A recently released census data indicated a 50 percent rise in Hindi-speaking Tamilians across Tamil Nadu between 2001 and 2011. The rise stood in contrast to the state’s long-standing opposition to the imposition of Hindi by the Central Government—which began with large-scale anti-Hindi agitations in the ’40s and ’60s and continued to influence and shape Dravidian politics over the last five decades.
While educational preferences (especially in CBSE and ICSE schools, where Hindi is taught as second or third language) and urban migration (98 percent increase between 2001 and 2011) are considered prime contributors to the linguistic shift in Tamil Nadu, the influence of Hindi cinema and television has also played a major role in this change.
Since the 1960s, Hindi movies have enjoyed a muted popularity in Chennai. Raj Kapoor’s 1964 romantic drama, Sangam, co-starring Vyjayanthimala, ran for 188 days in the iconic Shanti Theatre, which was owned by Sivaji Ganesan. Rajesh Khanna’s 1969 film, Aradhana, directed by Shakti Samanta, was also a big hit in the city. However, according to actor and film historian Mohan Raman, it was former CM and AIADMK founder M G Ramachandran who introduced a moderate approach to the Dravidian barricade and facilitated the influx of Hindi cinema in Tamil Nadu.
“Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ films were a big success in the MGR era. Almost all of Rajesh Khanna’s films were popular. Yaadon Ki Baarat, I remember, was a hit. The music of R D Burman was a rage too—you could hear people humming along to... ‘Monica O My Darling’ and other songs in the streets. So there was definitely a change of attitude towards Hindi movies,” Raman says.
In the ’90s, Bollywood underwent a massive overhaul as India adopted major economic reforms and markets expanded globally. The focus of mainstream Hindi cinema shifted from rural realities and class struggle to urban and aspirational themes. This led to the rise of present-generation Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Govinda and Akshay Kumar, who enjoyed unprecedented pan-Indian success.
Between 2001-2011, Chennai witnessed an aggressive expansion of Bollywood releases in local multiplex chains such as EGA, SPI and LUXE cinemas as well as the entry of national players like INOX and PVR (who recently completed acquisition of 71.69 percent stakes of SPI cinemas).
Another factor enabling the culture cohesion between Hindi and Tamil audiences was the regular exchange of talent between Bollywood and Kollywood. Popular Tamil actors such as Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Sridevi, Prakash Raj, R Madhavan, Siddharth and Dhanush, made routine appearances in Bollywood movies and introduced their fan-base to the Hindi language. Filmmakers such as Mani Ratnam, Shankar and AR Murugadoss and music directors Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman have also extensively worked in Hindi cinema.
But it’s important to note here that Hindi films have never been a top priority for film distributors in Tamil Nadu, says Vijay Arumugam, Regional Manager, South-India distribution at Viacomm18 Motion Picture. “I believe the census data does not explicitly reflect on the growth of Hindi cinema in particular. Learning a new language is a common cognitive capacity among South Indians, since we already have a mutually shared heritage among four languages. In my opinion, despite the box-office results of Hindi films in Chennai, there is still a lack of affinity for Bollywood movies among present audiences. Back in the ’90s, Hindi films would run for more than 100 days in Chennai. We don’t see that anymore.”
However, going by the present trends, market opportunities for Bollywood movies have significantly increased in Tamil Nadu in the last decade. Rohit Shetty’s Shah Rukh Khan-starrer 2013 film, Chennai Express, earned `8.55 crore in less than three weeks, overtaking the previous record-holder 3 Idiots which had earned `4.25 crore. In 2017, Aamir Khan’s Dangal opened in 153 screens (Tamil dubbed versions) and 24 screens (original Hindi version) and collected around `18 crore at the Tamil Nadu box office, the highest ever for any Hindi film.
Trade revelations aside, can theatrical expansion and revenue growth be directly indicative of a broadening linguistic inclusion among Tamil cinegoers? Raman agrees that Bollywood movies have, at best, played an ancillary part in making people learn Hindi, overshadowed by larger socio-economic factors.
“Earlier, there used to be only two pockets of Hindi-speaking communities in Chennai—the Jains and the Marwaris. Over the years, as population increased and more migration happened, it became necessary for Tamilians to understand and speak Hindi. There was a lot of cultural intermingling and need for co-existence,” he observed, concluding that a direct correlation between changing trends in cinema-consumption and the overall linguistic landscape of Tamil Nadu cannot be drawn at the moment. “It’s true that watching Hindi films can help familiarising oneself with particular words and phrases, but the driving factors behind wanting to learn a new language is always socioeconomic. A few people in Tamil Nadu would want to learn Hindi just for the sake of movies.”
Ever-growing love: then and now
Raj Kapoor’s 1964 romantic drama, Sangam, co-starring Vyjayanthimala, ran for 188 days in the iconic Shanti Theatre in Chennai
Rajesh Khanna’s 1969 film, Aradhana, directed by Shakti Samanta, was also a big hit in the city
Rohit Shetty’s Shah Rukh Khan-starrer 2013 film, Chennai Express, earned `8.55 crore in less than three weeks
In 2017, Aamir Khan’s Dangal opened in 153 screens (Tamil dubbed versions) and 24 screens (original Hindi version) and collected around `18 crore.