ROOPBANI, A single-screen theatre located in the by-lanes of Purnia district in Bihar saw a riot of celebrations in December 2021. Audiences leaped off their chairs, showered coins on the screen, danced, hooted and even cried with the hero. All this adulation was not for a beloved Hindi superstar, but for Telugu cinema’s sweetheart Allu Arjun. His film Pushpa: The Rise has seen blockbuster success across the country. Written and directed by Sukumar, it stars Allu Arjun in the lead, alongside Fahadh Faasil (in his Telugu debut)— and grossed roughly ₹ 342 crore at the box office. The film released on December 17th, in Telugu along with dubbed versions in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, and Hindi. It emerged as one of the highest-grossing Indian films in 2021, and is one of the highest-grossing Telugu films of all time.
The exhibitor at Roopbani refused to take down the film for Ranveer Singh’s 83, which released just a week later. He could see what his audiences were vying for—a face-off between sandalwood smugglers and the police—and he wasn’t going to take it away from them. “My distributors got offended when I refused to screen 83, but it wasn’t going to appeal to the expectations of the mass public that comes to my theatre. This is the audience that wants song, dance, fights, flying humans and Pushpa had it all,” says exhibitor and trade analyst Vishek Chauhan. He is one among many who believe that south Indian films and heroes are replacing the Bollywood blockbuster and superstar.
The dubbed masala entertainers from the Indian peninsula are breaking both—the big screen and the small screen (cinema halls and OTT platforms respectively). They are becoming a crucial part of everyday entertainment in the life of an average Hindi film viewer. Film curator Meenakshi Shedde says, “Their template is set. There’s the hero, the heroine, a conflict, a resolution, drama with action and songs, and an overall experience. But there’s also a strong story and technically brilliant filmmaking that has surpassed the average Bollywood entertainer for years now.” It started with SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali (2015) and Baahubali 2 (2017) and it’s only grown in the last two pandemic-driven years. “Sooryavanshi (2021) was the only legit box-office hit Bollywood has produced in the last two years. And one of the highest grossing Hindi films ever is actually a Telugu film, Baahubali 2. That says something about what’s working at the mass level in this country,” Chauhan points out.
In the last two years, many Bollywood films have depended on OTT platforms to make margins meet. Even in the period between October- December 2020 when both single screens and multiplexes were open for business, no Hindi film saw immense success. The films that raked it in 2020- 2021 were Pushpa, and the Tamil films Master (roughly `250 crore), and Soorarai Pottru (roughly `190 crore). These films have made considerably more at the box-office, than their budgets, apart from the digital collections. Beside these, Jai Bhim on Amazon Prime Video was another landmark film of 2021, which was critically appreciated across the country. The Tamil sport-action film Sarpatta Parambarai directed by Pa. Ranjith was the other landmark film on Amazon Prime Video in 2021.
Interestingly, the success of south Indian films has led to players from Hindi cinema wanting a piece of the large south Indian pie. The increased interest can be seen in actors, directors and producers crossing state boundaries, to investing large chunks of money in bilingual productions and remakes.
The market for dubbed south Indian films has also increased in the last few years, with people consuming more digital and television content than before. A-list Bollywood actors like Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn are playing roles in the Telugu film RRR to be released later this year. Karan Johar is teaming up with Telugu director Puri Jagannadh to make the bilingual sport-action film Liger. Johar’s production house Dharma is promoting this film as India’s first pan-India film. Naandhi, a 2021 Telugu-language crime courtroom drama film is to be remade with Ajay Devgn as the lead. Devgn will also be seen in the remake of the 2019 Tamil action-thriller Kaithi, to be titled Bholaa in Hindi.
Telugu and Tamil superstars like Prabhas, Vijay Sethupathi, Suriya, Allu Arjun and NT Rama Rao Junior are becoming commonplace names in Hindi speaking households. “When Prabhas came to my office for a meeting there was pandemonium outside, and I was shocked by simply the number of people who know him. This kind of crossover fandom came with Rajinikanth at one point, but now so many of these very fine actor-cum-heroes from down south, are looked up to in the western and northern belts. The world is just becoming smaller. And as a filmmaker, I have to open my eyes to the one fact that Baahubali taught me— to get, we have to give. Scale, vision, technical brilliance and storytelling that appeals to the emotional core of your audience—these are some of the common elements in some of the best south Indian films and I want to be part of that wave,” says Johar.
Some feel this will hopefully lead to the resuscitation of the Hindi market. “The economics of it is very evident. Hindi audiences are looking for films driven by the protagonist and south India especially the Tamil and Telugu industry are making those films,” says Aman Gill, producer of the upcoming film Jersey, which is the remake of a 2019 Telugu film of the same name. “Allu Arjun’s films have broken the internet with the kind of views it garners and so have so many others. Language isn’t a barrier anymore because of dubbing and subtitling. They pack in a solid story, along with heroism and bravado and all the theatrics of it. People are purely watching it for good cinema and they are now invested in these stars as much as they would be in any Bollywood icon,” adds Gill, who is also producing Shehzada with Kartik Aaryan, which is the remake of another Allu Arjun hit Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, a 2020 Telugu entertainer about baby swapping.
Of course, the Bollywood-south hybrid is not radically new. Mani Ratnam paved the way for films made in both Hindi and Tamil. He was a master of his craft and every Hindi star in the 1990s and early 2000s had Mani Ratnam on their bucket list of directors to work with. Both Aamir Khan and Salman Khan’s biggest hits, Ghajini (2008) and Wanted (2009), are remakes of Tamil films. Dhanush crossed over with Raanjhanaa in 2013, but it was his song Why This Kolaveri Di that proved the most memorable. We now even have Vicky Kaushal and Ranveer Singh making reels to Dhanush’s hit Tamil song Rowdy Baby on social media.
“If producers in Bollywood like Tamil films, and want to invest in them, that’s great because that automatically expands eyeballs and value for the film. To be honest, no industry is bigger or smaller,” says, Dhanush, actor
Share this on
IN THE LAST few years, with the increased influence of OTT platforms, and greater exposure, audiences are more receptive to films in different languages, or films from different cultures dubbed into their language. Meenakshi Shedde says, “In India, 2,500 films are made and 70 per cent of them today are from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam cinema. We have always been looking at the cherry on the cake, but it’s time to look at the cake itself. In the ’50s there was a Tamil actress named Savitri who acted, directed and produced her own films, and was way ahead of her time. That’s how I would define south Indian cinema and the expertise they have. Tamil and Telugu cinema aren’t pretentious, they are rooted in their stories and appeal to the common man. Look at what Jai Bhim addresses—a mainstream Tamil superstar is highlighting the massive caste divide in his state through a film. These are the stories of the Tamilians who are at the grassroots. Malayalam filmmakers are known for their unconventional themes and risk taking and are now being acknowledged the world over. They are doing both—making the money and carving a niche with their storytelling. And yes, though south India needs Bollywood for a wider market, we need them a lot more.”
The south Indian stars and makers are enjoying the popularity they are receiving from a new and vast section of fans. Hyderabad-based actor Adivi Sesh, a much-loved star in Telugu films, whose Major, based on Sandeep Unnikrishnan, who died during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, releases in February 2022 has experienced this first-hand. He says, “When I was shooting in Kashmir, I had a young local kid walk up to me for an autograph. I have only done Telugu films till now, so I wondered how he knows me. He said he’d seen all my work on YouTube. That’s the power of digitisation and what it’s done not just to south cinema but to films all over. I believe the audience is ahead of us and they are clearly telling us what they want to watch. As a kid growing up in San Francisco, I always saw films as Indian films and I think no matter where we come from, our stories should appeal to everyone across the globe and that should be the aim. If films have worked it’s because they have transcended language and geographical borders and I hope that continues.”
“Scale, vision, technical brilliance and storytelling that appeals to the emotional core of your audience—these are some of the elements in some of the best South Indian films, and I want to be part of that wave,” says Karan Johar, filmmaker
Share this on
Interestingly, many of these actors don’t see their foray into Hindi films as a milestone, but as yet another achievement. Dhanush believes there are enough stories and talent at both ends. “If producers in Bollywood like Tamil films, and want to invest in them, that’s great because that automatically expands eyeballs and value for the film. I work in Bollywood because I enjoy working with Aanand L Rai. For me it’s a new challenge because it’s away from my comfort zone. To be honest, no industry is bigger or smaller. Last year, a Korean film about family dynamics was the biggest talking point across the world. So, it’s obvious that nothing is a barrier anymore if you’re creating good work,” he says.
Bollywood has evolved in its own right too. The fading of the Bollywood superstar, and Hindi cinema now targeting OTT platforms cannot be ignored. The era of the Khans is over. The culture of hero worship, which still prevails in the south, is yet another reason the films tend to be popular. “The Hindi film industry is becoming very elitist and most of the content they create targets an audience with a world view. If you travel through Bihar, UP, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand you will come across hamlets where theatres have shut down because Bollywood has had nothing to offer them. When Tiger Shroff came with Baaghi 2, people in Mumbai ripped it apart. But Baaghi 2 did business of roughly `189 crores solely on Tiger Shroff’s stardom. What a non-multiplex audience (which is more than 70 per cent of India) wants is amped up emotion, stories that speak to them, and films that allow them to celebrate within the halls. With young actors who don’t speak Hindi even in their interviews during promotions, how can you expect to penetrate into the mass arena? This combined with the lack of the Friday release for so long, seems to have alienated the masses from mainstream Bollywood,” says Chauhan.
“When I was shooting in Kashmir, I had a young local kid walk up to me for an autograph. I have only done Telugu films till now, so I wondered how he knows me. He said he’d seen all my work on youtube,” says Adivi Sesh, actor
Share this on
In the coming months we will see many Bollywood actors stepping into roles first essayed by their south Indian contemporaries. Hrithik Roshan is to play Vijay Sethupathi’s part in the remake of Vikram Vedha. Ranveer Singh is likely to play Vikram’s part in the remake of the 2005 Tamil film Anniyan. Akshay Kumar is to play Suriya’s part in the remake of the 2020 film Soorarai Pottru. Producers like Karan Johar, Jayantilal Gada, and Ronnie Screwvala, to name a few, are rubbing shoulders and investing with filmmakers working in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. This cross-collaboration is likely to benefit audiences, the industry and, most importantly, storytelling itself.