There’s a wave sweeping the Indian film industry these days. A southern wave. What started with the super success of the Baahubali franchise—where the lavishly mounted two-part period fantasy film directed by S.S. Rajamouli took the nation by storm and set the box office afire—has now begun to take the shape and form of a more lasting trend. Over the past few months, the Hindi cinema industry, popularly known as Bollywood, has been in the grip of this wave of super successes from the south, and the most seasoned players in Bollywood are being forced to go back to the drawing board to decode what is making these movies tick. Importantly, this comes at a time when, after two years of the devastating pandemic, theatres have opened up again and most production houses have been looking forward to the cash registers ringing again as revenge movie-watching gains momentum.
After two years of waiting, the ambitious 83, starring Ranveer Singh—otherwise a box office favourite—released in the theatres during Christmas last year, but was washed away by the massive success of the Hindi-dubbed version of the Telugu blockbuster Pushpa, starring Allu Arjun. Box office tracking website Koimoi.com ranks 83 as a flop—meaning a film which lost 50 per cent or more of its investment—while it calls the Hindi version of Pushpa a ‘super-duper hit’, meaning a film which earns 200 per cent returns, along with Rs 100 crore-plus at the box office. Till then, few in the north had heard of Allu Arjun, but his wacky dance steps and mannerisms from the film are now the rage and have spawned a thousand memes and Instagram reels. Pushpa was quickly followed by the humongous success of Rajamouli’s RRR—a period action film starring Telugu superstars NTR Jr. and Ram Charan—and, most recently, by the monster hit from the Kannada film industry, KGF 2, starring Kannada star Yash. Both these films from the South set the box office registers ringing like never before. According to latest figures from Koimoi.com, the Hindi-dubbed RRR has garnered nearly Rs 262 crore at the box office, while the dubbed version of KGF 2 has raked in over Rs 342 crore and has been labelled a super-duper hit by the website. According to Koimoi.com data, three out of the top five all-time Indian grossers worldwide are from the south—Baahubali 2 (Rs 1800 crore), RRR (Rs 1108 crore) and KGF2 (Rs 944 crore). Contrast this with the fate of Akshay Kumar starrer Bachchhan Pandey (Rs 50.25 crore; ‘flop’), Amitabh Bachchan starrer Jhund (Rs 17.25 crore; ‘flop’), and John Abrahan starrer Attack (Rs 15 crore; ‘flop’) and the trend becomes clearer.
So what has changed? And is this a lasting trend? There is compelling evidence that the Indian film industry is no longer going to be segmented into regions as southern producers are mastering the art of dubbing their films in Hindi and releasing them for national audiences. India is gradually morphing into one single movie market which is now open for anyone smart enough to cash in on it. Ironically, this trend is in no small measure driven by streaming, since audiences locked inside their homes during the pandemic were introduced to the wonders of language films on platforms like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and others which brought them movies like Joji, C U Soon (Malayalam), and introduced them to actors like Fahadh Faasil, apart from getting them the latest Mohanlal or Mammootty hits with subtitles. As theatres have reopened, these audience segments have also become more comfortable with movies from other parts of India. Dubbing, of course, has added to this in a huge way, particularly for mass audiences.
Rakesh Jariwala, partner, media and entertainment at EY India, has an interesting explanation for this major shift in audience preferences. He tells me that the southern filmmakers have mastered the art of creating compelling products and marketing them brilliantly, on the lines of the Marvel Studios universe, which are as much marketing successes as they are of content. The conjunction of quality mass entertainers, with slick, smart and aggressive marketing, is proving to be a game changer. Clearly, the southern producers have picked up this art quicker than Bollywood. But there are the smart Bollywood film folk who are also getting into the southern bandwagon and making big money in the process. Karan Johar has been associated with the Baahubali franchise, and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Excel Entertainment with the KGF movies. Johar is also known to have made creative contributions to Baahubali, giving his inputs on what may work well for Hindi audiences. I am pretty sure, more Bollywood producers will get smart and try to join hands with the southern filmmakers to tap into this massive opportunity. As this pan-India trend grows, movies from Bollywood may also be oriented to deeper pockets of the south for maximum impact, further breaking down the myth of regional movie markets. Pan-India viability will become key for all movies, including the regional ones.
Where does this leave the smaller- or mid-budget films, now that theatres are open once again? Will the success of these mega blockbusters from the south reinforce the growing view that smaller movies will only go for streaming? Tanuj Garg, founder of production house Ellipsis Entertainment, who is also a former CEO of Balaji Telefilms and has produced movies like the Vidya Balan-starrer Tumhari Sulu and the Netflix release Looop Lapeta, starring Taapsee Pannu and Tahir Raj Bhasin, differs with the popular notion that the influx of the south is a trend. Let’s not confuse events with trends, he tells me. And there have been recent examples of south films which haven’t worked. He’s not wrong. Radhe Shyam, starring Prabhas who starred in Baahubali, sank at the box office.
And, to the relief of Bollywood, there are films like The Kashmir Files (Rs 252.50 crore; ‘Super duper hit’), and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi (Rs 128.89 crore; ‘average’), which have also worked at the box office. So there may not be clear answers just yet about whether only a certain type of cinema will work at the box office from now on. Yes, ‘spectacle’ films like the recent ones from the south are obviously more suited to big screens, but it’s not always that a smaller film will only work for smaller screens. Garg tells me there will always be specific reasons why a film works or doesn’t. He points to the examples of 83, Johar’s Kalank which didn’t work at the theatres, and the much-hyped multi-starrer cop action film Sooryavanshi (Rs 195 crore; ‘Plus’ –which recovers investment and makes some profit) which hardly did the business it was expected to do. So, it’s not as if only big-budget blockbusters will work for big screens, as success of The Kashmir Files has also shown. In fact, once again, streaming has come as an important cushion for movie makers in case the box office collections aren’t as good as expected, and the revenue from streaming platforms can offset the losses at the box office.
Content, then, is always going to be king. Whether it is compelling content in mid-size movies, or in blockbusters. And marketing and smart packaging, like the south movies have shown, are going to be critical in the days ahead as audiences, spoilt for choice thanks to streaming, become more selective. The lesson for Bollywood is to understand that, post pandemic, it’s now a single movie market where the combination of good content and good packaging will have to be the winning formula. And as Jariwala adds, at the film making stage itself, filmmakers will need to know which script is most suitable for which kind of screen. Like most industries, India’s movie business has also changed dramatically post pandemic.
The sooner Bollywood understands this, the better for those who are spending big bucks spinning dreams for the millions.
The author is Editor, Business Today.
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