Language showdown fact: South is the new No. 1 in film stakes

As political leaders across parties in Karnataka weighed in on a debate triggered by an exchange of words between Bollywood star Ajay Devgn and Kannada actor Kiccha Sudeepformer Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy tweeted that what lay at the heart of it was a simple fact: “Devgan must realise that Kannada cinema is outgrowing Hindi film industry.”

In recent months, films such as Pushpa: The RiseRRR and most recently, KGF: Chapter 2, have broken box-office records, signaling a seismic shift in a marketplace long dominated by Hindi films. In 2019, Bollywood’s share at the domestic box office was around Rs 5,200 crore, while all South Indian film industries together accounted for around Rs 4,000 crore. By 2021, as per a new EY-FICCI report, Bollywood’s earnings of Rs 800 crore were one-third of the Rs 2,400 crore made by South Indian films.

The political row erupted after Devgn stirred a Hindi vs regional languages ​​debate following a statement by Sudeep at a recent press event that Hindi could no longer be considered the ‘national language’ as audiences had a clear appetite for regional cinema. Devgn tweeted to Sudeep Wednesday, saying that if he didn’t consider Hindi the national language, why did South Indian filmmakers release dubbed Hindi versions of their films in North Indian markets. Hindi is our mother tongue and national language and will remain so, Devgn said.

Sudeep later clarified that the context in which he made the statement was different and that it was not intended to hurt or start a debate. But, in the tricky language field, still heated from a recent statement by Union Home Minister Amit Shah supporting the use of Hindi, it was too late. From CM Basavaraj Bommai of the BJP to former CM Siddaramaiah of the Congress and Kumaraswamy of the JD(S), all questioned Devgn’s assertion of Hindi as the national language.

In his tweet Thursday, Kumaraswamy added: “Devgn shouldn’t forget that his first movie ‘Phool aur Kaante’ ran for a year in Bengaluru.”

That was in 1991. Pushpa, the Telugu language film released at the tail-end of 2021 and the year’s highest-grossing film, made more than Rs 100 crore of its over Rs 360 crore haul in what is known as the ‘Hindi belt’ alone.

The Kannada language KGF 2, a sequel to the hit 2018 film, at over Rs 300 crore, is not just the highest-grossing film in North India this year, but its Hindi version is also the third highest earning Hindi film ever. Worldwide, it is inching towards the Rs 1,000 crore mark.

Director SS Rajamouli’s RRRstarring two of Telugu cinema’s biggest stars — Jr NTR and Ram Charan — made over Rs 250 crore in North India, and with over Rs 1,100 crore worldwide, is the year’s biggest Indian hit.

In most North Indian regions, films from the South now play in dubbed versions. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui has argued that South Indian films exude a sense of pride in local culture, which Bollywood films, in a bid to appeal to multiplex audiences in urban centres, don’t.

Pushpa, for instance, stars Allu Arjun, whom filmmaker Karan Johar has described in interviews as a ‘satellite star’. Allu Arjun became popular among Hindi-speaking audiences not because of hit theatrical releases, but re-runs of his films on television. So when Pushpa was given a hefty push in North Indian markets, viewers were familiar with his work. RRR is directed by Rajamouli, who became a brand unto himself after the back-to-back success of his two Baahubali movies. KGF 2 was riding on the goodwill of the first installation, which was also a theatrical success in Hindi, but gained an even larger cult of fans thanks to an Amazon Prime Video release during the years.

None of these films required the typical two-week marketing push ahead of release.

Not all South Indian films have succeeded in the North, though. ‘Thala’ Ajith’s Tamil action-thriller Valimai, produced by Boney Kapoor, flopped so that a re-edited version was quickly put together and slipped into theatres. This changed nothing. Something similar happened with both Beast, the ‘Thalapathy’ Vijay-starrer which was given a Hindi release under the title Raw, and Baahubali star Prabhas’s time-hopping romantic epic Radhe Shyamwhich was on Prime Video mere days after its theatrical run.

But there has only been one bona fide Hindi hit this year, The Kashmir Files. But that was an anomaly, considering the relatively limited release that the film was initially given. The film eventually obliterated all competition, including Akshay Kumar’s more mainstream Bachchan Paandeyas it hurtled towards a Rs 250 crore (and counting) run.

With nearly Rs 200 crore worldwide, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi did great business, especially for a film fronted by a female star — Alia Bhatt — but it also came with a hefty reported budget of over Rs 100 crore.

What appears to have really done in Bollywood is a high-profile string of flops, that, in addition to Bachchan Paandey, includes the John Abraham-starrer Attack: Part 1, the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Jhundand most recently, the Shahid Kapoor-starrer Jerseywhich, incidentally, is a remake of the Telugu language film by the same name.

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