tamil cinema vs telugu cinema
It is absolutely coincidental that I heard the news that K.Balachandar passed away while writing this article. I salute this all time great south Indian film icon and truly miss the magic he created in the 70s and 80s. May his soul rest in peace.
By Samantha Tamma
Having watched Linga along with enthusiastic crowds in a Hyderabad theatre, it was not easy for me to ignore the superstar and focus on the script and story. I think, it is the case not just with me, but for many the halo of Rajini cannot be broken so easily.  Was I really watching a Tamil movie dubbed into Telugu? The anticipation and the level of involvement of the audience present made me feel as though I was watching a local Telugu superstar. For diverse reasons, Telugus have accepted many Tamil heroes, directors and movies as their own. The list goes from Rajini, Vikram, Surya, Karthi to classic Directors like – Balachandar, Shankar, Maniratnam, Gautham Vasudev Menon, etc. In certain cases like Boys or Villain – the Telugu dubbed versions minted more money than the Tamil originals.How do we understand this situation? Is it dearth of talent in the Telugu movie makers or the egalitarian approach of the Telugu Audience? Here is how I try to make some sense of it.
  • The 50s and the 60s belonged to Telugu films completely. ANR and NTR along with great directors and committed production houses like Vijaya, ruled the roost in south Indian cinema. In fact many popular films those days were first made in Telugu and remade (or simultaneously made) in Tamil. If you look at actress Savitri’s (very much a Telugu aadapaduchu) filmography on wikipedia, you will understand what I am saying.
  • The situation turned around in the 70s. ANR and NTR were not young anymore and there was a vacuum in Telugu cinema as far as young heroes were concerned. At the same time, Kamal Hasan and Rajnikanth entered the filed. But the real credit for the turnaround belonged to K.Balachandar. His movies had a strong middle class pitch with talented young heroes like Kamal and Rajni.  Excellent music by M.S.Viswanathan only helped. That was the beginning of the Tamil cinema’s influence on Telugu cinema.
  • The 80s saw a kind of de-coupling of both the industries. Chiranjeevi became the new super star of Telugu cinema and Rajnikanth failed to keep up the connection with Telugus. Kamal Hasan continued to be counted but was mostly limited to direct Telugu films under K.Vishwanath in films like Sagara Sangamam and Swati Muthyam. Some of his dubbed films like Nayakan did well but only sporadically so, as Chiranjeevi was already the undisputed youth icon.
  • Enter Maniratnam in 1986 with Mouna Ragam and Shankar in 1993 with Gentleman. These two directors are solely responsible for creating a market for dubbed Tamil films in Andhra once again after Balachandar. Both of them too relied very heavily on music by AR Rahman which caught on with the Andhra youth as it did even the north of Vindhyas. While Shankar continues his run till date, Mani Ratnam lost his golden touch only recently. Rajnikanth re-entered the scene with Basha in 1994 and has since dethroned Kamal Hasan as the most recognized Tamil face of in Andhra.
  • All others actors and directors only had occasional success, Surya’s Ghajini being one of those.

Now coming to the important question of why Telugu cinema could not create a parallel in Tamil Nadu, this is what I feel.

  • Universal themes & urban sensibility: It has to be conceded that as far as themes which are universal in nature and appeal to urban audience are concerned, Telugu cinema could not throw up directors who could match the likes of Balachandar, Shankar and Mani Ratnam since the 80s. True, we had a K.Vishwanath, a Ram Gopal Varma and now a Rajamouli. But while Vishwanath faded in the 80s, Ram Gopal Varma moved away to Bollywood in his prime and Rajamouli is coming into his own only now. Movies of other noted directors like Bapu in 70s and Vamsi in the 80s were so steeped in Andhra culture that they were just not expected to transcend state boundaries. In fact Vamsi’s films were so godavari -district centric, replete with Godavari lingo that they sounded alien to even audience in Rayalaseema and Telangana.  In fact, Telugu cinema still struggles with universal / urban themes and that restricts its appeal beyond the Telugu boundaries.
  • No Telugu actor since the 80s, has worked hard to create a niche for himself beyond AP borders. Guys like Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh etc were content with the fan following at home and hardly did anything to promote themselves in other states. Compare this with both the past and present Tamil stars who work hard to connect with Telugu audience through special promotions.

Having said that, there are a number of Telugu films that worked very well in Tamil Nadu.

  • Starting from Sankarabharanam in the 80s which ran to packed house for more than 100 days in Chennai, to recent films like Eega, Arundhati, Magadheera etc many Telugu films did very well in TN. Many more films Telugu like Bommarillu, Pokiri and Okkadu were remade into blockbusters starring Tamil Thalapathis like Vijay among others.
  • Films of recent super stars like Mahesh Babu open to packed houses in Chennai even today. And mind you, these are released in Telugu directly and are not dubbed into Tamil. I can say with a lot of confidence that even a Rajnikanth or a Shankar can not think of releasing their original Tamil versions in AP and hope to garner footfalls. Their faces may be Tamil but they succeed in Andhra only if they speak in Telugu.

Last but not the least, Telugu market is far bigger than Tamil market in terms of collection potential both in India and overseas. Strong Tamil markets in the Asia-Pacific countries like Singapore and Malaysia are more than offset by Telugu market in the US which in fact gives even Hindi films a run for their money. Consequently, a high budget Tamil film would find it difficult to break-even if it fails in AP, but a high budget Telugu film can make profits even by completely ignoring the Tamil land. So, at the end of the day, is this why Tamil heroes go the extra mile to court Telugu audience while the likes of Chiranjeevi and Mahesh Babu take life easy ??

The jury is still out.