Tamil cinema is based in the city of Chennai in the neighbourhood of Kodambakkam, which is why the film industry is colloquially known as Kollywood.

One of the first known films to come from the industry is a silent film in 1918 called, "Keechaka Vadham" made by R. Nataraja Mudaliar.

The first talking motion picture, "Kalidas", was a multilingual and was released on 31 October 1931, less than seven months after India's first talking motion picture "Alam Ara".

A professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Stephen Hughes, is said to have put in nearly two decades of work funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies, and he claims that the first film would be around 1920s.

"There is lot of obsession for 'firsts.' We have very poor research materials as cinema was not taken seriously as a medium in the early 20th century," he explains. "Only big names are remembered. Records say nearly 1,300 silent films were made in Tamil.... of which, we have only 14."

According to him, M.G.R. has made and left such a great mark in the industry that he has overshadowed many of the actor that came before him. Aside from M.G.R.'s dominance, in its beginning stage pre-M.G.R., Tamil cinema was actually dominated by Hollywood.

"In fact in 1920s, nearly 90 per cent of the films screened were from Hollywood. Many even feared that too much of exposure to the Western world would denationalise the people," said Mr.Hughes.

"But as the country was moving towards independence, the foreign population started shifting out and to that effect Hollywood lost its prominence. Much was experimented during that period. As there was no monopoly, everyone who wanted to try cinema, got a chance. It also worked out to be affordable," he said.

On the association between film and politics, Mr.Hughes says that Tamil films were seen as an effective medium to spread political ideologies even before M.G.R. did it.

"Regional parties found foothold through cinema. The Congress had divided opinions about embracing cinema as a propaganda medium but parties such as the DMK made the most out it."

He said that there is consistent prove that Tamil cinema had always had its roots in including subtle political ideologies in its films.

"The evolution of cinema as a mass culture was not a sudden phenomenon", he says. In the 1930s, the industry was a melting-pot of literary and music activities. Leading poets, Tamil scholars and Carnatic musicians took to cinema to gain popularity but later on, moved away from it when films lost its prestigious status.

That was also a period when cinema, theatre and music constantly overlapped. But as the market grew, the distinction became marked and each earned an identity for itself.

Mr.Hughes, backed with a lot of research materials, has a claim that cinema worked against the caste system in its early period.

"One could attribute it to the marketing strategies of the filmmakers. Cinema had a small market then and so the producers did not want to create a niche audience by putting one caste in the spotlight."

These days, Kollywood has a profound effect on other filmmaking industries in India, establishing Chennai as a secondary hub for Hindi cinema, other South Indian film industries, as well as Sri Lankan cinema.

Over the last quarter of the 20th century, Kollywood has established a global presence through distribution to an increasing number of overseas theatres in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan, the Middle East, parts of Africa, Oceania, Europe, North America and other countries.

The industry also inspired independent filmmaking in Sri Lanka and Tamil diaspora populations in Malaysia, Singapore, and in the West.

Source: The Hindu
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