Mani Ratnam was already a huge name in Tamil cinema when the Hindi dubbed version of Roja (1992) was released north of the Vindhyas. The film was a success despite the incongruities produced by the dubbing process. The emerald village in which Roja prances about was relocated to somewhere in Uttar Pradesh, and the characters spoke in rustic Hindi despite having Tamilness written all over their faces. Audiences ignored the distracting lack of synchronization between the dialogue and the lip movements of the actors and revelled in the gorgeous imagery that is a trademark of Ratnam’s cinema. Oohs and aahs similarly greeted Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) when it was dubbed into Hindi, so when he embarked on Dil Se.., his first film in Hindi, in 1998, the crossover to Bollywood seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
Dil Se crashed at the box office, so Ratnam’s next move was the dual-language film. In 2004, he made two movies on the same subject at the same location and with the same musical score, but with two different sets of actors. Neither Yuva nor Aayutha Ezhuthu did anything for Ratnam’s reputation. With Guru (2007), Ratnam jettisoned the dual-headed approach. He made the film in Hindi, cast leading Bollywood stars and picked a safe subject—a businessman’s rise to fame and fortune against the odds. Viewers loved it.
With Raavan, Ratnam has once again taken up the challenge of juggling two languages and two vastly different cultural sensibilities. The Hindi Raavan stars Abhishek Bachchan as a forest brigand who falls in love with his hostage, who is the wife of a police officer (the parallels to the Ramayana are obvious). Tamil star Vikram plays the cop in the Hindi version and Bachchan’s role in the Tamil one. Ever since the movie’s trailers released a few weeks ago, the Internet grapevine has been jangling with comparisons. Is Vikram more convincing than Bachchan? Do A.R. Rahman’s songs sound better in Tamil?
Not lost in translation: With Raavan, Mani Ratnam is betting once more on the bilingual film category.
The debate would have been much simpler if the boundaries between Tamil and Hindi cinema weren’t so rigid. National integration is an avowed aim of the Indian state, but talent cannot cross over from one state to another without causing tongues to wag.
Hindi cinema is considered to represent all of India. Regional cinema is just that. Migration widens the market for a Tamil or a Bengali movie, but only Bollywood can cut across regional and international borders. This fact rankles a great deal in the southern industries, who take their revenge by routinely casting north Indians as villains. However successful Tamil cinema is in its backyard, it cannot compare with the sheer power and reach of the Hindi film industry. Hence the attempts of Tamil pin-ups such as Vikram and Suriya to roll their tongues around the language that is still reviled in their state.
Will Ratnam bridge the divide between the south and the rest of the world? Few southern film-makers are better placed to do so. Ratnam’s technical dexterity is a matter of shock and awe across production houses in Mumbai. In the short term, at least, Raavan will do more for Vikram’s career than his critical and commercial hits back home. However, the prospect of Mumbai film-makers rushing to Vikram’s Chennai residence with chequebooks and contracts looks dim. Bollywood’s stars are incubated in Mumbai. To appeal to audiences, they must speak Hindi, however Anglicized or bastardized it may be. A typical Bollywood hero must appear to be from somewhere in north India. Indian Idol finalist Meiyang Chang probably made it to the Badmaash Company cast because the reality show had already made him a national figure. Rohan Sippy’s upcoming movie Dum Maro Dum stars leading Telugu actor Rana Daggubati, but mostly, Hindi film-makers try and keep their cast as cookie cutter as possible. Why take the trouble when most Hindi movie characters have no discernible backgrounds or personal geographies anyway?
Regional cinemas are no less parochial, even though the ground realities are vastly different. Tamil cinema’s leading stars are mostly from outside Tamil Nadu, starting with M.G. Ramachandran (Kerala) and Rajinikanth (a Marathi manoos from Bangalore). Khushboo? A Mumbaikar. Asin? From Kerala. Jyothika? A Punjabi from Mumbai. Tamanna? A Sindhi from Mumbai. Shriya Saran? An Uttarkhandi from Dehradun.
Only Punjabi has successfully invaded Hindi cinema, probably because of the strong presence of film-makers from the state in Bollywood, as well as the vast swathes of Punjabi-speaking Indians in foreign markets. Over the last few years, many of us have been forced to come to terms with our inner Punjabi selves. We have driven on tractors through mustard fields, bopped our heads to bhangra beats, and accepted the logic of lavish, booze-filled weddings. Dialogue writers and lyricists working in Hindi cinema are now expected to know a smattering of Punjabi, and except for Ram Gopal Varma, most directors have succumbed to the need to include at least one Punjabi matronly character.
This courtesy hasn’t been extended to other Indian languages. Bollywood badly wants to go international and make movies that simultaneously impress audiences in Ludhiana and London. Creating a truly national cinema and finding a way to use the diverse talent that exists in various states in the country may be more achievable. Most Indians manage to speak only their mother tongue and English adequately. Why not celebrate difference instead of ignoring it?
Nandini Ramnath is a film critic with Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org