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 is the informal name of the Tamil film industry, and Tollywood is the Telugu-language industry. The name "Kollywood" is a portmanteau of Kodambaakam note and Hollywood. 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. Many South Indian movies became massive commercial or critical hits, went on to be dubbed in several other 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 AR Rahman, who went on to win awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song at the 81st Oscars. But before he did Slumdog Millionare and before he worked in Bollywood, he spent a decade composing music for Tamil movies and still does so to this day. This not a rare scenario: it is 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.
South Indian films borrow much from the Tamil dramatic traditions, such as exaggerated speech and action, formulaic plots, characters and tropes, and an abundance of music and dance. 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. In fact, 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. Mayabazar, 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 Sankarabharanam.
These film industries are also noteworthy for producing lots of politicians, à 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)
- Arjun Reddy, where a brilliant medical student starts going down a self-destructive path after his girlfriend is forced to marry another man.
- Athadu, featuring an assassin out for vengeance after he is framed for the murder of an important politician. Has a very John Woo inspired final shootout.
- 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
- Once Upon A Warrior, an International Co Production with Disney: a blind warrior must fight an evil cult led by a powerful sorceress
- 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
- Baahubali: A duology of epics about a vengeful deposed prince battling the usurper who killed his father.
- Mayabazar: A classic Tollywood film set during the Mahabharata epic based on Telugu folklore about how a demon prince comedically saves the wedding of his half-brother to a princess after his father's exile.
- Sankarabharanam: A popular film about the importance of Carnatic classical music
Recommended Films (Kollywood)
- Karnan (2021): A film about a lower caste village fighting oppression, and trying to be seen with dignity and to get their own bus stop.
- Super Deluxe (2019), an offbeat Black Comedy Drama about a corpse, a couple in an unhappy marriage, a porn actress, a religious preacher, five horny boys, a transgender woman denied social acceptance, a happy kid, a corrupt policeman, an alien, and a broken TV.
- 96 (2018), an unconventional romance between two high-school sweethearts (played by Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha) who graduated in 1996 and meet up in 2018 for a class reunion. On comparing notes, they realize that they would have been together except for cruel happenstance of fate. After much angst and expression of emotion, they sadly go their separate ways.
- Vikram Vedha (2017), a battle of wits between a cop (Madhavan) who performs extrajudicial killings with a black-and-white sense of justice and a criminal (Vijay Sethupathi) who sees much nuance in between good and evil.
- Yennai Arindhaal (2015), a noir thriller between a cop (Ajith) and a killer, with many layers of backstory and character motivation for a commercial thriller.
- Baahubali (2015): See above, under Tollywood.
- Thegidi (2014): A fresh criminology graduate is hired by a private detective agency, and finds out that people he followed on the job for the first few months have started disappearing. He is conflicted when he starts feeling attracted to the latest person he's supposed to tail, and eventually joins forces with her to break out of his paranoia.
- Naan (2012), a crime thriller about identity theft
- Azhagarsamiyin Kuthirai (2011). The premise is that a man named Azhagarsami has lost his horse and is trying to find it. That pretext allows a very character-rich deep dive into rural Tamil Nadu of the early 1980s, with superstitions and ignorance and suspicions and village politics and private schemes gone awry.
- Aaranya Kandam (2010), a noir drama about multiple crime families, with twists in the end.
- Angaadi Theru (2010), a simple realistic movie about poverty and love
- Abhiyum Naanum (2008), a family drama about a father (Girish Karnad) coming to terms with his daughter (Trisha) growing up and getting married despite his misgivings.
- Mozhi (2007)
- Anbe Sivam (2003), two disparate characters (Kamal Haasan and Madhavan) meet in an airport departure lounge and are suspicious of each other's character. The flight is cancelled and they must make their way to the common destination together. Much character growth happens, and there is a joint resolution to their backstories.
- Kandukondein Kandukondein (2000): A slice of life drama based on Sense and Sensibility about a school principal who falls for an assistant film director trying to make his debut and a classic Tamil poetry loving young woman who can't choose between a charming yet douchey politician who shares her interests or a close friend she's known her whole life.
- Snegithiye (2000): A mystery thriller about two girls whose lives are turned upside down when they are accused of killing a man, when it may or may not be their rival who did it for the sake of ruining their reputations.
- The Terrorist (1997), a Santosh Sivan film about the mental transformation of an ordinary everyday teen girl into a trained LTTE suicide bomber targeting a high-level Indian politician.
- Iruvar (1997), a Mani Ratnam biopic about the friendship between two famous political figures.
- Indian (1996): A vigilante movie with a distinctly Indian version of the '90s Anti-Hero.
- Bombay (1995), a Mani Ratnam movie about a Hindu-Muslim couple dealing with religious riots in Mumbai.
- Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1991): Quadruplets separated at birth and raised by different people allow Kamal Haasan to showcase his ability to nail four different accents and sets of mannerisms while events around him turn increasingly farcical and out of control.
- Anjali (1990): A rare Award Bait film from Mani Ratnam, featuring a terminally Ill Girl born with a developmental disability.
- Nayakan (1987): A uniquely Indian musical version of The Godfather.
- Sindhu Bhairavi (1985): A famous Carnatic singer has an extramarital affair with a fan named Sindhu and falls into alcoholism when she breaks it off. Eventually his wife Bhairavi and his girlfriend team up and get him to sober up.
- Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1977): A satirical film with a donkey as the lead character.
"Mollywood" refers to the Malayalam-language 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 Malayalam dubs of the Tollywood and Kollywood mainstays. Mollywood action films tend to be 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.
Kerala hosts the International Film Festival of Kerala, which is oriented towards films from the global south. This has led to Mollywood being influenced by Latin American, Iranian and East Asian film, to the extent that many Mollywood films are accused of 'borrowing' plot elements from Korean and Japanese films.
Another minor quirk of Mollywood cinema is that Kerala has a relatively high percentage of Muslims and Christians (both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), and a very long history of hosting them (with one Christian group claiming to have been evangelized by St. Thomas the Apostle). As a result, Mollywood portrayals of Muslims and Christians tend to be less caricatured and more realistic than Bollywood's.
Not to be confused with the Mormon film industry, or LDS Cinema, also known as Mollywood.
Recommended Films (Mollywood)
- Neelakuyil (Blue Cuckoo, 1954) - A story of a romantic affair between an upper-caste schoolteacher and a Dalit girl
- Chemmeen (Prawn, 1965) - Based on Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's novel by the same name, Chemmeen is about an affair between a married Hindu woman and a Muslim man in a coastal fishing village. It became the first South Indian movie to win India's Gold Medal for Best Film, in 1965.
- Swayamvaram (Choosing a Bridegroom, 1972) - The story of a couple that married against their parents' wishes and started a life of their own. Won four National Film Awards and took the Malayalam industry to the international stage.
- Kanchana Sita (Golden Sita, 1977) - A reimagining of the Uthara Kanda, the last act of the Indian epic Ramayana, which is about King Rama being forced to abandon his wife Sita due to baseless accusations. The film tells this tale from a feminist and environmentalist perspective, with the characters played by Rama Chenchu tribals. G Aravindan won the National Award for Best Direction for this film.
- Kummatty (Bogeyman, 1979) is a magical realist story about the Kummatty (bogeyman) and a boy he accidentally turns into a dog.
- Elippathayam (Cellar, 1981) documents the fall of feudalism in Kerala, and tells the story of a dying feudal family struggling to adapt to democracy and withdrawing into itself. Premiered at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and won the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival.
- Amma Ariyan ([What i want my] Mother to Know, 1986) - An avant-garde movie about the aftermath of the death of a young Naxalite.note It was included in the British Film Institute's Top 10 Indian Films list.
- Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (A Northern Heroic Ballad. 1989) - An alternative retelling of a popular folk-tale. It won four National Film Awards.
- Manichitrazhazhu (Ornate Lock, 1993) - A cult-classic psychological-thriller about a 'haunting' affecting the Alummoottil clan of central Travancore. It tackles dissociative identity disorder from both a scientific and religious perspective.
- Guru (Teacher, 1997) - A fantasy story that tackles bigotry, prejudices and superstitions. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
- Kaazhcha (Sight, 2004) - Loosely inspired by the 1986 Iranian film, Bashu The Little Stranger, this movie revolves around a young Gujarati boy who finds himself in Kerala following the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat.
- Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, son of Adam, 2011) - The story of a poor Muslim family whose only wish is to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. Won four National Film Awards.
- Drishyam (Visual, 2013) - A gripping tale of a film buff who goes through great lengths to protect his family following their accidental killing of a police inspector's son.
- Iyobinte Pusthakam (The Book of Job, 2014) - Set in the mid-20th century before Independence, the story of a landowner and the sibling rivalry between his sons. The characters are based on the characters of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
- Bangalore Days (2014) - A tale of three cousins and their adventures and love lives in Bangalore.
- How Old R U (2014) - A story of a thirty-something year old woman rediscovering her purpose and meaning in life.
- Kammattipadam (2016) - The story of the lower-caste residents of Kammattipaadam, who were drastically impacted by the gentrification of their locality in mainland Ernakulam.
- Maheshinte Prathikaaram (Mahesh's Revenge, 2016) - A part slice-of-life, part revenge-thriller set in a small mountainous village.
- Mayanadi (Mystic River, 2017) - A remake of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.
- Angamaly Diaries (2017) - The story of a young man who lands himself in hot water in a dispute with a rival gang.
- Sudani From Nigeria (2018) - About a Nigerian illegal immigrant playing in a local-level league in football-mad Malappuram.
- Uyare (Upwards, 2019) - The story of an aspiring female pilot who gets acid-attacked by her possessive boyfriend.
- Trance 2020 (2020) - Unrelated to Trance, a psychological drama where Viju Prasad, a motivational coach, is hired to be the head of a megachurch who can perform miracles.
- Joji (2021) - A loose retelling of Macbeth where a young man, fed up by his mistreatment by his father, plans to kill him.
- Malik (King, 2021) - An epic gangster drama depicting the rise and fall of Ahmadali "Ali Ikka" Suleiman and the fate of his community and neighbourhood.
This industry took off in the fifties, with nearly all of its movies being Sword & Sorcery high fantasy epics based on Hindu Mythology. The sixties saw a genre change, as more movies started to feature more contemporary plots, usually focused on common people. A lot of these movies featured Sandalwood's own MGR - Dr. Rajkumar note , who became an icon, but unlike MGR or NTR, didn't opt to translate cultural popularity into a political career. The seventies saw the industry hit its peak, with many commercial hits and more compelling stories being told. Many movies made in this particular decade were based on well regarded Carnatic literature. The eighties saw the industry adopt more modern stories, modern production techniques, even more synth based soundtracks. This era also saw the industry moving into more genres, such as romantic comedies, extremely soft sci-fi (more fantasy than sci-fi), horror and the usual popcorn action flicks. Movies made here in the eighties were very similar to movies made by the other South Indian "woods".
The nineties were not kind to this industry, seeing it Jump the Shark multiple times. While Fanservice, stereotype based humor, Marty Stu leads and Plot Tumor has always been present in all movies, these aspects were turned up in many films of this era at the cost of a good compelling story. As a result, these movies catered primarily to a rural and often uneducated audience. This resulted in just sufficient revenue to offset production costs, but not enough cash to pay good screenwriters, good directors, good production crews, good score composers etc. Therefore, the industry seems to be mired in this Dork Age with little to no hope of recovery.
The reasons for why this industry suffered decay, while others flourished, has to do with other major events that occurred in the early nineties. A major factor is the makeup of Bengaluru. While Chennai, Hyderabad and Kochi were large South Indian cities, with Chennai being larger than Bengaluru, the capital city of Karnataka was always more cosmopolitan, with people from all over India residing there. This was initially due to many people retiring there, owing to Bengaluru's slightly cooler temperatures, but also due to many important research institutions for Indians with Iglas being based there. The founding and subsequent explosive growth of the software industry in Bengaluru, turned it into a Boom Town that attracted a lot of people across India. A lot of these people wanted to see movies made in their own language, or alternatively more Hollywood movies and foreign films. As a result, Sandalwood's movies suddenly faced stiff competition in Bengaluru. Unable to penetrate the non Carnatic speaking residents of Bengaluru, the industry focused instead on pandering to their rural audience. Other "woods" also avoided this problem by arm twisting theatre owners and local governments to be more protectionist and screen only their films.
- Gandhada Gudi (Temple of Sandalwood) - an early seventies popcorn flick about a forest ranger, trying to bring down a notorious sandalwood smuggler.
- Parasangadha Gendethimma - a tragic tale of a village forced to change with the times.
- Yeradu Kanasu (Two Dreams) - a romantic comedy, possibly the first lighthearted one in this language, not weighed down by drama.
- Srinivas Kalyana: A dramatization of a mythological tale.
- Bayalu Daari - a romantic film that also deals with PTSD and disability.
- Minchina Ota: - a heist movie that won a government award for movies that send an important social message.
- Benkiya Bale - a Tear Jerker of a romantic tale, based on a bestselling Carnatic novel.
- Aapad Baandhava - the rarest of the rare - an Indian movie that received a Hollywood remake - the Bruce Willis flick Mercury Rising (the autism and cryptography in the Hollywood version, being an upgrade over the deaf-mutism and post traumatic stress used in this movie).
- Hrudaya Geethe: (Song from the Heart) - Another rarity in the Otherwoods - a lighthearted Rom Com that falls prey to the Cerebus Syndrome and becomes quite dark and tragic towards the end. A remake of the Bollywood film "Paagal Kahin Ka"
- Doctor Krishna: A medical drama film.
- Muthina Haara: A war epic that follows the life of a soldier and his family from World War 2 to the 1962 Indo-China conflict.
- Gowri Ganesha: A Black Comedy with an Unscrupulous Hero protagonist. One of the very few Indian movies in which this kind of protagonist doesn't get any comeuppance in the end.
- Thithi (Funeral): The reactions of various villagers to the death of a 101-year old patriarch. Casting non-professional villagers from Mandya, it won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival and the Best Film award at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
- Nathicharami is about the conflicts between personal desire and social norms.
Recommended Films (Punjabi)
- Bride and Prejudice: Mostly in English, with some Hindi and Punjabi dialogue.
- Udta Punjab: (2016) A black comedy about the drug crisis in Punjab.
Recommended Films (Bengali)
- The films of Satyajit Ray, the most internationally famous film director to come out of India.
- Ek din, Pratidin - The breadwinner of a middle-class family disappears, and they try to find her. This film by Mrinal Sen competed in the 33rd Cannes Film Festival.
- Thirty Six Chowringhee Lane - A movie about an Anglo-Indian English teacher, her cat and two young lovers. This bittersweet story is told in a mix of Bengali and English.
- Bow Barracks Forever: A rare English-language independent film by a Bengali producer and director, this movie tells the story of a community of Anglo-Indians note struggling to retain their homes and heritage.
Recommended Films (Odiya)
- Shesha Drushti (Final Sight) - The son of a revolutionary struggles between the ideals of his father and the reality of life in a corrupt society.
- Aadim Vichar (Ancient Justice) shows how tribals are cheated out of their land.