As bollywood struggles to find the ‘next big phenomenon’, the southern film industries have stolen a march with their tried-and-tested formula for success.

South Indian movies; South Indian films are crushing Bollywood commercial cinemas in all aspects, from KGF to Pushpa indicating that South dominance is here to stay. South Indian films have formed a loyal fan base for them in Bollywood’s house. The success of movies like Baahubali, Robot, KGF, Jai Bheem and now Pushpa are solid evidence of them.

The films that have succeeded in the Hindi belt hark back to the plot lines of the ‘80s but are presented in a way that appeals to contemporary audiences.

Shahid Kapoor’s Jersey, the Hindi remake of the Telugu film by the same title, was supposed to release on April 14. However, the makers have decided to postpone the film in order to avoid a clash with KGF 2, the juggernaut from the Kannada film industry, which has been promoted as a pan-India film that will be released in five languages on the same day.

The anticipation for KGF 2 outside the south market is such that the Hindi version has 6 am shows in cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Delhi.Though Shahid Kapoor is an established star from Bollywood, with his last film Kabir Singh (also the remake of a Telugu film, Arjun Reddy) earning over Rs 370 crore, the film was forced to make way for KGF 2. Increasingly, it appears that the Hindi film industry will have to contend with competition from the south Indian film industries in their own market.

Speaking to #KhabarLive, Karthik Gowda, Executive Producer of the KGF films, says, “In 2018, when the first film came out, it was only Baahubali that had managed to breach the Hindi market to do humongous business. Anil Thadani of AA Films, Farhan Akhtar and Rithesh Sidhwani of Excel Entertainment distributed the Hindi version of the film. They helped us promote the film everywhere. The trailer made the right impression, and we made about Rs 50 crore in the Hindi market.”

Karthik points out that the first KGF film released along with the Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma starrer Zero, and a week after this, Ranveer Singh and Sara Ali Khan’s Simmba hit the screens. Yet, it managed to capture the audience’s interest in the Hindi belt. When the film came out on Amazon Prime Video, it became even more popular across the country.

KGF 2, which will release in about 3,500 screens in the Hindi belt, comes three weeks after SS Rajamouli’s RRR, a film from the Telugu industry that was once again promoted as a pan-India movie. It has reportedly earned Rs 1,000 crore worldwide, becoming the third Indian film to do so (the other two are Dangal and Baahubali: The Conclusion).

The appeal of the ‘80s

So, is Bollywood feeling the heat? Anupama Chopra, Founder and Editor of Film Companion, who has followed the Hindi film industry for decades, believes that the Hindi film industry is indeed sitting up and taking notice. “It all started with the success of Baahubali which was just so unexpected [in the Hindi market]. Prabhas was not known in this market, and yet, those films did such stupendous business. The sleeper success of Pushpa in Hindi has once again underlined for Bollywood how these films have made in-roads while perhaps Bollywood was caught napping. It was simply not catering to the market.”

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Film trade analyst Taran Adarsh says that Hindi remakes of south Indian films have always been popular, so the appeal of the stories and plot lines dates back to the ‘80s.

“Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra worked in a lot of south Indian remakes. There was no talk at that point about how the south is taking over Bollywood. But now, there is this feeling that Bollywood is churning out really mediocre stuff, and films like Pushpa, RRR, and KGF 2, are making waves. The bottomline is always good content,” he says, adding that the south has been at the forefront in terms of content, scale and everything to do with entertainment.

Nandini Ramnath, Film Editor, points out that the appeal of contemporary south Indian films – which are essentially Telugu and Tamil films and KGF from Kannada – that have done well in the Hindi belt is, in fact, their hark back to the past, with a hypermasculine hero at the centre of the narrative.

She describes these films as “a throwback to the narrative simplicity of 1970s and 1980s films in which the moral universe is clearly defined, with the hero’s origin story making it explicit that his current circumstances are because of external factors. A hero who is steadfast whether in romance or his mission.

Among the Hindi films that did this well was Agneepath, for instance (the one starring Hrithik Roshan). Also, a larger-than-life story treatment. Slick production values. And clearly defined roles for the women – mother, lover/future wife, vamp.”

 Nandini Ramnath, Film Editor with Scroll, points out that the appeal of contemporary south Indian films – which are essentially Telugu and Tamil films and KGF from Kannada – that have done well in the Hindi belt is, in fact, their hark back to the past, with a hypermasculine hero at the centre of the narrative. She describes these films as “a throwback to the narrative simplicity of 1970s and 1980s films in which the moral universe is clearly defined, with the hero’s origin story making it explicit that his current circumstances are because of external factors. A hero who is steadfast whether in romance or his mission.

Among the Hindi films that did this well was Agneepath, for instance (the one starring Hrithik Roshan). Also, a larger-than-life story treatment. Slick production values. And clearly defined roles for the women – mother, lover/future wife, vamp.”

Karthik Gowda echoes Nandini’s views and says that the machismo of south Indian heroes has struck a chord with audiences in the Hindi belt. “I think Hindi films are missing out on the action front. The machismo that the south heroes exhibit really appeals to the audience, and I feel that’s what audiences in the north want from their stars.

The ‘80s themes, when revived with new technology and executed well, make for a potent formula that brings audiences to the theatres in droves.

Anupama says, “The south Indian industries are making a certain kind of cinema without apology and with absolute conviction. If you take a film like RRR, there are sequences in the film that are borderline ridiculous because they’re so oversized, over-the-top, larger-than-life – I can’t imagine any other director believing they can pull it off and putting it down on paper. A director like SS Rajamouli who has incredible conviction is able to execute these sequences with such panache and finesse. I think that’s the difference.”

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While some say that the Hindi industry has become “too metro-centric” and “woke” to attract a “mass” audience, Nandini disagrees: “That’s only a small section of Hindi films. Many of these films are now being streamed directly in any case. They get a great deal of attention precisely because they are prescriptive, anchored in realism and explore unusual subjects.

The majority of popular Hindi cinema isn’t very different from the dubbed films. The main difference is possibly the treatment. The “metro” argument doesn’t work as much anymore since so many Hindi films are now set in the cities and towns of Uttar Pradesh or, if in Delhi, then in middle-class milieus. Hindi films in the old days were rooted in Bombay or a version of it. That has been changing over the past 20 years.”

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the Bollywood version of “mass” has become too predictable.

Anupama notes that in the last 10 years, Hindi filmmakers haven’t had the conviction to pull off mass films. “The last person [in Hindi] who is left standing and is doing this very well is Rohit Shetty [who made the blockbuster Sooryavanshi].

Most of the others have either fallen by the wayside or have become lazy. Films like Radhe or Bachchan Pandey are lazy films. They’re trying to be “massy”, “masala” films but they’re just lazy. I don’t think the south films that have succeeded are lazy. There’s not a frame in RRR that’s lazy even if the characterisation may be simplistic – the British are all absolute caricatures, the women are so vapid – but in every frame you see the work, which is not happening enough in Bollywood.

In Pushpa, for all its problematic rendition of the love story, there isn’t any laziness in it. Neither a star as big as Allu Arjun nor a director as big as Sukumar is coasting on their past work. They’re working really hard and that’s really connecting with the audience. That flair is missing in Bollywood.”

The Hindi version of Pushpa: The Rise became such a huge hit (it made over Rs 100 crore, around the same collection as the Telugu original) that it played in theatres even after its OTT release on Amazon Prime Video. Further, producer Manish Shah of Goldmine Films who distributed Pushpa Hindi and owns the rights for the Hindi dubbed version of Allu Arjun’s Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, was persuaded not to release the latter film in theatres since it would jeopardize the fate of the Hindi remake Shehzadastarring Kartik Aaryan.

The making and marketing

Though Malayalam films have become popular on OTT platforms in recent times, the industry is yet to make a successful pan-India film.

Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, is the most expensive Malayalam film made (estimated to be Rs 85-100 crore) but it tanked at the box-office due to the bad writing. Prabhas and Pooja Hegde’s romantic drama Radhe Shyam, made on a budget of Rs 350 crore and marketed as a pan-India film, also flopped at the box-office, with the Hindi version barely making Rs 20 crore.The film received poor reviews and word-of-mouth, and the visual effects in the climax couldn’t save it from box-office disaster.

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Though south Indian filmmakers like Mani Ratnam have for long tried to tap into the Hindi market, the idea of an extravagant, pan-Indian film probably began with Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai’s Enthiran in 2010. Directed by Shankar, the film was released in Hindi as Robot. The sequel, 2.0, came out in 2018, with Akshay Kumar playing the antagonist. The film is currently seventh in the list of top grossing Indian movies worldwide.

However, subsequent efforts from the Tamil film industry to make a film with pan-India appeal haven’t quite worked.

Ajith’s Valimai, which was produced by Boney Kapoor, and released as Valimai: The Power in Hindi in February this year, didn’t work outside the south Indian market. Vijay’s Beast, which is releasing as Raw, in Hindi a day before KGF 2, is yet to create a buzz in the Hindi belt. The promotion of these films outside the south have been low key compared to the marketing campaigns undertaken by RRR or KGF 2. The RRR team, for instance, traveled to Kolkata, Varanasi, Jaipur and Baroda among other cities for promotions.

Ultimately though, no amount of marketing can save a film if it doesn’t work for the audience.
Taran Adarsh says, “Everyone has a different idea about marketing their film and who their core audience is.

But the fact is that these films are connecting with people and that’s why they have managed to break the barriers. If KGF 2 is getting such a phenomenal response today, it’s because the groundwork was done by the first film. There was zilch marketing for the Hindi version of Pushpa. I think Allu Arjun came to Mumbai just a day before the release. The film still did so well. It was released along with Spiderman and 83.”

Kabir Khan’s 83, which is about India’s historic win at the cricket World Cup, starred Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone, but lost out to Pushpa (Hindi) in the box-office race. The Telugu film was never considered to be a competition for 83 which was expected to set the box-office on fire.

In contrast, Hindi films like Salman Khan’s Bharat, Sushant Singh Rajput’s MS Dhoni: The Untold Story,  Hrithik Roshan and Jackie Shroff’s War have had wide releases in south Indian languages, but they’re yet to emerge as serious competition for the films made within the respective states.

With collaborations across film industries becoming increasingly common, and the allure of capturing an audience across states, the pan-India film is here to stay. And for now, in that context, it appears that the south Indian industries have a clear edge over Bollywood. 

Interestingly, the curiosity perhaps piqued by grand dramas like the Baahubali franchise is now traversing more nuanced terrain as smaller, breakaway films are finding fans. #KhabarLive #hydnews