THEY’RE WILLING to take off their shirts. They can twirl girls, guns, bats, and sometimes, as in the case of the recent mega thriller Saaho, even the girl and gun together, and that too with élan. They’re happy to get under covers with their female co-stars, or disrobe them with a disarming smile, and at times flaunt their salt-and-pepper hair, fresh from the shower.
Meet the South Indian Male babe, or SIMbabe, whose appeal has crossed the Vindhyas, on their own terms, often in their own language, and in movies that echo their authenticity. In an era where the Centre is trying to impose a Hindi narrative, the diversity of India is hitting back, one language at a time. The more local the movie becomes, the more universal becomes its specificity. So from Telugu cinema’s Baahubali-inspired wannabe blockbusters, to Malayalam cinema’s rediscovery of a more fragile masculinity (in an array of younger stars such as Dulquer Salmaan, Nivin Pauly, Prithviraj Sukumaran and Fahadh Faasil) to Tamil movies’ exploration of a new ethos (beyond the traditional toxic masculinity which seeks to conquer the ever fairer woman) a new kind of man is on the ascendant. At a stretch, one could argue that it is mirroring the most politically potent debate of today, underlined by the discovery of Indus Valley Civilisation site Rakhigarhi—who was India’s original man? The Ancestral South Indian or the Ancestral North Indian?
It all started with SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali (2015, with Part II in 2017), the movie that made a household name of the mononymic Prabhas, the archetypal tall, dark, handsome hero, who had since 2002 been toiling away in Telugu cinema. With what he described as “great minds and strong arms”, Prabhas’ twin characters, father-son duo in Baahubali I and II, Mahendra and Amarendra, embodied the best of nobility, athletic prowess, and manliness. It is a manliness that cuts across languages and cultures. Says author Murali Balaji, “Prabhas has become more exportable because his physique fits the hyper-masculine mould that began in the West and was exported to India.” It’s the culture that made global stars out of action heroes such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The ascent of South Indian (sexualised) masculinity, points out Balaji, corresponds with the desire of Kollywood and Tollywood production houses to make international commodities, as well as increasing foreign capital coming into the Indian film industry as a whole. Shilpa Rathnam assistant editor, CNN-News18, believes Baahubali was the game changer. As she says, “The widespread mass appeal of that film translated into a massive fan base for Prabhas. There’s no doubt there’s newfound respect for South Indians after Baahubali, it has made an indelible mark and has found a place on the list of South Indian delights right next to idli vada.”
What makes this crop of SIMbabes—Prabhas, Dulquer Salmaan, Rana Daggubati and R Madhavan (whose social media persona has revived his sex appeal as a salt-and-pepper icon, with him having to fend off marriage proposals from amorous 18-year-olds), and others—different from the likes of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan is that their audience is no longer defined by a North/South binary. Notes Balaji; “It’s a global audience comprised of NRIs and non-NRIs whose framing of masculinity is more in line with Western depictions.” Hence the six-pack show by Dulquer Salmaan in The Zoya Factor, the bare-chested airborne chase of a parachute by Prabhas in Saaho and the relentless action performed by Madhavan as the desperate dad in the Amazon series Breathe (2018).
The rise of the digital culture has enabled a remixing of tastes—what or who is popular elsewhere, becomes a flavour we learn to appreciate, notes cultural critic Paromita Vohra. That’s as true of BTS and K-Pop as it is of Dulquer Salmaan or Surya. “It’s not about them ‘breaking into Hindi films’ anymore, but they come with their own back story. Perhaps Kolaveri di inaugurated a new route?” Indeed, social media made a star out of Dhanush, who was almost as famous for being Rajinikanth’s son-in-law as he was for being an actor. Kolaveri di, the 2011 rap song, changed his image, leading to roles in the Hindi film industry, most successfully as the lovelorn Kundan from Varanasi in Raanjhanaa (2013), and as Ajatashatru Lavash Patel in the French film, The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir (2018).
While the work of southern actors is now available on streaming services, especially Amazon which emphasises the wealth of its regional movies, the pool of actors available for all Indian movie industries has also widened. Akarsh Khurana was looking for one of three leads for Karwaan (2018) when Dulquer Salmaan’s name came up. He says, “I had seen only Charlie (Dulquer’s quirky 2015 Malayalam love story). So I did a crash course in his films and loved his range. Meeting him sold me. A straight shooter, who made all the right noises and asked pertinent questions. Also, most importantly, he took a chance on me. So I got my perfect Avinash for the film. And now I have a sex symbol for a close friend.”
What makes Prabhas, Dulquer Salmaan and R Madhavan different is that their audience is not defined by a North/South binary
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Dulquer is a SIMbabe as much for the easy, laidback masculinity he projects onscreen as for his obvious athleticism, which is in full display in The Zoya Factor, where he convincingly plays Nikhil Khoda, captain of the Indian cricket team. The film may not have done well, partly due to what Karan Johar calls the end of the fairy tale and the rise of the biopic, but it has established Dulquer’s sizzle appeal, something viewers of his Tamil hit, OK Kanmani (2015), and the Telugu/Tamil biopic Mahanati (where he played Gemini Ganesan), were already familiar with.
The rise of the IT superhero has helped the wider acceptance of the SIMbabe—as Balaji notes. The South is known for disproportionately more NRIs in tech fields, so there is a built-in audience. It could also have to do with Dulquer’s lineage—his father, Mammootty, remains an icon across the Southern movie industry.
From the binary of early movies of idle rich and hardworking poor, then goodhearted smuggler versus diligent police officer, and then the nationalist hero and the evil terrorist, Indian film industries are moving towards a greater diversity of characters. This is creating space for the smaller, meaningful movies that Dulquer embraces, the mainstream Hindi movies Madhavan has been associated with (from 3 Idiots to Tanu Weds Manu) as well as the noisy, pan-Indian blockbusters that Prabhas carries on his broad shoulders—with a little help from his equally ripped colleague Rana Daggubati.
This has allowed the SIMbabes to finally catch up with the South Indian Woman, such as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, who have succeeded in part because gendered roles in India have been far more exportable regionally and internationally. It really depends on if there are more Southern directors willing to take on nationalistic films that have transnational appeal. “If there are Tollywood or Kollywood actors who can replicate the success of Baahubali, then there’s certainly more to come,” says Balaji.
Add to this, directors who jump languages and industries as well, such as Bejoy Nambiar, who is as comfortable making a Malayalam movie such as Solo (2017) as a Hindi film such as Wazir (2016). Times have changed, he notes. The new set of actors is finding more acceptance because of the multiple avenues through which audiences are exposed to them; be it through social media, dubbed movies, OTT platforms. This is not to take away from the fact that these are actors who are phenomenally talented.
Rohan Sippy, who cast Rana Daggubati in Dum Maaro Dum in 2011, remembers being struck by his “great presence”. “What’s more as a producer he understands all aspects of filmmaking and is a dream to work with.” Even if they are second-generation actors, such as Dulquer Salman, or Prithviraj, whose parents and brother are both in the movie business, a Western education, a stint at real life careers, and an eventual move towards production and direction, is something the new generation SIMbabes have in common. “The southern film industries are also less mongrelised than Mumbai, less Western, less about the lowest common denominator,” notes Sippy, adding that it is like Malcolm Gladwell’s distinction between rock and country music. Rock music is more generalised, vague and repetitive in its lyrics and rhythms but what really brings tears to his eyes is the more engaging, more soulful and more rooted country music. Or as anthropologist Anand Pandian says specifically about Tamil cinema; “The emergence of nativity films in the 1980s when filmmakers took the camera to the countryside and became interested in telling stories of ordinary people speaking a vernacular language (reduced) the distance between ordinary life and what you see in cinema. There is a lot of power in Tamil cinema because of its closeness to everyday life. There is a lot of power because it has been able to tap into different streams of everyday experience.”
Mani Ratnam was a pioneer of picking and choosing actors from different industries and throwing them together, using pan Indian backdrops and rooted subjects; from the pairing of Arvind Swamy and Manisha Koirala in Bombay (1995) to getting Abhishek Bachchan to face off against Vikram in Raavan (2010). That was a step up from the earlier trend of remaking southern hits into Hindi language movies, first popularised by Jeetendra in the 70s, which continues to this day with movies such as Arjun Reddy getting a Hindi film makeover in Kabir Singh. But increasingly, South Indian film industries are selling Mumbai their own stories, made their own way, starring their own SIMbabes. And it is the great rivalry between their directors, S. Shankar in Tamil and SS Rajamouli in Telugu which will produce India’s Steven Spielberg, notes Sippy. “They are consistently delivering on spectacle, on box office success, as well as on a political ideology beyond patriotic cheerleading. It shows the more local you get, the more political you can be,” he adds. And the more successful.