Bollywood star Ajay Devgn is having a bad language day. His Twitter spat over Hindi, Bollywood’s lingua franca, with the versatile South Indian actor-director Kiccha Sudeep reveals what’s wrong with Bollywood, and perhaps the northern attitude to the south.
Devgn championed Hindi as a national language which Sudeep wasn’t going along with. It took multi-language actor Sonu Sood’s diplomacy to calm things down by saying that India’s language is entertainment. Devgn can’t be blamed for his linguistic chauvinism; after all, Hindi movies are his bread and butter.
There’s no denying Bollywood is in a rut. The stars, directors and producers live in a formula cocoon of their own while southern cinema is moving ahead by leaps and bounds, creating new stars, spending and earning more money. If you are from up north and the name Prashant Neel doesn’t ring a bell, sweat not. His cinema—KGF—is bigger than him and every self-respecting cinemagoer knows it. Short for Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka, KGF is a two-part movie with the first made in 2018 and again in 2022. The series has made Rs 1,216 crore so far. Compare that to Hindi blockbuster director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi which raked in Rs 197 crore with Alia Bhatt, an actor with a pan-India appeal. Before you call it a flash in the pan, or just a freak success, trade pundits are saying it’s a phenomenon that will stay.
The South Superstar Boys Club hasn’t been content with just hits on their homegrown turf. Allu Arjun may have exuded raw sexuality with his scraggly beard, a bidi pursed between his lips and a chequered lungi tied above his knees in Pushpa - The Rise. But on the ramp, for Bollywood’s most-loved designer Manish Malhotra, he poses in a limited-edition shirt—black lion motif on a crisp white shirt—redefining dapper in a new way. Why Deepika Padukone went on record to say she aspires to work with the sexy and stylish star. And she goes on record stating that ‘she is obsessed with Jr NTR at this moment.’ Such is the sex appeal of these stars that Bollywood queens are scrambling to be seen with them. The fact that Arjun earns tonnes of crores for every film and can own a Mehboob Studio every year makes him even more desirable. Meanwhile, KGF star Yash aka Rocky in the movie is a street fighter-turned-business mogul. His designer Saniya Sardhariya gives him a look that is classy, sexy and real. His black flowing beard has a special fan club.
When Bollywood’s enfant terrible, controversial director Ram Gopal Varma tweets about south cinema, you know it’s creating a buzz. On Director’s Day, May 4, Varma wrote: “I wish a very UNHAPPY Directors day to @prashanth_neel for so royally FU**** every director’s mind everywhere whether it’s in BOLLYWOOD, TOLLYWOOD, KOLLYWOOD and even in SANDALWOOD. Sir Prashant Neel, U are the VEERAPPAN of Indian cinema (sic).”
Lack of imagination, indie and intuition may well spell doom for the current Bollywood pantheon. Ask Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi. At the success party of Telugu blockbuster RRR, The Megastar, as he has been christened by his fans, recalled a high tea event that took place in 1988. He was representing Telugu cinema at the event and was due to be felicitated with an award. The actor remembers how the event failed to mention renowned actors from the south industry such as Dr Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan, NT Rama Rao, A Nageswara Rao and Sivaji Ganesan. “They were demigods to us. And there were no pictures of them. For me, it was humiliating. I felt very sad.
They projected only Hindi cinema as Indian cinema. And they dismissed other industries as regional language cinema. They didn’t even bother to acknowledge its contribution,” he said. When south cinema, particularly Telugu cinema, is being hailed as a force to reckon with, he is elated. Interestingly, even Mollywood made way for KGF this year. Vishu 2022 did not witness any major Malayalam release. The theatres and Kerala box office this Vishu-Easter season were dominated by KGF: Chapter 2, breaking the existing opening day collection records in the state. According to box-office ledgers, KGF: 2 has grossed Rs 7.48 crore on the first day in Kerala, surpassing Mohanlal’s Odiyan and Mammootty’s Bheeshma Parvam.
Telugu cinema hit a sweet spot when cricketing legends David Warner, Hardik Pandya and Dwayne Bravo replicated the swag and staggering walk of Pushparaj, the iconic character played by Telugu actor Allu Arjun in Pushpa - The Rise. Will such clips add to the success of a movie? Well, every publicity is good publicity.
The stupendous and consistent success of south cinema is the coming together of a multitude of factors. First is solid scripts with larger-than-life and cinematically-driven protagonists with the potential to spark the imagination of cinemagoers. The dialogue Thaggedeyley (Jhukega nahi mein) in Pushpa - The Rise, for example, has become the buzzword of the nation. And who can forget scenes from the epic Baahubali where Prabhas gets on to the elephant using its trunk as a ladder with great swag and style. Slick camerawork, top stunts, chart-busting music, special item songs, dialogues that trend, music clips that go viral on social media, leveraging the fan club strength digitally and overall super slick packaging. Telugu actor Pawan Kalyan’s Bheemla Nayak in April 2022 had a chartbusting title song.
But to make it more special, the film’s music composer SS Thaman and his team travelled 100 km from Chennai to shoot for a special music video celebrating the song. A special forest set was put up for this. Unofficial sources say a movie could have been made in the budget of his song. “That’s the kind of efforts Telugu filmmakers take to promote a movie. No element is taken for granted. The stakes are high,” adds film critic Venkata Satya. The last 15 blockbusters in the last three years have the above elements.
Sreeju Sudhakaran, Entertainment Editor for LatestLY.com, says, “There is no denying the south film industries are making some good noise, be it with their budgets, their treatment or their box office business. I still see tweets of international film geeks raving over what SS Rajamouli did with the action scenes of RRR. While RRR, KGF 2 and Baahubali movies are excellent examples, an interesting case study is the surprise Rs 100-crore success of Pushpa’s Hindi version. This movie wasn’t part of any franchise. It wasn’t promoted by the Bollywood fraternity and came with limited promotions.
Pushpa 2 could easily break more records as shown by Baahubali 2 and KGF 2. However, while some south films have revolutionised the big-screen experience, there is still growth to be seen in the writing, especially in the depiction of female leads. Another thing common between these movies is the glamourisation of male machismo—a trend that once ruled Bollywood in the ’80s and ’90s—which the audience is liking now, but for how long I am not sure.”
South cinema consists of different language industries and not all have managed to appeal to a larger part of the country at the box office. “I was surprised that Ram Charan didn’t release Acharya in Hindi, considering it was his major release after RRR. It shows that south producers are wary that not every film might appeal to the Hindi belt,” adds Sudhakaran.
The OTT Advantage
Sudhakaran feels that OTT helped in expanding the scope of south cinema, but has been more beneficial to Tamil and Malayalam industries. If it was not for OTT, movies like Jai Bhim, Soorarai Pottru, The Great Indian Kitchen, Virus, and Kumbalangi Nights would never have been such talking points. More than OTT, it is the medium of YouTube and Hindi television that have a crucial role to play in the south obsession we see in the Hindi belt. Goldmine Telefilms and the repeated runs of dubbed south action films on channels have helped in developing among the Hindi viewers an acquired taste for south masala fare.
Says Ajit K Thakur, the CEO of Hyderabad-based Telugu content OTT, AHA, “The trend set by Pushpa and KGF is fantastic as it has set new benchmarks in the scale, production, talent, filmmaking etc. People are flocking to the theatres and of course, another go at it in the OTT. We just released Pawan Kalyan’s Bheemla Nayak in April. Big movies don’t instantly pay off but the ROI (return on investment) happens over a 12-26 month period. Big movies help us get new subscriptions and new audiences.”
The script and the stupendous success of Baahubali and the potential for action films were the inspiration for Hombale Films which produced the KGF franchise. “Many south movies garnered millions of eyeballs in the last four or five years. The audience across the country loved the action and the emotions in south movies. OTT, of course, was the cherry on the cake,” says Karthik Gowda, Executive Producer, Hombale Films.
What gave the production house the audacity to think so big and think of a big production like KGF? “Strong script, the potential of an action film, the rising stardom of Yash, the success of Baahubali and the sterling talent of Prashanth Neel,” Gowda remarks. Incidentally, Neel has an Andhra connection and that’s another reason the Telugus are celebrating the movie.
Meanwhile, Telugu superstar Mahesh Babu whose latest outing Sarkaru Vaari Paata released last week does not agree with the observation that the south has been making phenomenal movies in the last three or four years. “We have always been making brilliant movies with breathtaking storylines. It’s just come of age now. It was organic growth and we had to get here eventually.”
Kalaippuli S Thanu, the producer of Rs 100-crore Tamil movies such as Rajinikanth’s Kabali and Dhanush’s Asuran, says that the world is a global village and that any filmmaker can cater to an audience anywhere across the planet. In a world where content is the king, Tamil cinema chooses to make exceptional movies. It’s just that the reach is far wider because of egalitarian platforms such as YouTube or even OTT. “Tamil cinema has the potential for world domination. If we can plan the timing, the logistics of the release, the digital promotions etc, our content will collect Rs 100 crore every time it hits the screens.”
Southern filmmakers are going in for big-scale productions with lots of action and drama. They use mythology not to preach, but to entertain. South cinema is larger than life and is using edgy technology. KGF 2 is being hailed for not just the music, the impressive scenes, and the punch lines, but also for its production values in terms of the sets that were erected. For the parliament scene, the art direction team of KGF 2 used EcoWal, made out of fire-rated Ecoboard material by EcoYou, a Pune brand that produces building materials with agricultural waste to replace wood, metal and concrete. Such was the dedication of the team for every particular scene. The crew has saved 100 fully-grown trees from being cut down.
In 2015, director Karan Johar put his money for the first time on a South Indian film. His Dharma Productions bought distribution rights of the Hindi version of Baahubali for a 10 percent commission. Considering he also extensively promoted the movie up north, the movie did unstoppable business.
It grossed over Rs 600 crore worldwide. This was the time we heard the term ‘Rs 100-crore club movie’. So when a Telugu movie grossed this business, it made everyone sit up. Also, the first South Indian film as well as the first Indian film to gross over Rs 1,000 crore worldwide was the 2017 Telugu film Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, directed by SS Rajamouli. Its total domestic gross of Rs 1,429.83 crore.
Social media has been a great equaliser of cinema. Anyone can release their teaser, trailer, song, or movie and everyone in the world gets to know about it. “From word of the mouth, it is now bird of the mouth—Twitter,” says Satya Venkata, a fan of south cinemas and an unofficial Twitter lead for Telugu actor Balayya. The social media platform, which was recently bought by Elon Musk, says it houses some of the biggest communities on the service—fans and fan clubs. These communities are vastly responsible for the make or break of a movie.
In fact, in a bid to leverage the potential of fan clubs before the release of a movie, Twitter wants to keep fans always on their toes about what’s happening in the world of their favourite superstars and their upcoming projects. A week ago, Telugu superstar Mahesh Babu’s film Sarkaru Vaari Paata (released on May 12) became the first Telugu film to get a personalised Twitter emoticon. The emoticon will be seen in the usage of the below hashtags on Twitter. The emoji is a still of Mahesh Babu from the film. Previously, Tamil star Vijay’s Beast and Kannada actor Yash’s KGF 2 also got personalised emojis on the microblogging platform.
“In the very beginning, the Hindi and the South superstars were curious about each other. Filmmakers were curious about what kind of movies were working in different regions and why. Then came the phase when Bollywood started making South remakes and the South started adapting Bollywood movies. This was around the 70s when Rajinikanth was making all Bachchan movies and Bachchan was doing some of Rajnikanth’s movies. In the 80s, all the top production houses down South were making Hindi movies and starring Hindi superstars. Jeetendra, Rekha, Rajesh Khanna, and even Amitabh Bachchan are featured in some of them. This was the time Sridevi and Jayaprada came to Bollywood and became super successes.
The 2000s were comparatively low-key and what got everyone out of their slumber was Baahubali 1 and 2!” says Bhawana Somaaya, Bollywood critic, columnist and author, adding, “For a long time, the topic of discussion at every party was ‘Kattapa ne Baahubali ko kyon maara?’ Something magical had happened and before anybody could analyse what, Covid put all of us in isolation! It was the time when everyone was hooked to OTT and somebody intelligent in the meantime had dubbed all the popular Telugu action films and put them on the new platform. Suddenly, almost everyone I knew, was only watching Telugu dubbed films and loving the comic action genre. Then came Pushpa and all the stories of the making of this film. Mumbai media lapped up to the smallest trivia and wrote refreshing features.
The tide had turned!”
Somaaya, who was also part of the success party of RRR in Mumbai, adds, “And then came RRR and blew our brains. In all my years of journalism, I have never seen the kind of response at a press screening that I witnessed at the RRR press show! We were cheering, clapping, whistling and welcoming the South superstars into our lives. It has taken more than 100 years but finally, our cinema has blurred all barriers of language."
Dance of Numbers
The March 2022 EY-FICCI report on consumer trends in entertainment reveals that in 2021, South Indian cinema generated three times the box office revenues of Hindi films, with a total of Rs 2,400 crore. Telugu industry had 204 releases compared to 84 by Bollywood. The report also concluded that audiences are ‘language-agnostic who are eager only for quality content.’
According to movie ticketing platform BookMyShow’s statistics released in December 2021, the Diwali weekend saw 35 percent of total sales from major metros—Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and NCR. “Telugu and Tamil movies together accounted for almost 50 percent of total tickets sold on BookMyShow,” says Ashish Hemrajani, the Founder and CEO, BookMyShow. Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai and Visakhapatnam are the top four cities that watched the most movies in 2021, the data inferred.
No one seems to be happier than Bollywood director Ram Gopal Varma who was originally a Telugu filmmaker but moved to Mumbai to scale up his films. He is unabashed while he bashes up Hindi cinema. In April 2022, he tweeted, “Bollywood will be now getting ducked from both front and back as they neither seem to know how to make superhits nor can they hope to survive on remaking south films because nobody will sell them REMAKE rights #DeathOfRemakes.”
A case in point is the recent Shahid Kapoor movie Jersey. Director Varma added that if the original Jersey from Telugu was dubbed and released it would have cost the producers just Rs 10 lakh whereas the remake in Hindi cost Rs 100 crore resulting in losing enormous money, time, effort and face. He ended the tweet with #DeathOfRemakes.
2022, when the industry came out of the pandemic slump after two years, is setting the tone for this decade. Kill the remakes. Welcome the originals. Celebrate good cinema. Don’t underestimate the power of south cinema. Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost!
RRR Telugu Ram Charan, Jr NTR
Budget Rs 425 cr
Gross earnings Rs 1,131 cr
K.G.F: Chapter 2 Kannada Star Yash
Budget Rs 150 cr
Gross earnings Rs 1,173.9 cr
Baahubali - The Conclusion Telugu Stars Prabhas, Rana Daggubati
Budget Rs 250 cr
Gross earnings Rs 1,810 cr
Pushpa: The Rise Part 1 Telugu Star Allu Arjun
Budget Rs 130 cr
Gross earnings Rs 369.9 cr
The bollywood Flop show
Budget: Rs 100 cr
Earnings: Rs 19 cr
Satyamev Jayate 2
Budget: Rs 60 cr
Earnings: Rs 13.26 cr
Budget: Rs 60 cr
Earnings: Rs 30 cr
Budget: Rs 145 cr
Earnings: Rs 69 cr
Jai Bhim Tamil
Budget Rs 8 cr
OTT earnings Rs 45 cr
Soorarai Pottru Tamil
Budget Rs 20 cr
OTT earnings Rs 174 cr
The Great Indian Kitchen Malayalam
Budget Rs 2 cr
OTT earnings Rs 12 cr
Why South heroines are Yet to Crack the Pan-Indian Market
The women from down south, surprisingly, are yet to make it to the big league—both in the south with their earnings/success and their entry into Bollywood. Anushka Shetty and Nayanthara are among the top women stars in the south, but they want to play it safe sticking to their home turf. While Pooja Hegde and Rashmika Mandanna both stepped into Hindi (Mohenjo Daro and Mission Majnu respectively), they are yet to hit the sweet spot. “I am surprised that even Mumbai girls like Kajal Aggarwal or Tamannaah Bhatia are big stars in the south cinema, but haven’t been able to crack in the pan-Indian scenario. They need to show their glamorous and their histrionic side to be there. We may have to wait a few more years to see a south girl taking over the void created by Sreedevi Kapoor,” says film industry observer and critic Venkata Satya.