For the purveyor of strange cinema, there is a certain kind of joy that comes from watching a Bollywood movie. Bollywood films are made in India, and are chock full of strange plots, goofy characters and sudden dance numbers. There is, however, a growing movement in Indian film that is separate from Bollywood. This is Tamil cinema, popularly known as Kollywood, movies made in the Tamil language from the Indian state Tamil Nadu. For the American viewer with American sensibilities, Kollywood films offer all the weirdness they have come to expect from Bollywood movies. For Indian viewers, however, these films are serious business, and Kollywood box offices and budgets are beginning to prove that.
Filmed mostly in Tamil Nadu’s capital of Chennai, Kollywood films have a long history. Colonial Brits began showing movies early on in the technology’s existence, and the first Tamil-produced movie was made in 1916. The first Tamil film with sound was made in 1931 and was called Kalidas, an adaptation of Indian myths. The movie was also incredibly successful. It was made with around $130 and brought in $1,200. No copy of this film exists.
The 1930s also saw the expansion of where Tamil language films were produced, as production companies began popping up in Sri Lanka, as well as Canada and Europe. Though not as well known as its Hindi language cousin Bollywood, Kollywood is beginning to make inroads of its own.
Kollywood films are starting to gross hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign markets, especially the United Kingdom. A large immigrant population fuels demand for films, and movies can stay in theaters for months. Up-and-coming Indian actress Sanam Setty’s Kollywood debut, Ambuli 3D, was in theaters for 100 days. Grossing around $3 million, Ambuli 3D was an unqualified success. Now, a Kollywood film called I is India’s costliest movie production, made for $3 million, which is $1 million more than Ambuli 3D cost to make.
American audiences, or at least the Internet, that vague arbiter or cool, have noticed. Screen shots from I‘s trailer have proliferated through the web. Showcasing some kind of rat-like monster thing, a body builder pulling a woman apart like taffy and a rooftop bike fight, I has rejuvenated the Kollywood industry. A bidding war has enveloped the distribution of the movie, with different companies looking to distribute the movie to different regions of Asia and America.
This news is not to say that all is necessarily good in Indian cinema. The United Nations recently released a study detailing the sexualization of women in film, and India topped the list as the worst offender. Lacking a significant number of women who have jobs in science or business fields, the films also tend to show their female actors in some sort of undress. Adding insult to injury, less than 33 percent of women have speaking roles in films targeting India.
As more media is consumed throughout the world, consumers will continually probe around the world for greater amounts of media. There is a market for the kind of oddball, avant-garde filmmaking coming out of India, and Kollywood, it seems, is fully up to the challenge.
By Bryan Levy