Why is this more prevalent in south India though, in a country that has over 122 “major languages” and 1,599 lesser ones? Many of which are dialects.
One narrative is that this is due to the increasing number of music composers in the film industry after the advent of A R Rahman. The other, that stands true even for the Ilayaraja and pre-Ilayaraja days, is that while the whole of south India, from the outside, looks like a culturally homogenous blob, there are four dominant, and more importantly, distinctive languages. Within those four, Tamil and Malayalam have quite a few common words. Kannada and Telugu, meanwhile, share a similar script.
Vishu, the Malayali astronomical new year coincides with the Tamil New Year, around 14-15 April every year. The festival of lights, Deepavali, down south is a singular story about the death of Narakasura at the hands of Lord Krishna, unlike the North, where ‘Diwali’ celebrates the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years.
Beyond these inherent factors, there are many others that may be accentuating this multiculturalism of south India. Of those, one of the biggest in the cinema. Allow me to illustrate with some examples:
- Tamil superstar Rajinikanth doesn’t make any overt attempts to hide his Marathi roots or his Bengaluru background.
- Most Tamilians are aware of MG Ramachandran’s Kerala roots and Vijayakanth’s Telugu roots.
- Mani Ratnam’s debut was a Kannada film, Pallavi Anu Pallavi, starring Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor, at that.
- Kannada actors Mohan, Murali, and Arjun found their success and mooring in Tamil films, after briefly trying their luck in Kannada cinema.
- Now retired, Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi often played a villain in his early days and that included playing the antagonist to Rajinikanth in Tamil films like Ranuva Veeran. His films, dubbed in Tamil, always had a market too.
- Allu Arjun has a thriving market in Kerala thanks to his Telugu films dubbed in Malayalam gaining huge popularity.
- Tamil kuthu songs made a mark in Kerala long before they started producing their own ‘adipoli’ (translation: excellent) songs. Some songs have transcended borders and became popular across the South. Like the Malayalam song Lajjavathiye, or last year’s Jimikki Kammal.
- Kannada star Ravichandran hit gold with his Paruva Ragam (Premaloka in Kannada), a bilingual film. Although his next trilingual film, Shanti Kranti (Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu) bombed.
- Veteran Tamil director K Balachander, after his split with Ilayaraja, roped in the Telugu music composer M M Keeravani (composing with the pseudonym Marakathamani in Tamil and M M Kreem in Hindi) for his 1991 film Azhagan. Keeravani debuted in Telugu just the year before, in 1990.
- Tamil star Ajith Kumar debuted across two different languages in 1993—the Tamil film Amaravathi and the Telugu film Prema Pusthakam.
- Suriya and Vijay’s Tamil movies get dubbed in Telugu these days as against the films’ plots getting sold for remakes starring a Telugu actor.
- Sundeep Kishan, the nephew of cinematographers Chota K Naidu and Shyam K Naidu, has parallel careers running in both Telugu and Tamil, as a male lead.
- Aadhi, who goes by just his first name in Tamil and goes by his full name, Aadhi Pinisetty, in Telugu is starting on a similar journey after a tentative start in Tamil.
- Vishal, too, is on a similar trajectory. After a successful stint in Tamil, he is actively investing in bilinguals, and goes by his full name, Vishal Reddy, in Telugu.
Beyond music and playlists though, there are some other significant factors at play for this multicultural assimilation. Subtitled films, for instance.
Chennai, as the film industry capital of South India, has always had select theatres releasing movies in Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, catering only to people who know the language. It was a smaller audience in Hyderabad, for non-Telugu (and non-Hindi) films, and even smaller audiences for non-Kannada films in Bengaluru. But things have changed rapidly