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This article is about the Tamil language film industry in India. For other regional Tamil film industries, see Sri Lankan Tamil cinema and Canadian Tamil cinema.
Tamil cinema (also referred to as the Cinema of Tamil Nadu, the Tamil film industry, or Chennai film industry) is the Chennaimarker–based Tamil language filmmaking industry of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadumarker. It is based in the Kodambakkam district of Chennai, where several Tamil language feature films are produced, which has led to a colloquial reference to it as Kollywood (Tamil: கோலிவுட் ), a portmanteau of the words Kodambakkam and Hollywoodmarker.

Silent movies were produced in Chennai since 1916 and the era of talkies dawned in 1931 with the film Kalidas. By the end of the 1930s, the State of Madras legislature passed the Entertainment Tax Act 1939. Tamil Nadu cinema has had a profound effect on the film making industries of India, with Chennai becoming a hub for the filmmaking industries of other languages, including Sri Lankan cinema and Sri Lankan Tamil cinema in the 1900s. Tamil–language films are further made in other countries.

Today, Tamil films are distributed to various theatres around the world such as in Sri Lankamarker, Singaporemarker, South Koreamarker, Malayasiamarker, Mauritiusmarker, South Africa, Western Europe, North America, and other significant Tamil diaspora regions.


A visiting European exhibitor first screened (date unknown) a selection of silent short films at the Victoria Public Hallmarker in Madrasmarker. The films all featured non-fictional subjects; they were mostly photographed records of day-to-day events.

Early exhibitors

In Madrasmarker (now known as Chennaimarker), the Electric Theatre was established for the screening of silent films. It was a favourite haunt of the Britishmarker community in Madras. The theatre was shut down after a few years. This building is now part of a post office complex on Anna Salai (Mount Road). The Lyric Theatre was also built in the Mount Road area. This venue boasted a variety of events, including plays in English, Western classical music concerts, and ballroom dances. Silent films were also screened as an additional attraction. Samikannu Vincent, an employee of the South Indian Railways in Trichymarker, purchased a film projector and silent films from the Frenchman Du Pont and set up a business as film exhibitor. He erected tents for screening films. His tent cinema became popular and he travelled all over the state with his mobile unit. In later years, he produced talkies and also built a cinema in Coimbatoremarker.

To celebrate the event of King George V's visit in 1909, a grand exhibition was organised in Madrasmarker. Its major attraction was the screening of short films accompanied by sound. A British company imported a Crone megaphone, made up of a film projector to which a gramophone with a disc containing prerecorded sound was linked, and both were run in unison, producing picture and sound simultaneously. However, there was no synched dialogue. Raghupathy Venkiah Naidu, a successful photographer, took over the equipment after the exhibition and set up a tent cinema near the Madras High Courtmarker. R. Venkiah, flush with funds, built in 1912 a permanent cinema in the Mount Road area named Gaiety. It was the first in Madras to screen films on a full-time basis. This theatre is still functioning, although under different ownership.

In tent cinemas, there were usually three classes of tickets: the floor, bench and, chair. The floor-ticket purchaser sat on sand to watch the movie, but he enjoyed certain advantages that other patrons did not. He could sit as he pleased, or he could turn over and take a short nap when the narrative was particularly dull and roll back again when the action was again to his liking—luxuries in which the upper class could never indulge.

Film studios

1916 marked the birth of Tamil cinema with the first Madras production and South Indian film release Keechaka Vaadham (The Destruction of Keechaka). During the 1920s, silent Tamil-language movies were shot at makeshift locations in and around Chennai, and for technical processing, they were sent to Pune or Calcutta. Later some movies featuring M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar were shot in Pune and Calcutta. In the 1930s AVM set up its makeshift studio in the town of Karaikudimarker, and during the same decade, full-fledged Movie studios were built in Salemmarker (Modern Theatres Studio) and Coimbatoremarker (Central Studios, Neptune, and Pakshiraja). By the mid 1940s, Chennai became the hub of Studio activity with two more movie Studios built in Chennai, Vijaya Vauhini Studios and Gemini Studios. Later, AVM Studios shifted its operations to Chennai. Thus, with the undivided Madras Presidency being the Capital to most of South India, Chennai became the center for Tamil- and notable Telugu-language movies. Also, most of the pre-independence era drama and stage actors joined the movie industry from the 1940s, and Chennai became the hub for South Indian–language film production and Sri Lankan cinema before independence.

Film music

Ilaiyaraaja and A. R. Rehman are music directors from the Chennai film industry and have an international following. Other prominent Tamil film score and soundtrack composers in the industry include Yuvan Shankar Raja, Harris Jayaraj, Karthik Raja and Vidyasagar. Several international composers have used Chennai's studios to record music for projects, as have composers from other film industries. S. Rajeswara Rao was based in Chennai from the 1940s. During the 1960s and 1970s, film composer M. S. Viswanathan was popular, with interest in classic Tamil film songs being re-ignited with the audio cassette revolution.


The Tamil film industry has a long intertwining link with politics, dating from the earliest days of regional cinema, where stories, themes and characters derived from Tamil traditional folk ballads have inspired screenplays and have become vehicles for creating future politicians. The first non congress Chief Minister C. N. Annadurai and the current Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi were directors and script writers. M. G. Ramachandran, who was a commercial film actor, had served as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for nearly a decade. The current opposition leader J. Jayalalithaa was also an actress. Moreover, a few actors are currently appointed as members of legislative assembly(MLA), such as Vijayakanth and S.vee.Sekar recently actor Neapoleon and J.K. Riteesh is selected as a member of parliament(MP).

Distribution and popularity

Tamil films constitute India's most popular films along with Tollywood and Bollywood films. They have one of the widest overseas distribution, with large audience turnout from the Tamil diaspora alongside Hindi films. The Chennai film industry produced the first commercially successful film across India in 1948 with Chandralekha, a landmark film in Tamil cinema.Tamil films have enjoyed consistent popularity among populations in Indiamarker, Sri Lankamarker, Singaporemarker and Malaysiamarker. They have recently become popular in Japanmarker (particularly Muthu, directed by K. S. Ravikumar, and Indira, directed by Suhasini Mani Ratnam), South Africa, Canadamarker, the United Kingdommarker and the United Statesmarker. Sivaji: The Boss (2007) had been touted as a record-breaking film for its high-budget, large opening, and reception worldwide. It also cracked into the United Kingdommarker's and South Africa's top-ten high-grossing films during the week of its release. Ayngaran International distributes a majority of Tamil films overseas while domestic distributors such as Aascar Films, Pyramid Saimira, and Madras Talkies handle distribution within Indiamarker. The Kamal Haasan starrer Dasavathaaram was distributed by Walt Disney Pictures in Canadamarker.

Many Tamil-language films have premiered or have been selected as special presentations at various prestigious film festivals across the world, such as Mani Ratnam's Kannathil Muthamittal, Veyyil and Ameer Sultan's Paruthiveeran. More recently, Kanchivaram, directed by Priyadarshan, had been selected to be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festivalmarker. Films like Thevar Magan, Indian and Jeans had been selected by India for Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards. Mani Ratnam's Nayagan (1987) was included in Time magazine's "All-TIME" 100 best movies list.

Tamil films enjoy significant patronage in neighbouring Indian states like Keralamarker, Karnatakamarker and Andhra Pradeshmarker. In Kerala and Karnataka the films are directly released in Tamil but in Andhra Pradesh they are generally dubbed into Telugu. There is a fair amount of dispersion amongst the Indian film industries. Many successful Tamil films have been remade by the Hindi and Telugu film industries. It is estimated by the Manorama Yearbook 2000 (a popular almanac) that over 5,000 Tamil films were produced in the 20th century. Tamil films have also been dubbed into other languages, thus reaching a much wider audience. Examples of those dubbed into Hindi include such hits as Anniyan directed by S. Shankar, Minsaara Kanavu directed by Rajiv Menon, Roja and Bombay directed by Mani Ratnam.

Tamil language films are produced in other cinema hubs. The film My Magic directed by Singaporean Eric Khoo became Singapore's first film to be nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.There has been a growing presence of English in dialogue and songs in Chennai films. It is not uncommon to see movies that feature dialogue studded with English words and phrases, or even whole sentences. Some movies are also simultaneously made in two or three languages (either using subtitles or several soundtracks). Chennai's film composers have popularised their highly unique, syncretic style of film music across the world. Quite often, Tamil movies feature Madras Tamilmarker, a colloquial version of Tamil spoken in Chennaimarker.


At the beginning of the talkie era, Tamil cinema was dominated by P. U. Chinnappa and M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar up until the end of the 1940s. From the 1950s to the late 1970s, the two highly anticipated Tamil film stars were M. G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan. Present-day dominators are Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who have been lead-acting in the industry since the mid-1970s. Though it is debatable, successors to the two are currently considered to be actors Vijay and Ajith Kumar.

However, such importance to star-value has started to become unused while film distributors in Tamil Nadu have begun using the term "minimum-guaruntee" to label film stars. The term is applied to actors whose films have been statistically determined to be higher grossers in box-offices than others, regardless of critical reception. Arguably, current minimum-guaruntee actors are determined to be Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vijay, Ajith Kumar, Surya Sivakumar, Vikram, R. Madhavan, Silambarasan Rajendar and Dhanush.

Union associations

The industry includes several groups who organize their own events based on different issues of major concern. Rather than forming separate and distinct groups, each association occasionally collaborate for certain events. These associations are based on profession in the industry, such as a directors' association or producers' association.

The most notable association is the South Indian Film Artistes' Association which is a group of all prominent Tamil film actors. Formed in 1952 under the leadership of actor Sivaji Ganesan , the association has continued to conduct several protests and hunger strikes for certain political and humanitarian issues, in efforts to make positive changes in the Indian and Tamil society. The current president of the association is the actor-turned-politician R. Sarath Kumar.

Other associations include the Association of Tamil Film Directors which is headed by director Barathiraja and the Tamil Film Producers' Council who often meet to make cinema-related decisions. More general associations include the well known FEFSI (Film Employees' Federation of South India) which is headed by FEFSI Vijayan, a popular film stunt choreographer.

Industrial trends

Annual film output in Tamil market
Average annual film output in Tamil film industry peaked in 1985.

Given below is a chart of trend of box office collections of Kollywood with figures in millions of United States Dollars. The data excludes the market segments of in-film advertisement, celebrity branding, mobile entertainment, stage, DVD and other intellectual property rights.

Year Tamil Box Office Satellite Television Rights Music Rights
1980 10
1985 12
1990 18
1995 24
2000 31 1 1
2005 52 2 1

Chandralekha produced in 1948 at a cost of almost $600,000 ($28 million in 2008 prices) remains the most expensive Tamil film ever. The film was released in 609 screens worldwide with subtitles.

The Tamil film market accounts for approximately 0.1% of the gross domestic product of the state of Tamil Nadu.In the year 2007 a record 108 movies were released.For the purpose of entertainment taxes, returns have to be filed by the exhibitors weekly (usually each Tuesday). Costs of production have grown exponentially from just under Rs.40 lakhs in 1980 to over Rs.11 crores by 2005 for a typical star-studded big-budget film. Similarly, costs of processing per print have risen from just under Rs.2,500 in 1980 to nearly Rs.70,000 by 2005.

The Tamil Nadu government has made provisions for an entertainment tax exemption for Tamil movies having pure Tamil word(s) in the title. This is in accordance with Government Order 72 passed on July 22, 2006. The first film to be released after the new Order was Unakkum Enakkum. The original title had been Something Something Unakkum Ennakkum, a half-English and a half-Tamil title.

Domestic exhibitors

There are about 2800 cinema-halls located in Tamil Nadumarker.

See also


  1. Nayakan, All-Time 100 Best Films, Time Magazine, 2005
  5. Superstars dominate
  7. A boon to film-buffs.

Further reading

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