Tamil Cinema vs Hindi Cinema
It wasn't too long ago that I vehemently argued, with anyone who held a contrarian opinion, that Tamil cinema was way ahead of Hindi cinema as far as quality goes. That wasn't the Tamil chauvinist in me getting riled up or me playing devil's advocate just for the sake of an argument either. I sincerely felt that Tamil cinema had better subjects and stronger stories while Hindi cinema churned out films that were mostly rip-offs of foreign and South Indian films. Their films looked good but lacked soul as they were mounted on lavish budgets and pandered shamelessly to the NRI fraternity. It was around that time that I wrote an article on how Tamil cinema could boast of the best talents in Indian cinema(best actor - Kamal, best director - Manirathnam, best music director(s) - Ilaiyaraja/Rahman, best dancer - Prabhu Deva, etc.).
But the tables have slowly but surely turned. Hindi cinema has seen a remarkable resurgence and Hindi films of late have showed a marked increase in quality. They are exploring diverse and unique subjects, tackling fresh stories and experimenting with new styles and approaches in storytelling. At the same time the quality of Tamil cinema has slid to scary levels with recycled stories, lacklustre screenplays, over-the-top heroism and a 'follow the herd' mentality.
The biggest factor in Hindi's cinema's transformation is, I believe, the complete lack of 'image' among the Hindi actors. They are willing to take on any role that interests them and provides enough fodder for their acting. Proving their versatility to themselves and others seems to be their priority. Its no longer even a surprise to see Aamir Khan play a terrorist or Shah Rukh Khan play the coach(without a romantic pair or a duet) of a hockey team. Akshay Kumar and Hrithik Roshan play bad guys as easily as they play action heroes and Abishek Bachan and John Abraham, who have achieved heartthrob status, are getting ready to play gay men in their next film. The actors' receptivity to varied roles obviously allows the directors more freedom in coming up with interesting stories and creating intriguing characters.
Another big factor is that Hindi films don't seem to be stuck in the past and have made changes that keep moving their cinema forward. Lets consider the three staples of cinema - comedy, action and romance. I haven't seen a separate comedy track in any of the recent Hindi films. And I'm not talking about just the offbeat, non-mainstream films either. Even romances like Kismat Konnection, fantasy-comedies like Thodaa Pyaar Thodaa Magic and action-comedies like Singh is Kinng don't have comedians striving to make us laugh in a track that has little or no link to the main storyline. They do have comedians but blend the comedy in to the main track. Action is another department where the change is obvious. Gone are the days when a lone hero, defying all laws of physics and human ability, bashed up an assortment of goons in fight sequences. The action is now in chases(on foot or in many different kinds of vehicles) and gunfights. I'm not saying that all laws of physics are adhered to in these action sequences but it is easier to accept the breaking of the laws(like in Dhoom 2 or even Dus) when they are picturized with style. The changes in romance aren't as obvious as in the above cases since we still see the weak romances and duets in foreign locations. But there is a lot more maturity in the way subjects like affairs - pre-marital or extra-marital - are handled and there does seem to be a trend towards songs playing in the background rather than being lip-synced.
Before I'm branded a Tamil cinema-hater, let me say that I do understand that the situations in Tamil and Hindi are different. Hindi cinema has a pan-Indian reach and this wider reach means that Hindi films have a bigger budget since costs can be recouped much faster. The budget is what gives the film its 'look' and Tamil cinema is at an obvious disadvantage here. The wider audience also translates to more opportunities for films targeted at niche audiences since a small number of these audiences in different pockets could still add up to sizeable number of viewers. But the limited reach of Tamil films makes the niche audience really small, making a film targeting them a losing proposition right from the start.
Tamil cinema has done pretty good in the past with these same constraints but something's gone wrong along the way and its pretty clear that it is definitely in need of a major overhaul. The aforementioned changes in Hindi cinema are probably good first steps to take. But its not going to be easy. Unlike other professions, where a strong leader with the right goals can assemble a team with similar thinking and bring about a change, Tamil cinema's future rests on the shoulders of many people. And all of them need to change for the industry as a whole to change. We need heroes who set aside their egos and welcome new characters; directors who take risks and experiment; producers who fund such promising ventures; and distributors who buy such films and take them to the people. The day these happens is well worth waiting for. The question is if - and not when - the day will arrive.