family dramas centred on women, we now find actresses starring in political and crime thrillers, horror stories and revenge dramas. Khushbu has the last word when she says, astutely, “The audiences in South India are particular about whether the film is tingling their sensibilities and engaging them. We have a sensible audience in the South, who are very clear about what they want to see. Even if it’s their favourite star, male or female, if the script is bad, they will reject the film.”

(Views expressed are personal)

Latha Srinivasan is a chennai-based senior entertainment journalist