KOLKATA – For the second year in a row India has selected a film not in Hindi as its contender for the foreign-language Oscar. Its 2016 entry is Vetrimaaran’s “Interrogation” (“Visaaranai”,) a tough Tamil- and Telugu- language exploration of police brutality.
If that weren’t enough of a clue to where the rising power is to be found, then box office trends can help. “It is expected that the cinema in Southern India, especially Tamil and Telugu, shall soon surpass Bollywood in terms of the share of box office collections by language,” said a 2016 KPMG industry report.
Bollywood, the Hindi-language industry based in Mumbai, is often used as shorthand for all of Indian cinema. Though India makes films in 42 languages, it is a common misunderstanding.
Of the staggering 1,827 films certified in India in 2015, Bollywood accounted for 297, exactly the same number as the Tamil industry. Close behind was the Telugu language film industry with 284, Malayalam with 195 and Kannada with 159, according to data from India’s Central Board of Film Certification.
The Tamil, Telugu and Hindi industries together account for two thirds of Indian cinema revenue and though currently Bollywood has a larger global footprint, this is changing rapidly.
And within India it is being discovered that the way to reach the widest audience is to go local. Hollywood movies are these days released in India in their original English versions, alongside dubbed Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Bhojpuri versions. And Indian distributors are increasingly delivering their domestic films in multiple language versions.
The top Hindi language film of 2015 “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” made $97.2 million in India, while South India’s “Baahubali: The Beginning” grossed $95.7 million in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi versions combined.
India has submitted entries to the Academy’s foreign language category since 1957 and for most of that time Hindi has been the dominant vernacular. Other languages have featured only intermittently.
The 2015 entry, however, was “Court,” a fine fact-based drama predominantly in the Marathi-language that also had smatterings of English, Gujarati and Hindi.
In order to give their film the best possible shot, the independent producers of “Interrogation,” Aalif Surti and Guneet Monga, have moved to Los Angeles with Vetrimaaran. They plan to stay for the duration of the Oscar season, and will likely have to explain Indian cinema’s diversity as much as they campaign for their own picture.
Indian awards campaigns are often hamstrung by lack of funds. This year though Venkaiah Naidu, India’s minister for information and broadcasting, announced a government Oscar campaign fund of up to $150,000 to boost the process. Surti and Monga have applied for the fund and are awaiting confirmation.
“We are up against a record number of 84 other countries,” Vetrimaaran told Variety. “Having financial aid from the Indian government helps us to stand proudly and equally against other films, some of them financed by major Hollywood studios and global distributors,” he said. “And knowing your government is supporting you is so important. Until now, Indian filmmakers have struggled alone.”