Waiting in line to see the most expensive film in Indian history, the young woman searched for the right words to describe the movie’s star, an aging, slightly paunchy actor who goes by the name of Rajnikanth.
“He is a god,” Deborah Rekha Jeyasekar, 21, finally declared. “We accept that.”
This isn’t necessarily hyperbole in a land where celebrities are treated with something close to idolatry. When “Sivaji -- The Boss” opened June 15, fans poured milk over cardboard cutouts of Rajnikanth in a Hindu rite of worship. Others sacrificed an entire week’s wages to buy scalped tickets to the first screening.
Fueled by the actor’s megawatt star power, the film, with its Robin Hood story line and an estimated budget of $18 million -- huge by Indian standards -- appears to be enjoying a blockbuster run at the theaters, though box-office figures have yet to be released.
But “Sivaji” is not a Bollywood production, and Rajnikanth is not a Hindi-speaking Bollywood heartthrob. The movie was shot here in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and the dialogue is in Tamil, a language spoken by more than 70 million people.
The strong success of “Sivaji” has highlighted the fact that the Indian film industry, often considered synonymous with Bollywood, is actually far more diverse.
A country of more than a dozen official languages, India has several different “ollywoods” scattered across the subcontinent, churning out movies that cater mostly to regional audiences.
Indeed, although Bollywood’s colorful song-and-dance spectacles generally boast the biggest budgets, the biggest stars and the biggest domestic and international penetration, the Hindi film industry in Mumbai accounts for only about a quarter of the 1,000 or so movies produced in India annually.
Almost as prolific are “Kollywood,” the Tamil film industry based here, and “Tollywood,” its Telugu-language counterpart in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. Combined, the two entertainment powerhouses released nearly twice as many feature films last year as Bollywood.
“Everyone thinks Bollywood is the biggest in India, but it’s actually the south Indian movie market that is bigger than the Hindi market,” said Hetal Adesara, editor of Businessofcinema.com. (Hindi is the dominant language of India, spoken by more than 300 million people, concentrated mostly in the north.)
The growth in regional filmmaking, along with India’s overall economic boom, has helped spur optimistic forecasts of the potential of the country’s movie industry.
A report this year by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry pegged India’s film business at $2.1 billion in 2006. That figure will more than double by 2011, the report projected.
Last year’s highest-grossing movies in India were Bollywood creations, led by “Krrish,” starring the highly bankable Hrithik Roshan as a caped superhero. The movie, which made it into a handful of American theaters, raked in about $20 million worldwide, more than triple its initial investment. (In India, tickets at even the best cinemas in big cities never cost more than $5.)
This year, Bollywood has struggled to match 2006’s record at the box office. Several high-profile films with big-name stars have flopped.
Still, Bollywood’s global reach is not in any doubt. Its films do brisk business in other parts of Asia and in the West, especially in nations with significant South Asian populations, such as Britain. (In L.A. County, Naz Cinemas in Lakewood shows Indian movies.)
Same-day premieres around the world have become more common, and reviews of Bollywood flicks now appear in American newspapers.
But some non-Bollywood films are making inroads of their own. Rajnikanth, a bus conductor turned actor, has a devoted following in Japan, and ardent fans in Malaysia rioted and set one cinema on fire when the first screenings of “Sivaji” were delayed by a few hours.
In India, the highly anticipated film -- the actor’s first in two years -- is exhibiting strong staying power, boosted by a months-long publicity campaign by its maker, AVM Studios. Three weeks after the movie’s premiere, even weekday morning shows here in Chennai were sold out, attended by screaming moviegoers of both sexes.
More surprising, “Sivaji” mania is breaking out of the usual regional confines of non-Hindi films and spreading to other parts of the country.
“In Bombay [now Mumbai] the movie is doing really well, and even in Delhi it’s doing well,” Adesara said. “This is the first movie that’s crossed boundaries from the south into northern India.”
That crossover appeal is due almost entirely to Rajnikanth, an actor of vigor and some panache who delights audiences with gimmicky on-screen tricks such as, in “Sivaji,” flipping coins in the air and catching them in his pocket or beating a tattoo on his bald head.
This being an Indian film, he also sings and dances in a few eye-popping numbers while wearing a succession of bad wigs. Audiences whistle and cheer during fight scenes in which Rajnikanth -- expanding waistline and second chin be damned -- single-handedly subdues a dozen bad guys or stretches out his arms and pushes back an entire mob of club-wielding thugs.
“He’s a mass hero,” said Goutham Chandrasekaran, before a recent matinee here in Chennai. The 22-year-old was joined by an accountant friend playing hooky from work.
Industry scuttlebutt has it that Rajnikanth’s fee for “Sivaji” was $5 million, plus a share of the profit, making him India’s highest-paid actor.
The movie follows a well-worn populist story line in which the title character brings down a corrupt rich businessman and builds hospitals and schools for the poor.
But Indian critics are in near-unanimous agreement that the plot is largely irrelevant. The movie is essentially a vehicle for Rajnikanth to reel off one-liners, perform “Matrix"-like stunts and strut around.
That’s why, analysts say, the film has traveled so well outside of Tamil Nadu. An inability to understand Tamil is no barrier to figuring out what’s happening on screen.
(A non-Tamil-speaking American reporter, who sat through all three hours and 20 minutes of “Sivaji,” can attest to this.)
The movie also underscores the importance in India, more so than in Hollywood, of a big-name star for launching a blockbuster. An Indian film with an A-list actor can certainly flop, but a film without one almost never becomes a hit.
“Rajnikanth is an amazing star who sort of bypasses all age groups,” said film critic and analyst Indu Mirani.
“He’s about 60-plus, but ... he’s so flamboyant on screen that he appeals to everybody.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Bollywood: Hindi-language film production is centered in Mumbai. The B in “Bollywood” comes from Mumbai’s former name of Bombay.
Kollywood: The nickname for the Tamil-language film industry comes from its home in Kodambakkam, a neighborhood in Chennai.
Tollywood: This name is used both by the Telugu-language film industry in the state of Andhra Pradesh and the Bengali film industry, which is based in Tollygunge, an area of South Kolkata.
Times research by Scott J. Wilson
Begin text of infobox
Productions by language
*--* Number of Change Language films in ’06 from ’04 Telugu 245 +21% Hindi 223 -9 Tamil 162 +25 Malaylam 77 +8 Bhojpuri 76 +262 Kannada 75 0 Marathi 73 +30 Other 160 +19
Source: India Central Board of Film Certification