Other Ollywoods Divert Limelight From Bollywood

A cart with DVDs of regionally made movies draws customers in Cochin, in the Indian state of Kerala.
A cart with DVDs of regionally made movies draws customers in Cochin, in the Indian state of Kerala. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 8, 2007

MUMBAI -- At a recent Bollywood party, where the glitterati were draped in silk saris and the literati were slightly less glamorous, some guests sipped cinnamon mojitos while others bellied up to the sushi bar. All around, there was plenty of movie buzz, but most of it wasn't about Bollywood, India's best-known film industry.

Instead, the chatter seemed to be mostly about "Sivaji: The Boss," which was produced by the Tamil-language film industry, Kollywood, one of India's half-dozen regional "ollywoods." The star of "Sivaji," a beer-bellied, double-chinned everyman, goes by the name Rajinikanth.

"I so wish I could hire him for advertising, but he charges the Earth," lamented Raijni Khant, one of Bollywood's advertising moguls, as he waved a pair of chopsticks over various starlets at the party.

"Bollywood is this nation's beloved form of entertainment, don't get me wrong," Khant said. "But these other ollywoods inspire even more euphoria than Bollywood these days. They are just total gods of the Indian heartland."

Indeed, Kollywood -- so named because its films are produced in an area of Chennai called Kodambakkam -- is enjoying a powerful and profitable renaissance, as are the other ollywoods. Although India has the largest film industry in the world, only 200 of the 800 movies made each year are from Bollywood. Meanwhile, the number of productions from the other ollywoods has nearly doubled in the last decade, according to film industry experts.

In this country of 1.1 billion people, going to the movies is a favorite pastime, so the box office potential for the ollywoods is enormous. Films in Bhojpuri, a Hindi dialect, have made so much money recently that Bollywood's most iconic actor, Amitabh Bachchan, signed up to star in one.

Films from the other ollywoods tend to have smaller budgets compared with those from Bollywood, so they often have far larger profit margins. Moviegoers are more than happy to have a wider selection.

"With more money to spend, people in India's small towns want to go to the movies, and they want to see culturally rich story lines that connect to their own lifestyles," said Manoj Singh Bhawuk, the lead lyricist for Bhojpuri films, who has written a book on the industry.

Although regional films here are as old as Indian cinema itself, they have never before been in such demand. Film critics say Bollywood plots have become too focused on Indians living abroad -- so-called Non-Resident Indians, known in slang as NRIs -- with characters who jet between New Delhi and New York, living glamorous lives that don't resonate in small-town India. Other critics say Bollywood films involve too much sex and have been Westernized, with some actresses dressing in hot pants and tight shirts rather than saris.

There's also a sense that Bollywood stars have grown distant from their fans and are more likely to be seen on corporate billboards than during visits to mid-size towns and cities. Regional stars, on the other hand, are still accessible.

In India's southwestern state of Kerala, the biggest star of Malayalam-language films, Mohanlal, still meets with fans at Hindu temples. Some Keralite households keep autographed photos from his visit to a local cafe.

"The other ollywoods are rising again, and their stars are just colossal," said Karan Johar, director of many Bollywood NRI-themed movies and now host of India's most popular movie-star talk show, "Koffee with Karan."

"The regional stars mean everything to hundreds of millions of fans," Johar said. "You can touch them when they come to your town's fan club. They are such total icons, and they are unbreakable."

In an interesting twist, Indians abroad are also turning to the other ollywoods for regional films that remind them of home, with the movies shown in suburban theaters in the United States and in international cities with large Indian populations, such as Capetown, Dubai and London.

Fans say they still love Bollywood films but want to supplement them with movies that feature folk stories in their native language.

"We love the Malayalam films because the birthplace of the stories is right here, in towns and villages that we recognize on the big screen. That feels great," said Harikeishnan Ravindran, 31, who is living in Dubai but was outside a cinema during a recent visit home in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. "I don't care much for Bollywood's artificial wealth and all the dancing. I would rather watch our local heroes in our local language, in stories that are connected to our lives."

Malayalam films have enjoyed a long history of critical acclaim in Kerala. The stories often involve emotionally powerful issues such as caste, bride-burning, child labor and poverty. Compared with Bollywood, there are few if any songs, and plots lines are often more linear. The films always show local cities and portray everyday problems. Comedies are goofy and typically include fight scenes and Robin Hood-like plots in which an underdog saves the poor, as in "Sivaji: The Boss."

"People in India are anxious to keep their very strong sense of community-level culture alive," said Shyamaprasad, one of the most famous directors of Malayalam films. "And in India today, that means that they want to see that local feeling on the big screen and at the movies."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company