Why Bollywood Queens Start in the South

For decades, Hindi cinema has been sourcing its leading ladies from the Southern film industries of India.

Dilani Rabindran

March 5, 2021

Why Bollywood Queens Start in the South
Aishwarya Rai in "Iruvar" a 1997 Tamil-language film by Mani Ratnam

What do Bollywood actors Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Deepika Padukone have in common? Apart from their acting chops, success, and status as household names, they all began their acting journeys down South.

Before she became one of India’s highest-paid actors and got her own U.S. television series, Chopra Jonas debuted in the Tamil-language action drama Thamizhan (2002), two years after her Miss World win. She didn’t know the language, but acted opposite well-known Tamil actor Vijay. Years before, another Miss World winner, Rai Bachchan, got her start in the internationally acclaimed Tamil political drama and unofficial biopic Iruvar (1997), directed by veteran filmmaker Mani Ratnam and regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Before Om Shanti Om (2007), Padukone started with a smaller-scale Kannada romantic film Aishwarya (2006), playing the titular role. She said that she went through years of “hustling and grinding through the modeling world” before she could break into films.

Curiously, many of Bollywood’s reigning queens through the ages got their start down South. Southern producers would often come knocking first, allowing actors to gain experience on their sets before the big leagues of Bollywood. If the actors starred in a Tamil or Telugu movie that fared extremely well at the box office, they were more likely to be noticed by big-time Bollywood producers, who keep an eye on the South.