Her performance in the recently released Tamil film, Saani Kaayidam, got the audience talking about her acting skills and the possibility of winning numerous awards. In recent years, South Indian actor Keerthy Suresh has chosen female-centric projects like Saani Kaayidam, Miss India, good luck Sakhi and penguin, as well as commercial movies with top heroes like Vijay and Mahesh Babu, and straddles both worlds with ease. However, she is not the only actress to pursue this career strategy, nor is it a new phenomenon in South India.
This phenomenon where actresses work successfully in both commercial and female-centric cinema films is more common in the South than in Bollywood. The number of Hindi films in recent years that have featured a female lead and have been successful can literally be counted on your fingers. While movies like Fashion, English Vinglish, Gangubai Kathiawadi, Raazi, Rose, Queen or Kahaani were box office hits, these female-centric films are more the exception than the rule in the world of Hindi cinema.
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Looking at the history of Indian cinema, actresses have always been celebrated, but trends have changed in film industries. Masala and mass formula-based movies in B-City, woven around male stars, have been on equal footing over the past decade and it’s only recently that actresses have taken the bull by the horns and drive change by creating, producing and starring in films directed by women. Why aren’t successful Hindi female stars being offered more female-centric projects? And why do the Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada film industries believe that actresses can carry a film by themselves?
Most Southern actresses have made their mark on the big screen by playing second fiddle to the hero in commercial cinema. From trying out for the role of the beautiful innocent from the village and the girl next door, to a student party girl and the daughter of a millionaire, they nailed them all. But somewhere between those roles, where they’re most often the pretty arm candy, these talented actresses have changed the rules of the game by carving out a place for themselves in mainstream, female-centric performance films in the South.
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From the days of Padmini, Savitri and Saroja Devi, actresses have always been popular, and this trend has continued with Sridevi and Jaya Prada until now, producer G. Dhananjayan believes. “The actresses here have always worked in heroine-centric films, not because they thought they were on par with heroes, but because of their popularity. Southern heroines are very clear that that they want to be paired up with the best heroes on the one hand, and on the other hand, also work in heroin-centric projects. They believe this ensures their longevity and a more fulfilling career and so they try to balancing these two aspects,” he adds, citing actresses Manju Warrier, Samantha and Nayanthara as examples.
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Take Nayanthara, for example. She is hailed as the Lady Superstar in the South, not only because she commands the highest salary for a female star, but for being able to make the decisions. She seized the opportunity to innovate in films revolving around her like Netrikan, Maya, Kolamavu Kokila, Aramm and next O2. Her acting prowess was acclaimed, and due to the commercial success of her hero-centric films, smaller female-centric films like these were also able to capture a larger market. Samantha’s career also has a similar trajectory, where she works 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.
“Southern heroines are very clear that they want to be paired with the best heroes on the one hand, and on the other hand, work in heroin-centric projects.” — G. Dhananjayan, Producer
Malayalam filmmaker like Takeoff, CU Coming Soon and Malik, Mahesh Narayanan believes that female-centric films have also made their mark in Bollywood, but in the South, filmmakers write roles with the female star specifically in mind, the type of content they want to screen and the opportunity to capitalize on the actress’ market. “If you look at Nayanthara, she has huge success in terms of commercial movies with big heroes. Filmmakers have written female-centric roles for her and those movies have also been big box office hits, cementing her popularity. “, he adds.
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worship the culture
Actor turned politician Khushbu, the first and only Indian actress for whom a temple was built near Trichy in Tamil Nadu, was literally worshiped as a goddess. According to her, the phenomenon of hero or heroine worship is driven by the culture of reverence that exists in the South. “In Mumbai, the public loves you but does not worship you. Whether it is Puratchi Thalaivar MG Ramachandran, Dr Rajkumar, NT Rama Rao, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Ajith or Vijay, there is hero worship in the South, and that makes a big difference,” she explains. Deification of a popular actor or actress who is a role model for the fans is a common practice especially in Tamilnadu and every release of their film especially their heroes is considered as a festival to celebrate.
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OTT: the game changer
India’s first over-the-top (OTT) platform SonyLIV was launched in 2013. It was followed by Hotstar, Netflix India, Amazon Prime Video, Zee5 and many regional platforms. Thanks to OTT platforms, the entertainment game has undergone a sea change as audiences have access to multi-lingual and diverse content from across India. Language was no longer an obstacle as online content was dubbed into multiple languages and subtitled in English.
Filmmaker, actor and singer Vineeth Sreenivasan, whose recent Malayalam hit Hridayam is being revamped in Hindi, says the changing viewing culture among audiences has also contributed to the growth of female-centric films. “OTT has literally closed the gap. Everyone is watching everything from all over the world and there is a lot more focus on content now,” he says.
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Content is king
One aspect that Southern film industries strongly believe is that good content drives a movie’s success, and that no matter who the star is, the movie will be a box office dud if the script is poor. Strong content is where Malayalam cinema seems to score against other industries. It has started redefining Indian cinema in recent years, and thanks to OTT platforms gaining traction in the pandemic, Indian audiences have been exposed to excellent Kerala films.
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Since Kerala has a thriving matrilineal culture, it is perhaps the impact of this culture that has led to female-centric films becoming part of their cinematic universe. In recent years, non-Malayalam Indian audiences have discovered and enjoyed films like Helen, The Great Indian Kitchen, Uyare, Take Off, Sara’s and Kho Kho. In reality, Helen and Great Indian cuisine featured lesser-known actresses like Anna Ben and Nimisha Sajayan, who rose to fame upon the release of their films.
One of the things that the Southern film industry believes in is that good content is the main reason for a movie’s success, and no matter who the star is, the movie will fail if the story is poor.
Filmmaker and actor Basil Joseph, of Minnal Murali fame, strongly believes that content is king. “Whether it’s a star or a lesser-known actor, male or female, the film is driven by content. Audiences won’t flock to the theater if there isn’t a strong storyline. , but only a big star in the movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big budget movie or a low budget movie. Helen was made on a low budget but became a hit all over India. There are so many such examples in the world of Kerala cinema,” he asserts.
Dhananjayan adds, “In Hindi cinema, biopics with female leads are popular and attract pan-Indian audiences. It’s a great opportunity for Bollywood actresses, unlike ours. Stories written for a female lead need to connect with local people, and that’s where the script and the story matter.
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Confidence in the Female Lead
While it’s important to have a strong story, many Southern film industries believe that producers and filmmakers are willing to bet big on their actresses. “They trust actresses to make a film centered on women. Ultimately, filmmaking is a business and betting on a woman to ring the cash registers requires the producer to trust and believe in them and their talent,” says Khushbu, also a producer.
Young filmmakers, screenwriters and directors are shaping South Indian film industries with new storylines and new content. The producers also realized that with ever-changing audiences, content has to evolve. From female-centric family dramas, there are now actresses starring in political and crime thrillers, horror stories and revenge dramas. Khushbu has the last word when she astutely declares: “Viewers in South India are particularly attentive to whether the film awakens their sensibilities and engages them. We have a sensitive audience in the South who know very well what they want to see. Even if it’s their favorite star, male or female, if the script is bad, they’ll reject the movie.
(The opinions expressed are personal)
Latha Srinivasan is a senior entertainment journalist based in Chennai