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The first Tamil film was made in 1916, but the industry got momentum with the success of the first talkie in Tamil, Kalidas, which hit the screens on October 31, 1931. It was on this day that the boxes carrying the reels of the movie arrived at Chennai port and from there, it reached the Liberty Theatre in a huge procession. This was a period when mythological films dominated the industry. Seethakalyanam – based on Indian epic Ramayana was made in 1933. The earliest Tamil filmmakers were experimental. In the 1935 film Nandhanar, a woman actress played the role of the male lead. The year 1936 marked the debut of British director Ellis R Duncan as well as the debut of the first woman director of Indian cinema, T P Rajalakshmi with Miss Kamala. After the independence in 1947, Tamil cinema produced what one may call the first on screen wonder through Chandralekha; the most expensive Tamil movie of that time with the budget of Rs 3 million.
In 1950, the Tamil cinema achieved another technical milestone with the release of the first colour film Alibabavum Narpathu Thirudargalum. Two years on, a film based on rationalism, Parasakthi, was released. This film stressed the importance of dialogues for a film, and their delivery in an emotional manner, epitomised by Sivaji Ganesan. This was Sivaji’s first film, who after this movie, turned into a successful Tamil actor. Devdas in 1953 tasted the success in Tamil and was subsequently remade in Hindi and Telugu. In 1959, Kalyana Parisu introduced a parallel comedy track that sent the audience guffawing. The next milestone came in 1979 when Shobha’s stellar performance in the film Pasi won her a national award for Best Actress. Tamil actresses with their powerhouse performance have delineated Tamil movies to a great extent and their influence was felt right across India, with actresses such as Vaijayanthimala, Hema Malini, Sridevi and now Asin dominating the Bollywood as well.
However, few heroes from Tamil cinema have made it big in Bollywood. Two of the most prominent among them are Kamala Hassan and Rajnikanth, two unparalleled superstars. They not only created benchmark in Tamil cinema but contributed a lot to Bollywood also. How one can forget the Robot and Chaalbaaz of Rajnikanth and Chachi 420 of Kamala Hassan? Their fans are passionate about them and few other stars can have such a dedicated fan following. Even though both have been acting for many decades, their fan following continues unabated. Rajnikanth’s fans can be seen belting out his punch lines, his dialogues, aping his signature moves such as trying to put on the sunglasses like he does; and Kamala Hassan’s fans praise the versatility which he brought in and are happy that he is the one who gave surprise packages to audience when they never ask for. In Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan in 1987, Kamal Hassan’s screen portrayal of the ruthless don won him many accolades. Debuting as a child artist, he completed 50 years in Indian cinema in 2009. Actor, producer, director, lyricist, playback singer, and choreographer – he has played virtually every role in cinema and achieved near perfection in each. He made his Bollywood debut with Ek Duje Ke Liye in 1981. He may be one of the most senior actors in South Indian cinema today, but he is also among the most tech-savvy and continues to be a trend-setter. He has employed Aura 3D technology audio in his latest release, Vishwaroopam, a first in Indian cinema.
Rajinikanth made his debut in Tamil films in Apoorva Raagangal (1975) and made foray into Bollywood with Andha Kanoon in 1983. This did not make as much of an impact as he had in the South. He still appeared in few Hindi movies like Chaalbaaz with Sridevi, Uttar Dakshan, Geraftaar and Hum. He wooed international audience as well. He made his Hollywood debut with the movie Bloodstone in 1988. He also made brief stints in German and Japanese film industries. His film Muthu was dubbed into Japanese and later turned out to become a major hit in the country, ultimately creating huge Japanese fan-following for Rajni. In 2005, his film Chandramukhi was dubbed in German and released in all German-speaking nations. His 150th film, Padayappa, turned out to be a blockbuster in his career. In 2010, Rajni made his comeback to Bollywood. Opposite to Aishwarya Rai, the movie Robot broke box office records.
The accolades for the industry are too many to list. Malli, released in 1998, won the Golden Pyramid Best Film award at Cairo International Film Festival, and The Terrorist won the same award in 1999. The 2005 release Raam won both Best Musical Score and Best Actor awards at the 2006 Cyprus International Film Festival, and another 2005 release, Navarasa won the Angel Independent Spirit Award. According to a 2012 report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (Media and Entertainment in South India), Tamil films took Rs 10.3 billion in revenues in 2011-12. For big-budget films, Rs 20-25 million is usually spent on publicity alone, and the visual effects budget could range from Rs 50-100 million. Deloitte attributes such pending to ‘corporates and big studios like Eros and Fox Star crowding the regional film industry’, drawn by the low-cost, high-margin factor.
Many actors play influential politicians in their reel lives, but there are few who made it big in politics in real and it has happened in a big way in Tamil cinema. A prominent actress who acted in several Tamil and Telugu films, Jayalalitha joined AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Khazagham) in 1982. She rose rapidly in the party and became the first woman Chief Minister of the state, where she is currently serving her third term. On the similar lines, Karunanidhi began his career as a screenwriter in Tamil film industry and soon rose to be a popular politician because of his wit and oratory skills. Another actor turned politician Sivaji Ganesan was a staunch sympathizer of DMK in 1955. In 1961, he became a strong supporter of the Indian National Congress. Due to his popularity, he was requested to be part of the National Congress Tamil Nadu. He was made the Member of Parliament by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. With their charm and public appeal, these film stars were easily able to connect with the common man. Their fame and publicity that rise with their involvement, has changed the political scenario.