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Home»News»From Rajinikanth to Dhanush: South Indian actors who left a mark with their Hollywood films»

From Rajinikanth to Dhanush: South Indian actors who left a mark with their Hollywood films

Dhanush's latest The Gray Man, streaming on Netflix, is making headlines; so take a look back at the South Indian actors who have made or are about to make their Hollywood debut.

  • S Subhakeerthana

Last Updated: 06.27 PM, Jul 28, 2022

From Rajinikanth to Dhanush: South Indian actors who left a mark with their Hollywood films
A collage of South Indian actors who made it to Hollywood/Twitter

South Indian actors are no longer limited to their geographies, thanks to the OTT popularity and dubbed films; they are making a name for themselves across the world. Everyone seems to be talking about Dhanush in Russo Brothers' The Gray Man, which is currently streaming on Netflix. From Rene Jean-Page and Ryan Gosling to Ana De Armas and the director-duo themselves, the crew is heaping praise on the Tamil star who has taken Hollywood by storm.

The streaming giant recently released a video in which Dhanush is asked, “What advice would you give your younger self?” The actor responded, “I'll tell him not to worry about people who are trolling you for your looks. One day, a big Hollywood star will refer to you as ‘Sexy Tamil Friend’.” Trust me, it’s the most badass advice you’ve ever heard!

Notably, Dhanush had a full-fledged role in Ken Scott's The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir before The Gray Man. He had taken on the role of the protagonist. The film, however, failed to capture the attention of many at the box office.

In American-made films, we had Bollywood actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Amrish Puri, Anil Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Deepika Padukone, Anupam Kher, Om Puri, Dimple Kapadia, Irrfan Khan, Dev Patel, Priyanka Chopra, Mallika Sherawat, Freida Pinto, Naseeruddin Shah, Ali Fazal, Alia Bhatt and Huma Qureshi playing supporting roles. However, only a few actors who are already superstars in India have landed lead roles in Hollywood.

Aishwarya Rai, quintessentially, isn't from south India, but for the Tamil audience, she's the Mani Ratnam heroine. Gurinder Chadha, a British filmmaker, was the first to notice her. In Pride and Prejudice, an adaptation of Jane Austin's novel Pride and Prejudice, she was cast, alongside Martin Henderson. Later in her career, she played prominent roles in films such as Indian warrior Mira in Doug Lefler's The Last Legion and Sonia Solandres in The Pink Panther 2. Likewise, the Tamil audience recognises Tabu as the pretty girl from Rajiv Menon's Kandukondain Kandukondain, even today. The Padma Shri recipient forayed into international cinema with Mira Nair's The Namesake. She worked in Life of Pi, too.

Further, when Jai Bhim was released on Amazon Prime Video in 2021, its creators had no idea it would strike a chord with audiences across the country. According to IMDb, the film starring Suriya, Manikandan, and Lijomol Jose has become the most rated film of 2021. The hard-hitting story of Dalit repression has a 9.5 rating on IMDb, which is higher than classics like The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption, which have 9.2 and 9.3 ratings, respectively.

Although the influx of Bollywood actors into southern cinema and vice versa has been the norm since cinema's inception, with content and scripts undergoing transformations, there is a growing interest among audiences to see actors from the south. There’s always a chance of getting stereotyped in this industry, but one has to know what he wants and have to have the will to fight against it.

Following in the footsteps of Hollywood, many entertainment companies are shifting away from an actor/star-based system and toward one that is more reliant on the production company's brand and values. Some new directors who have been exposed to Western filmmaking are directing Indian films with Western sensibilities to attract a wider audience in world cinema. However, no industry participants predicted that films popular with Indian audiences would gain true global acclaim. Recognising this, Indian entertainment firms create content for audiences outside of India that will appeal to them.

Here's some trivia! Have you heard of Ellis R Dungan, an American filmmaker who introduced several important techniques in every department to the industry when it was in its infancy? In a language and culture he knew nothing about, he made historical films such as Sathileelavathi (1936), Iru Sahodarargal (1936), Ambikapathy (1937), Sakunthalai (1940), Meera (1945), Ponmudi (1950), and Manthirikumari (1950).

Dungan is credited with several innovations, including the use of clever editing patterns and the construction of miniatures to film major action sequences. The famous 'Dungan track and trolley,' a method that allowed him to capture close-up shots of the actors to overcome the lack of 'zooming' lenses in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s was one of his earliest contributions to Tamil cinema influenced by Hollywood.

Screen inclusivity has long been a source of contention. We, as moviegoers, have seen a slow but steady shift in the same over the years, particularly in terms of South Indian representation.

Other pan-Indian actors from the South, who made a name for themselves in Hollywood before Dhanush include:

Rajinikanth: The Superstar appeared in Bloodstone, a small American film co-produced by tennis legend Ashok Amritraj, in 1988. It was an action-adventure film, starring Brett Stimely and Anna Nicholas as a couple on their honeymoon in India who become entangled in a quest to find a rare gem, the titular Bloodstone.

Poorna Jagannathan: She rose to prominence in India after starring alongside Imran Khan in the Bollywood film Delhi Belly (2011). She appeared in the third season of Netflix's House of Cards.

Pooja Kumar: Former Miss India USA, she has appeared in major Hollywood films such as Man on a Ledge (2012) and Bollywood Hero (2009), in which she co-starred with Chris Kattan from Saturday Night Live. She featured in the blockbuster film Vishwaroopam, directed by Kamal Haasan, besides a few other films in Tamil.

Napoleon: The actor, who has appeared in numerous Tamil films since the 1990s, made his Hollywood debut in 2019 with Christmas Coupon. He appeared in Sam Logan Khalegi's Devil's Night: Dawn Of The Nain Rouge, the same year. In the upcoming Hollywood film Trap City, the actor will play a music producer. It's a coincidence that GV Prakash also makes his international debut with this one.

GV Prakash Kumar: Trap City, directed by Ricky Burchell and starring Brandon T Jackson and Dennis LA White, features the young music composer, who recently won the National Award for Soorarai Pottru. The film is about a drug peddler turned successful rapper who must choose between betraying a dangerous crime boss and saving his career. Telganesan of Kyybafilms, who previously produced two Hollywood films starring Napoleon, Devil's Night: Dawn Of The Nain Rouge and Christmas Coupon, is funding this project.