Is the success of recent films from the south teaching Bollywood a lesson or two in positioning and storytelling?

“Movies from the south are gold at the box office”. “Bollywood has forgotten how to make movies.” These two statements have been tossed out so frequently during the last six months, that even hardened sceptics have suspended disbelief. Just what is going on?

Most industry experts say only two Bollywood films made their top 2021 list: Rohit Shetty’s cop caper Sooryavanshi and Kabir Khan’s sports saga 83; the rest were all from the south, and topping the list was Pushpa: The Rise, the story of an underdog who smites the ungodly hip and thigh, and emerges victorious. Right now, almost half way through 2022, the biggest films are SS Rajamouli’s rousing period-adventure-epic RR and Prashanth Neel’s unstoppable KGF: Chapter 2 (KGF2)in which Yash towers over the vast Kolar Gold Fields and a phalanx of foes, which includes an Indian prime minister, no less.

A still from the film ‘Pushpa: The Rise’

Figures are being bandied about like candy floss. Five hundred crores, thousand crores, more! While no one really has a handle on the exact figures, there’s no doubt that KGF2 has surged ahead of RRmaking it the second-biggest hit in Indian cinema (the first is still Rajamouli’s Baahubali 2: The Conclusion). Remember the never-heard-of-before 100-crore mark, breached by movies like Aamir Khan’s Ghajini (2008) and Salman Khan’s Bodyguard (2011), and the multiple hundred crores made by 3 Idiots (2009) and PK (2014), directed by Rajkumar Hirani, both headlined by Aamir? Feels like peanuts today.

But long-time observers also know that figures can be both inflationary and deceptive. The number of tickets sold, on the other hand, is a much more tangible metric. Take a look at these numbers shared by BookMyShow — 6 million plus for Pushpa13.5 million for RRand 15 million and counting for KGF2. The average contribution to the total tickets sold pegs the Hindi versions at 43 per cent and Telugu at 34 per cent.

The films that tanked, during the same period, have some of the biggest names of Hindi cinema — Amitabh Bachchan’s slum-upliftment drama Jhund; John Abraham’s anti-terror action Attack; Akshay Kumar’s what-in-heaven’s-name-was-that Bachchan Bandey; And Shahid Kapoor’s sporting drama Jersey — and have all been sub-par, business wise.

Bollywood films, south films, RRR, Pushpa: The Rise, KGF: Chapter 2, Gangubai Kathiawadi, business of films, films from the south, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news A still from ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures, unpacks this current phenomenon, in which it would appear that these films from the south (Pushpa and RR in Telugu and KGF2 in Kannada) have succeeded in diminishing the might of Bollywood. “There’s no doubt that these three films are massively successful,” he says, “But Bollywood’s Gangubai Kathiawadi and Hollywood’s Batman can also be counted as very profitable. So yes, while certain movies haven’t performed as per expectations, the good news is that people are back in theatres. And the pent-up demand right now is for ‘event movies’, as audiences have been starved of the big screen experience for two pandemic years.”

But the enthusiasts yelling hosannahs for the current southern bonanza forget that “event films” are not confined to regions or countries. There are huge expectations from Aamir and his majorly-delayed Laal Singh Chaddhathe Karan Johar-produced, Ayan Mukerji-directed Brahmastraas well as from James Cameron’s Avatar 2. Films from the south are the flavor of the season, but it takes no time for content-saturated viewers to change their minds. Today it is exotic, tomorrow back to the familiar.

“The good thing about the success of these films is that doors have opened all over the country. But it’s also important to remember that of all the films made in the south, only two or three will work across India. It cannot be a bred-chaal (herd mentality),” says Bhumika Tewari, head of revenue, Zee Studios, which has distributed films like Ajith’s cop caper Valimai (2022) and Kangana Ranaut’s Jayalalitha biopic Thalayvi (2021). Literally, everyone knew KGF 2 and RR were on their way, and they delivered handsomely after so many years of anticipation. The success of the films also has to do with smart positioning and marketing. The rustic, grassroots feel of these films connected with audiences everywhere. Films with a universal story will travel, which is why the reverse is also happening: dubbed versions of Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 (2019), Raj Mehta’s Good News (2019) and Anurag Singh’s Kesari (2019) (three very different films in tone and tenor) have done well in the south,” she says.

Bollywood films, south films, RRR, Pushpa: The Rise, KGF: Chapter 2, Gangubai Kathiawadi, business of films, films from the south, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news A still from ‘Thalaivi’

What’s common among these “south films”, which have done exceedingly well in their Hindi dub/English subtitles versions, are great production values, lavish scale, larger-than-life heroes (and villains), and a fallback on familiar tropes like good vs evil, lone guy vs the system, and popular mythological figures. But it’s not all for the good. With their bristling machismo and regressive flexing, these films offer scant space for significant female characters. Leading ladies inserted strictly to bring up the rear is a straight dive back into the dark ages. A Pushpa offers money in exchange for a kiss from a simpering miss; a Rocky kidnaps a woman for his “entertainment”. What is that, if not deeply, unapologetically toxic? And has their mammoth success made us blind to these disturbing elements? Make money, will ignore toxicity?

If you take away the regional specificities, and the desi-fied nods to Game of Thrones (2011-19) and Mad Max Fury (2015), these are the kind of films that Bollywood used to make in the ’70s and ’80s, with their long-suffering mothers, dutiful sons, risible romances, and dubious dialogues. Hindi cinema abandoned, more or less, such films around the ’90s, and by the turn of the millennium, it had become an industry trying for new, while holding on to the old for safety’s sake, just the way risk-averse mainstream film industries do the world over. What got left out in this churn was the low-grade masala flick, which kept circulating in the hinterland areas of Hindi-speaking north India, but with zero-production values. Which is why Aamir and Salman had to reach down south to create blockbuster Hindi remakes of Ghajini (2008) and Bodyguard (2011) (originally made in Tamil, both blockbusters) to reel back the audience feeling left out by the city-slicker rom-coms and high-concept social dramas that Bollywood had begun toying with. But, and this is the thing, the audience tired of the south masala just as it had of north masala, spiked with double entendres, numbing violence and heroes romancing leading ladies half their age.

Bollywood films, south films, RRR, Pushpa: The Rise, KGF: Chapter 2, Gangubai Kathiawadi, business of films, films from the south, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news A still from ‘KGF 2’

Clearly, given the success of these “new” 2021-22 iterations, the craving for well-ground masala hasn’t gone anywhere, and the Hindi-speaking audience, at one time so reluctant to embrace anything that came from the dark-skinned south, is obligingly filling theaters. It was Rajinikanth who began breaking these racist barriers with Enthiran (2010) 2.0 (2018), drawing cheering crowds even in their non-dubbed, non-subtitled versions. But it is equally clear that if Bollywood were to begin making these movies again, it would be laughed out of court. It has taken decades to acknowledge the widespread problem of ugly, casual sexism, even though the default, especially in coarse comedies has dollops of it, both in dialogue and characterisation. But now and then, there is pushback in the shape of such movies as Abhishek Kapoor’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021) and Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Badhaai Do (2022), which strike the gong for same-sex love and diversity. They may be exceptions rather than the rule, but at least they exist. We will willingly watch Allu Arjun’s character go all misogynistic, as long as we have Ayushmann Khurrana’s character make up for it.

Also, and this is crucial, the skill of the filmmaker in making us believe is paramount. When Sanjay Leela Bhansali invites us into the gorgeously stylized universe of the pretty prostitute and her playthings, we gladly submit. When Rajamouli magics up a frame with scores of scamping animals and humans choreographed at a scale we haven’t witnessed before, we revel in it. These filmmakers have conviction in their creation, and, by extension, their audience. Not every filmmaker has it, and it is also why not every film works. That most bizarre romance Radhe Shyam (2022), starring Prabhas, was a dud not just in the north, but also in its home state, Andhra Pradesh.

Bollywood films, south films, RRR, Pushpa: The Rise, KGF: Chapter 2, Gangubai Kathiawadi, business of films, films from the south, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news A still from ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’

Is this a wake-up call for Bollywood? Of course it is. The smugness of an industry which coasted on the pan-India appeal of its movies starring smouldering angry young men, its musical romances and glitzy actioners, has been shattered. But it’s only the mega-budget tent poles, inflated by the enormous star fees and even bigger egos, which are crashing and burning.

What has gained tremendous traction, especially during the pandemic, are the original movies and web series being produced by streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, and Disney-Hotstar, which have broken free of starry shackles and are busy focusing on strong plots, and attracting real acting talent. “Baahubali proved that we could make a film with pan-Indian appeal in the south,” says Shobu Yarlagadda, producer of both editions of Baahubali. “And RR has proved that larger-than-life movies, the way Rajamouli makes them, will get people back into theatres.”

So, will a film be forced to go bigger and bigger in order to sustain footfalls? “No,” he says, “that is a trap. A Hollywood film can come along which is even bigger. Not everything is about size. We are now at the stage when right at the scripting stage, we can decide whether the film is fit for a theatrical release, or it will go straight to OTT, whether it will work within the state it is being made in, or it will work equally in its dubbed and subtitled versions across India and the globe. Smaller, softer movies work best on streaming platforms; for the big screen experience, you need a spectacle. But either way, big film or small, what works across the board is attitude, vision and conviction.”

And that’s true whether it is Bhansali or Rajamouli, Hindi or Telugu, north or south.

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