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If you haven't heard of Tamil cinema, you aren't alone. At the international level, South India's film industry is all but unknown and often gets confused with Bollywood, Mumbai's Hindi film business. But, over the past five years, the "Other Bollywood," led by Tamil cinema, produced more than half of all Indian movies. Budgets for Tamil films now rival Bollywood's, and South India's film industry is emerging as a creative dynamo.

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Superstar Tamil actor Kamal Haasan in the film, Hey Ram, about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and Partition of India and Pakistan. Haasan also produced and directed the film, released in both Tamil and Hindi in the year 2000. (Sonia Narang/GlobalPost)

How a Tamil star is born

In Tamil Nadu, an ethnic rebellion turned film stars into gods.

CHENNAI, India — When fans see Tamil movie star Rajnikanth on the street, they shout out, “My God!” But not because they're surprised.

“It’s not 'My God' in exclamation; it’s an address to his God,” another Tamil movie star, Kamal Haasan, explained.

As Haasan speaks in the studio run by fellow Tamilian and “Slumdog Millionaire” Oscar winner A.R. Rahman, the bangs and screeches of his upcoming spy thriller, “Vishwaroopam,” can be heard in the background. Haasan puts his cell phone on the coffee table and slumps back in the sofa, as the soundproof editing room door swings shut.

The Tamil film industry has always been about myth making. Hitting their stride during the Tamil separatist movement of the 1950s, film studios tapped the political energy of India's struggle for independence from Britain. And to promote the cause of Tamil nationalism, filmmakers drew on Hindu epics to create an archetypal Tamil hero. Built on that model, even today the Tamil screen legends are arguably more powerful, and more beloved, than the stars of Hollywood, Bollywood, or any other film industry.

The original Tamil megastar, Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran, or “MGR,” became a massive political figure. On the strength of his celluloid image, in 1967 the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party became the first political party, other than Congress, to come to power with a clear majority in any Indian state. And over the past 45 years, either the DMK or an offshoot that MGR created in 1972, has won every election in Tamil Nadu. Now, among the state's 11 chief ministers, no fewer than seven have hailed from the movie business.

For Rajnikanth alone, there are some 120,000 fan clubs around the world. In the frenetic leadup to a new movie, fans breathlessly await their hero's new look — shaving their heads or growing beards, sewing themselves the same costumes and taking more drastic measures to prove their loyalty.

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In imitation of rituals normally reserved for Hindu gods, the faithful bathe three-storey effigies of their screen idols with milk, or parade their likeness through the streets on mammoth golden chariots. And then they watch the film — once for the excitement, once for the storyline, once to copy the hero's mannerisms, and once to memorize the dialogue. Then again and again, as long as it runs.

“Cinema itself is like a religion, and the heroes are the deities," said Uma Vangal, a documentary filmmaker and professor at Chennai's L.V. Prasad Film & TV Academy. "These heroes have become our village deities. Where we [once] looked to our village deities to deliver us from our daily problems, the film heroes have become that today.”

The quintessential modern example of that phenomenon is Rajnikanth,who made his film debut in 1975. While 57-year-old Haasan, who playedthe hero to Rajnikanth's villain in countless films early in theircareers, also remains a major box office draw, Haasan has grown instature as an actor, like Clint Eastwood or Robert DeNiro. Incontrast, Rajnikanth, now 61, has undergone an Elvis-like apotheosis..

“[Rajnikanth] is the first one to get this tag: 'Superstar,'” said Vanga.

“We have names for all of our stars. We have 'Ultimate Star,' we have 'Universal Hero,' we have 'the Revolutionary Leader,' we have 'the Revolutionary Youngster,' we have 'the King of Lovers,' 'King of Romance,' 'Prince of Romance,'” she explained. “Rajnikanth becomes the embodiment of all these facets of the hero as expected in Tamil cinema, and he's called the Superstar.”

Origin of superstars

In both form and content, the early Tamil flicks were not unlike the Bollywood romances of the same era. But their purpose, and message, was radically different, says K. Hariharan, a Tamil academic and director whose film “Ezhavathu Manithan” won India's national award for best regional film in 1983.

“Tamil Nadu actually wanted to secede itself from the nation in 1947,” Hariharan said. “Therefore, the Tamil cinema had to counter the national Hindi cinema, and also try to evolve it’s own language.”

To combat the notion that high culture, Hinduism, or even civilization, had been brought to the South from the North as part of the so-called Aryan invasion, Tamil films of the '50s and '60s projected