Science fiction film "Endhiran" was made in the south Indian language Tamil, but it pulled in huge profits from across the country and abroad — stoking global ambitions for "Kollywood."
Named after the Kodambakkam district of Chennai where many studios are based, the Tamil film industry aims to match the success of the Hindi-language Bollywood scene in Mumbai.
"Endhiran" ("Robot") had an estimated budget of 35 million dollars, revolutionary technical wizardry, big stars, and was released worldwide in October 2010 with Hindi and Telugu dubbings as well as with English subtitles.
Distributor Eros International says it has been India’s most profitable film ever, grossing a record-breaking $13.8 million globally on its opening weekend — including $4.4 million in the United States alone.
Kollywood produces around 150 films a year, which generate $170 million in revenues, according to a 2009 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and accounting firm Ernst & Young.
Still, few people outside south India know much about the industry, the films it produces or the unparalleled fan following enjoyed by its leading stars, some of whom even have temples built in their honor.
In the days leading up to the opening of "Endhiran," some fans washed the film’s posters with milk — a gesture usually offered to Hindu Gods.
Others celebrated the release by bursting crackers, beating drums and showering movie screens with flowers.
"Normally, 90 percent of the market would be in Tamil Nadu only," Hansraj Saxena, head of Sun Pictures which produced "Endhiran," told AFP.
"But this film has Tamil superstar Rajinikanth with Bollywood’s Aishwarya Rai as the heroine and music by Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman, so we thought we could cross territories."
He said the film’s cinema revenues so far have crossed $90 million, and that it continued to attract audiences in new markets after making waves in the United States, Britain, Singapore and Malaysia.
"Recently I released the film in South Korea. The week before that it opened in Taiwan. I never imagined a Tamil film could be released in these places," he said, his eyes widening in surprise.
"The overseas market has huge potential. The problem is our producers are content with the domestic territories, so they don’t push hard overseas."
No matter how much success Saxena finds abroad, he will be hard pressed to match Tamils’ legendary love of film.
"People here watch their favorite star’s film in the cinema not once, but even 25 times. I am the producer of the film, it’s good for us, but 25 times?" he laughed.
Most of Tamil Nadu’s chief ministers have had connections to the industry and the incumbent, J. Jayalalitha, was once a leading Tamil actress.
"Film stars have become messiahs for the masses," film critic Gautaman Bhaskaran told AFP.
"Cinema is the cheapest form of entertainment here, and according to government regulations, the first row of seats in every theatre is reserved for tickets costing just ten rupees (22 cents)."
But international success might remain a distant dream for the Tamil film industry, in the same way that Bollywood has struggled to build a genuine international fan base.
Most Kollywood films are unlike "Endhiran," instead relying on the old Indian "masala" mix of home-based melodrama, light-hearted escapism and formulaic romantic plots.
Many young Tamil actors chafe at producers’ willingness to recycle familiar stories, insisting that if Tamil film is going to compete regularly on the world stage then new plots and better characters are needed.
Priyamani, a 26-year-old actress who won a national award for her work in the 2007 Tamil hit "Paruthiveeran," is one such star, complaining that she is offered the same roles again and again.
"Nine times out of ten, it is a village girl role. The roles are just not substantial enough," she said.
Some Tamil films have tried to break the mould, but they have not fared well at the box office.
R. Madhavan, 40, starred in the award-winning 2002 film "Kannathil Muthamittal," which told the story of a Sri Lankan refugee’s daughter adopted by an Indian Tamil couple.
"It was a disaster in Tamil Nadu, in terms of its collections," he told AFP. "Audiences in Tamil Nadu want to yell, they want to scream, they want to hail the hero, and then they want to walk out and forget about the film. That is the typical film fan’s attitude," he said.
"They want a happy ending and they want to see the hero bash the bad guys’ heads."