The Otherwoods

Roughly 1,000 movies are produced in India every year. Of these, around 200 films are produced by Bollywood each year. Of course, few people outside of India are aware of this, and many foreigners assume that all of Indian cinema is Bollywood. Contrary to popular opinion, "Bollywood" only refers to Hindi films. So where do the other 800 movies come from?

Kollywood and Tollywood

Kollywood is the informal name of the Tamil film industry, and Tollywood is the Telugu-language industry. These two industries are some of the largest in India, and they share a lot: tropes, actors, composers, directors. Both are located in Southeastern India, and their audience is concentrated in the same area. To the rest of India, they are relatively unknown, which is why Indians who are unfamiliar with these two industries often lump them together and associate them with 1) political regionalism, 2) the actor Rajinikanth, and 3) ultra-conservative Tamil brahmins.

Yet, the cultural fallout of these movies transcends their obscurity. One can't begin to count all the South Indian moves that became massive commercial or critical hits, went on to be dubbed in several Indian languages, and then became hits in those languages also. Mani Ratnam's 1992 Roja, an influential film beloved all over India, was first a Tamil movie, though its origin is often glossed over. This film also debuted the composer A.R Rahman, who is now world-famous. But before he did Slumdog Millionare and before he worked in Bollywood, he spent a decade composing music for Tamil movies. This not a rare scenario: it's easier for a no-name talent to debut in South India than it is in Bollywood. Many iconic Hindi film stars, from Aishwariya Rai to Kajol to Katrina Kaif, started their careers down south.

These films are today thought of as the Large Ham, even by Bollywood standards. They are unabashedly escapist. The heroes are generally unapologetic Stus of the highest order. The Love Interest (called a "heroine", even if she never does anything heroic) is usually a straight-up chick and Distressed Damsel. Every film will have copious amounts of intrusive comic reliefnote  as most films attempt to stuff in as much action, romance, music, and comedy as possible. This all-in-one genre combination is familiar to Indian movie buffs as 'masala', but is more commonly called 'mass' in Telugu lingo. Even movies with a serious subject matter (politics, horror, history, mythology) may follow the same pattern. Combine all of that with the low quality special effects and you get an industry of Narmy, So Bad, It's Good movies.

There are exceptions, such as Kandukondein Kandukondein, a Kollywood adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which is slice-of-life drama, combined with romance and some mild satire. Some popular directors, such as Mani Ratnam, K. Viswanath, Ram Gopal Varma, and more recently, Rajamouli, are known to stray from the typical masala patterns. With foreign filmsnote  easily accessible, the expectations of the younger generation are changing, and so such exceptions are growing more and more numerous.

What the mainstream of Kollywood and Tollywood have going for them is that they tend to be more action-oriented than Bollywood and more on the "gritty" side. Where Bollywood movies tend to focus on the wealthy, these movies are more likely to feature middle-class and working-class characters (partly because of political influences in the past). Also, they are usually very high-energy. The main reason that the stuey Action Hero is accepted is because the actors are entertaining and enthusiastic enough to pull off such overbearing roles. Action Heroes in Kollywood and Tollywood tend to be superheroic in their power, and will often be able to take massive amounts of punishment before pulling a Heroic Second Wind and taking the villain down.

But it should not be assumed that these tropes are the default or definitive state of Indian cinema. Infact, the masala formula arose very recently, just in the last two or three decades. Southern movies before this era, while still being very idealistic and sometimes glorifying the hero, were not typically so uproarious, and quieter stories concerning romance, family, and marriage were common. The most famous and beloved movies from the past (e.g. Maya Bazaar, Chandralekha) went to the other extreme, with epic, meandering stories involving royalty or mythological figures. In the late 70s and the 80s, there was a small but influential genre of acclaimed movies that revolved around the topic of music and dance, where the story focus was on the characters learning, mastering, sometimes being consumed by the art. The most famous of these was Shankarabaranam.

These film industries are also noteworthy for producing lots of politicians, la Schwarzenegger. The two biggest examples are M.G. Ramachandran (of Kollywood, often shortened to 'MGR') and N.T. Rama Rao (of Tollywood, shortened to 'NTR'). Both formed their own political parties and spun fanatical film Fandoms into huge voting blocs. Both also pandered to the poor (especially MGR, who was portrayed as a fighter on their behalf in the movies) and to regional pride. Another example is former actress Vijayashanti, who started out portraying stock love interests in Tollywood, then bucked the boys-only club and did cop roles in the nineties, and later went onto a political career.

Recommended Films (Tollywood)

  • Athadu, featuring an assassin out for vengeance after he is framed for the murder of an important politician.
  • Eega, where a vengeful hero becomes a housefly
  • Pokiri, about a cop who goes undercover to take down land mafia.
  • Magadheera, where a vengeful hero's ancestor was also a vengeful hero
  • Kshana Kshanam, where the villain is vengeful and the protagonist couple are on the run
  • Anukokunda Oka Roju, no hero, but an ensemble of heroine, corrupt cop, and intrepid taxi driver
  • Seetharamaiah Gari Manavaralu, where protagonist is the child of emigrants wanting to reconnect with her family
  • Sagara Sangamam: a washed-up, alcoholic dance master struggles to teach the spoiled daughter of his former lover
  • Siva a very famous action movie from the 80s
  • Oohalu Gusagusalade: one of the urbane romantic comedies becoming popular nowadays

Recommended Films (Kollywood)

  • Angaadi Theru, a simple realistic movie about poverty and love
  • Naan, about identity theft
  • Mozhi
  • Abhiyum Naanum
  • Iruvar, a biopic about the friendship between two famous political figures

Mollywood
If Kollywood is The Lancer in this lineup and Tollywood is the Big Guy, then Mollywood is the Smart Guy.

"Mollywood" refers to the Malayalee industry, from the Southwest Indian state of Kerala. Historically, these films tended to be a little more thoughtful, subversive, and low-key than their southeastern counterparts, but Mollywood also churns out its share of cheap action films, intended to compete for eyeballs with Malayalee dubs of the Tollywood and Kollywood mainstays. The Mollywood action films tend to unimpressive compared to the Tollywood and Kollywood output: they have much smaller budgets, not much action choreography, and usually star middle-aged men who originally made their reputations in more cerebral films, and aren't really action hero material.

Another minor quirk of Mollywood cinema is that Kerala has a relatively high percentage of Christians, and a very long history of hosting them (with one group claiming to have been evangelized by St. Thomas The Apostle). As a result of this, Mollywood portrayals of Christians tend to be less caricatured and more naturalistic than Bollywood's portrayals of Christians.

Not to be confused with the Mormon film industry, or LDS Cinema, also known as Mollywood.

The Kannada Industry

The Punjabi Industry

The Bengali Industry

The Bhojpuri Industry

The Orissa Industry: Ollywood
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