Never a particularly elegant term to describe the Hindi film industry, the name “Bollywood” was not only a particularly unoriginal one, seeking glory from imitation, but it also suffered from delusions of grandeur, as if the Bombay film industry was the only base of the “Indian” film industry in the way Hollywood undoubtedly was and is for American cinema. But “Bollywood” acquired hegemony over Indian cinema with its budgets. So big was the investment in Bollywood that other Indian language cinema was never able to challenge its supremacy, despite the fact that technologically Chennai’s Tamil film industry had kept ahead of Mumbai’s Hindi film industry for a long time. In terms of the application of modern technology — photography, colour, sound and graphics — the Tamil and Telugu film industries have set the pace for Mumbai’s Bollywood. But the big bucks were always with the Kapoors and the Bachchans and their like and Mumbai was where it was all on display. One man has changed that. Born Shivaji Rao Gaikwad, ironically a Maharashtrian from a Bangalore-based family, Rajinikanth has emerged as India’s biggest box office machine with his new film Endhiran (Robot in Hindi). Apart from his “bus conductor to superstar” life story, Rajinikanth has made history by becoming one of India’s most globally marketed film makers. He earned for himself an audience in Japan long before Bollywood made any impact that far to the East. While Mumbai’s Amitabh Bachchan is still the “Big B”, neither he nor any other Mumbai producer/ actor has experimented on a scale that Rajinikanth has. From a purely business perspective, a new milestone has been crossed in Indian cinema’s business history by Mr Rajinikanth.
However, for all its quantitative growth, Indian cinema has some way to go in qualitative terms. While Endhiran (Robot) has made a mark with technology and technique, there’s nothing original about either or even the film’s theme. What is striking as of now is the sheer scale of the marketing effort. Hopefully, bigger budgets, bigger markets and deeper pockets will bring in their train better films, better produced. What Mr Rajinikanth has done with his latest offering is to show that India’s so-called “regional cinema” can also go global. The world Tamil diaspora, and it is both large and prosperous, is a good enough market to tap. But when Japanese film-goers start going crazy, one can see that the appeal goes beyond the diaspora. The continued success of Indian cinema shows that India has a stake in an open market for cinema. World trade in cinema must not only become more organised, and corporatised, but it must also function on the basis of transparent rules of business. But, before Indian film makers demand a more level global playing field, they must ensure that the business of cinema becomes more businesslike at home. This has already happened to a considerable extent with the entry of companies and banks into film financing, but there is more to be done. India has the opportunity of overtaking the US as home to the world’s biggest and most globalised film industry. Mr Rajinikanth has drawn our attention to the potential yet again.