A couple of years ago, Kangana Ranaut had said in an interview with me that the tremendous talent in the South Indian film industry would soon start giving Bollywood a run for its money. At the time, she was working on Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi with K.V. Vijayendra Prasad, the writer of the breakout hit Bahubali and the more recent blockbuster RRR. Ranaut’s words have turned out to be prophetic. And how.
The writing was perhaps on the wall since Bahubali captured the public’s imagination in the Hindi heartland. Comparisons between the South Indian film industry and Bollywood have become routine—the burning question being whether the former is now bigger and more profitable than the latter. In the post-Bahubali phase, there has been enough evidence to forecast that the percentage slice of South Indian films in the pie chart of Indian cinema is only going to increase further.
In the post-pandemic scenario, the resounding collection of merely the Hindi-dubbed versions of South Indian films like Allu Arjun’s Pushpa: The Rise (Rs 108.26 crore), Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr’s RRR (Rs 274.31 cr) and Yash’s K.G.F: Chapter 2 (Rs 434.45 cr) have pole-vaulted them to the premier league.
While Hindi films like Akshay Kumar-starrer Sooryavanshi (Rs 196 cr), Ranveer Singh’s 83 (Rs 109.02 crore), Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files (Rs 252.90 cr), Alia Bhatt’s Gangubai Kathiawadi (Rs 129.10 cr) and Kartik Aryan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 (Rs 163.15 cr) did score well at the box office, they have been overshadowed by the popularity of the South Indian films.
There’s a clear winner
The latest success of actor/producer Kamal Haasan’s Vikram (an impressive Rs 250 cr global collection across languages in just eight days) is a significant addition to the string of hits that the South Indian film Industry has delivered in the post-pandemic period. In sharp contrast, Bollywood’s much publicised Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Samrat Prithviraj, which stars Akshay Kumar, failed to impress not only the critics but also the audiences, gathering only Rs 57 cr in eight days since its release.
The contrast in performance of these two recent films suggests that a tipping point between the power of Bollywood and South Indian films has indeed been reached.
All the recent analysis of the South Indian film industry giving Bollywood a run for its money ignores a vital statistic—the South Bloc comprising Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam film industries has always been a prolific and profitable ecosystem unto itself. Supported by a vast network of single screens, enthusiastic viewers and popular film stars, South Indian cinema has always been a rather robust entity despite the craze around Bollywood films. It is for this reason that South Indian cinema has not merely survived, but actually thrived.
In fact, Hindi films have benefitted and been influenced significantly by films and makers in the south. We did see acclaimed directors like Mani Ratnam, Priyadarshan, Ram Gopal Varma among others make multilingual versions of their films—which included Hindi. This experiment met with different degrees of success — Roja, Bombay, Sivaji-The Boss and Robot are some of the examples.
In the trade circles it is common knowledge that the single screen audience in the Hindi heartland has, for some years now, been watching South Indian films, which they find relatable and to their taste. South Indian films dubbed in Hindi have also done very well on television and now with the impetus from OTT platforms their audience base has only grown.
Besides, with the arrival of slick spectacle films like SS Rajamouli’s Bahubali, the multiplex audience in urban centres has only added to the overall numbers for South Indian films. With subtitles and good dubbing, language is no longer a barrier, and the South Indian film industry is reaping the benefits.
Staying true to the plot
Some of the South Bloc’s recent big successes like KGF 2 and RRR are reminiscent of wildly popular Bollywood potboilers from the ’70s and ’80s—like Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer, Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony or Subhash Ghai’s Hero. But that is not to say that the new South Indian films are stuck in the past.
KGF Chapter 1 & 2, directed by Prashanth Neel, is a grand action film franchise about Rocky (a Robin Hood-style hero) who shakes up the gangs controlling the Kolar Gold Fields. Bahubali became the benchmark for epic fantasy with grandeur and impressive VFX—the kind that had not previously been seen in an Indian film. And RRR has completely reimagined deshbhakti and combined it with a Bahubali-style fantasy treatment.
These South Indian films have filled the void created by Hindi films that moved away from the traditional desi entertainment formula that kept everyone in mind—from the rickshaw-puller in the stall to the rich guy in the balcony seats.
The shift in Hindi films was propelled by the arrival of multiplexes, which relied predominantly on urban centres for business. This set Hindi cinema free from formulaic stories, allowing filmmakers to experiment.
What followed was the multiplex boom with a plethora of glossy urbane flicks patronised by westernised audiences with higher purchasing power. The high-ticket pricing allowed Bollywood’s movie business to profit from theatre (multiplex) earnings in metros with an audience that was willing to shell out more money for the ambience, snacks, etc., thus reducing their dependence on a hinterland audience.
The pandemic changed that. People got accustomed to the high-quality shows on streaming platforms in the comfort of their homes. It offered them greater variety at a far more reasonable cost and great comfort. There was no reason to go to the theatre unless it was for a spectacle film with all the possible bells and whistles.
In this altered worldview, South Bloc films with their heightened drama, fantasy-style action and the overall grandiose treatment tick against all the right boxes for the cinema hall-enthusiasts.
The signs of success
Like the proverbial thali in Indian restaurants, the films from the South continue to offer something to everyone–a desi milieu, slick action, a tough hero, a dastardly villain, romance, scale and splendour. The dialogues, too, have more salt of the earth flavour than a western twang, making them accessible to the masses.
Also, South Indian cine stars have been able to give more authentic performances than their Bollywood counterparts in their stories that are more rustic Bharat than India. Having impressed a pan-India audience, South Bloc stars like Allu Arjun, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Vijay Deverakonda, Sudeep, Rashmika Mandanna, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Prabhas, Yash, Ram Charan and Junior NTR are now household names.
On the business front, international studios are betting big on South Indian films as are Indian studios and leading streaming platforms. Top Bollywood production houses like Dharma Productions and Excel Entertainment are collaborating with filmmakers from the South to create new multi-lingual movies. This has helped increase the footprints of the South Bloc film industry outside their traditional markets. It also explains why we see an increasing number of Bollywood stars acting in Telugu and Tamil films, unlike earlier times when it was the other way round — popular South Indian actors moving to the Hindi film industry to achieve greater fame. But now, South Bloc film stars recognise that their popularity through South Indian films is now at par with Bollywood stars.
All in all, matters have now come to such a pass that if the Hindi film industry doesn’t gird up its proverbial loins and get its act together, things definitely seem to be heading south.
Priyanka Sinha Jha is a senior editor, author, and content strategist who comments extensively on Bollywood, celebrities and popular culture. She tweets @psinhajha. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)