x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Desi Girl: My new passion for South Indian cinema

It's bigger than Bollywood, but the film industry of the south of the subcontinent is new territory for me

This past weekend was as interesting for me as it was for fans of South Indian films. Dubai hosted the first edition of the South Indian International Movie Awards (SIIMA) and a galaxy of stars descended upon the city.

As the first platform to bring together the four South Indian film industries (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam), SIIMA was a huge deal. And being the Indian film fanatic that I am, I was not about to miss it.

My interest in the south film industry (which accounts for 75 per cent of all film revenues in India - not Bollywood, as many would assume) is fairly recent, having been roused by last year's release, The Dirty Picture. The film was loosely based on the life of the South Indian actress Silk Smitha, whose brazen on-screen antics made her a household name in the 1980s and 1990s. In the movie, Smitha was played by the delightful and voluptuous Vidya Balan, who - like a lot of other successful Bollywood actresses - started her career in the south.

Balan's first acting project Chakram, a Malayalam film from 2003, was shelved soon after shooting started. The second film she started shooting, Run, was in Tamil but she was replaced by the actress Meera Jasmine. Soon afterwards, shooting for Chakram restarted and once again Balan was replaced by Jasmine. However, this horrible start didn't stop Balan from going on to make it big. Since 2009, she has belted out one massive Bollywood hit after the other: Paa (2009), Ishqiya (2010), No One Killed Jessica (2011), The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012).

Balan's story reminds me somewhat of another Indian actress, Sridevi. Without a doubt one of the biggest names in the history of Bollywood, Sridevi also started in the south and has worked in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films.

Her crossover is the stuff legends are made of: apparently she was scoffed at by her colleagues, who told her that she would never make anything out of herself in the industry. Well, she showed them, didn't she?

Two of my favourite Bollywood films of all time feature Sridevi - ChaalBaaz and Mr India - and for me, seeing Sridevi was one of the personal highlights of the SIIMA weekend. Another was meeting Dhanush, the guy behind the viral hit song Kolaveri Di.

I did mention above that my interest in the south industries is fairly recent, right? That meant that half the time I had no idea who was walking down the red carpet.

I clung to a friendly reporter who had flown down from India to cover the event and she merrily filled me in on the names and the gossip behind the stars, as each walked in.

Of course, at one point, she had to go do her job and I was left to fend for myself. I recognised a few faces here and there, but for the most part, I had to rely on instinct to work out who might be a big star.

Suffice to say, that night, I did a great job of entertaining onlookers by accosting their favourite stars and asking them who they were and if they were nominated for any awards!