This is the 24th edition of Reel and Real, sent fortnightly on Saturday. That is about all things cinema, society that watches it, industry that creates it, and media that writes about it.
Five years ago, on this day, a Telugu-language film, in the midst of an epoch-defying run at the box office, broke a long-standing record. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, SS Rajamouli’s much-awaited conclusion to his mythological-fantasy duology, went past Rajkumar Hirani’s social-interest Hindi dramedy PK to become the highest-grossing Indian film of all time. While Rajamouli’s stock as a filmmaker went through the roof, actors—Prabhas, Rana Daggubati and Anushka Shetty—who had only been known to film audiences in the south Indian states prior to this became household names.
Various factors went into the success of the Baahubali films. While producer Arka Media Works splurged a lot on bringing to life the fantastic kingdom of Mahishmati that Rajamouli and his writer-father V. Vijayendra Prasad conjured up, the quality of the visual effects was also better than in most Indian films. The films enjoyed tremendous success in overseas markets—especially in North America and China—because of the universality of themes such as kingship, governance and honour in the story. While the tremendous business of the films in Hindi could also be attributed to the same reasons—with some good-quality dialogues and dubbing thrown in—it was the concerted involvement of Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions and Anil Thadani’s AA Films that turned the films into a pop-culture phenomenon. Thanks to the distribution muscle of these two giants in the Hindi-speaking theatrical market, Baahubali turned into a box-office juggernaut.
With the Baahubali series having set the benchmark for big-budget homegrown blockbusters that could hold their own against similar films from Hollywood, the calls for “pan-India films” grew louder. Trade analysts and audiences felt Baahubali 2’s immense success—especially the unabashed triumph of its Hindi version in the north Indian cinema halls—signalled the start of the end of the dominance of Hindi cinema in the national imagination. But Hindi cinema somehow still held its sway over the Hindi-speaking public, in spite of the steady rise in the number of films from the Tamil and Telugu film industries going for a release in Hindi, and the slow entry of OTT platforms.
And then came the pandemic.
Whether we accept it or not, our relationship with cinema, and the act of watching cinema, has undergone a sea change during the pandemic. As the world kept weathering lockdown after lockdown, we were all confined to our homes, and the OTT platforms kept us on a steady diet of engaging shows and films in various languages from various corners of the world. At the start of the pandemic, most media commentators and business analysts had pronounced their verdict: theatres were going to die, and OTT platforms were the future. For a while, it looked as if this was going to be true.
But, in 2022, all these projections have been thrown out of the window. Many theatres across India have closed down due to lack of footfalls. In the state of West Bengal alone, the number of screens has come down to less than 250, with multiple subdivisional towns without a single cinema. India’s biggest multiplex chains have decided to merge to counter the OTT onslaught. The number of OTT platforms operating in India has ballooned to more than 70. And yet, ever since lockdown measures have eased, people have been thronging cinemas in droves, while OTT platforms are struggling to retain the same subscribers they picked up during the pandemic.
If a recent survey by The Quorum is to be believed, there is an entire demographic that has no plans of returning to cinemas ever, preferring to get their entertainment from streaming. But this does not mean people have stopped going to the cinema completely. What the pandemic has done is that it has made audiences think about what they want to see on the big screen, and they are now busy calibrating their expectations of the ”big-screen” experience they long for, and, after two years of being cooped up at home, they want a celebration, logic be damned. And what better way to celebrate than the “masala film”, that has everything from action and drama to romance and emotions?
There has been a sizable shift in public opinion towards Hindi films during the pandemic. Many finished films, such as Gulabo Sitabo, Atrangi Re, Ludo among others, were left with no other option but to release on streaming. There was hardly any perceptible attempt on the part of producers to assuage distributors and cinema hall owners about the future of their business. Most producers were content getting paid for exclusive streaming rights, and audiences ended up watching their films either legally (via OTT subscriptions) or illegally (on torrents and Telegram).
Comparatively, far fewer films from the Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam industries went for streaming, preferring to release in theatres even with 50% occupancy. It was not an ideal scenario for anyone involved, and most films could not even break even. But one crucial thing this exercise accomplished was that it kept the sanctity of the theatrical experience alive—for cinema hall owners, for distributors, for the film industry at large, and for the respective state government. This approach ensured that when cinema halls came back to normal with 100% occupancy, audiences had no second thoughts while queuing up for the next blockbuster.
But it’s not just the theatrical dynamics that underwent a change during the pandemic. Whether Hindi cinema would like to admit it or not, the controversy surrounding Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in 2020 became a disaster in public relations for the studios of Mumbai, from which it has not really recovered. The image of “Bollywood” as an industry that rewards mediocrity and nepotism over merit has flourished in social media circles, with many people calling for a boycott of the system.
Ultimately, though, there is some truth in the fact that the Hindi film industry has stagnated a bit in terms of subjects. Hindi cinema has come up with films of various genres in the past few years, but, apart from Salman Khan, no other actor has been prolific in the “masala film” genre which single-screen cinemas look forward to. It has to be admitted that most Hindi films nowadays are skewed towards a more urban demographic, targeted more at multiplexes. And even though India’s smaller cities boast of multiplexes, audiences crave a big-screen “masala film” that has something in it for the entire family.
Perceptions matter a lot in business, and even more in the show business. Wherever there is a problem, it is only natural that people will look for a solution. If Hindi cinema represents everything that is wrong with India’s entertainment sector, the South Indian film industries are held up as a counter. The Tamil and Telugu film industries are always held up as beacons of hope for “saving” India’s cinemas, because the perception persists that they make only “masala films” that cater to audiences looking for entertainment in their cinema, not the very awareness quotient.
I had written last year about how Tamil and Telugu films, dubbed in Hindi, were popular amongst audiences from north India. But what has not been explored properly yet is the sociological impact of these films. If you go through any of the comments posted under the films on YouTube, you are likely to find multiple comments about how these films represent and glorify “Indian culture”, as opposed to Hindi films, that glorify drugs, sex and violence.
Does this mean the South Indian film industries do not churn out films that have an abundance of sex and violence? Of course, they do. But such is the psychological hold of the “family-friendly” masala films on Indian audiences in circa 2022, that Hindi films are increasingly seen as tired, jaded and bereft of novelty. As I said before, perceptions matter.
I was reminded of the “pan-India film” phrase while reading a tweet last Sunday.
Biggest Loss Movies
— Indian Box Office (@box_oficeIndian) May 1, 2022
According to this, Radhe Shyam (2022), Acharya (2022), 83 (2021), Bombay Velvet (2015) and Zero (2018) have (in this order) lost the most amount of money as theatrical releases in the history of Indian cinema. Obviously, this is a subjective list, and figures keep changing every Friday. However, it is worth noting here that only Bombay Velvet and Zero released long before the pandemic, while the other three films released during/after the pandemic. There is also another common factor binding the top-three losers: all of them are “pan-India films”.
The case for Radhe Shyam is curious indeed. Mounted as “pan-India”, the romantic drama was widely expected to be a big hit for Prabhas. Yet, because of the convoluted story, the lengthy runtime and Prabhas’ dubbing in Hindi, the film was a washout in all languages. If you look at Prabhas’ filmography, for instance, he has not had a single hit to his credit since the Baahubali films.
Before Radhe Shyam, he starred in Sujeeth’s 2019 action-drama Saaho, which was mounted on a huge scale as a “pan-India film”. In spite of the involvement of music label T-Series as a co-producer for the Hindi version, a shoot that took place in three languages simultaneously, a strong supporting cast straddling the worlds of Hindi and Telugu cinema and a high-decibel marketing campaign, Saaho was a colossal failure.
Likewise, Acharya had everything going for it: a story rooted in Indian culture, and the star power of Chiranjeevi and Ram Charan. Yet, the film sank at the box office, and handed Ram Charan the ignominy of having his biggest hit (RRR) and his biggest flop (Acharya) within a month. And 83, the film was hobbled by various factors—a lengthy runtime, a troubled release strategy in late December 2021 coupled with the third wave of COVID-19, and a strong rival in Pushpa: The Rise. Not even a spirited performance by Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev could save it.
The Hindi-speaking circuits, or the “Hindi belt” (as many analysts refer to it), are the make-or-break segment for the success of any “pan-India film”. Since November 2021, which is when most Indian states did away with lockdown measures, only six films have done well in the Hindi belt: Sooryavanshi, Pushpa: The Rise, Gangubai Kathiawadi, The Kashmir Files, RRR and KGF: Chapter 2. Three of these are “pan-India” blockbusters.
Pushpa: The Rise (Telugu), RRR (Telugu) and KGF: Chapter 2 (Kannada) have performed very well in their native languages. However, these films have capitalized on the brand value of their stars in the Hindi belt. While Telugu film actors such as Allu Arjun, NTR Jr. and Ram Charan have been popular amongst Hindi-speaking audiences thanks to the YouTube films, the Kannada actor Yash became hugely popular as Rocky in the first KGF film, that released in 2018.
The “success” of pan-India films is a matter of perception, as much as the “failure” of Hindi films.
Distribution is key in the theatrical business. If a film is backed by a formidable distributor who can also lean heavily into the marketing aspects of a foreign market, one can safely assume it has hit the jackpot. Pushpa: The Rise’s success in Hindi can be attributed as much to the canny instincts of its producer-distributor Goldmines Telefilms as to the story itself. RRR was an exceptional film in all regards, but the hard-nosed distribution strategies of its co-producer Pen Movies, and a multi-city marketing tour ensured a bumper opening in Hindi. The same strategy also worked for KGF: Chapter 2, which flourished in Hindi because of the combined muscle of Excel Entertainment and AA Films. More importantly, single-screen cinemas and audiences got the barn-busting “entertainment” they had waited an entire pandemic for.
But does this mean the “pan-India film” is the solution to all problems in India’s cinema sector? No. For every RRR or Pushpa, there have been dozens of films, such as the 2022 Tamil films Valimai and Beast, which have not done well as “pan-India” theatrical releases. Various factors hobble these films in the Hindi belt—either the distribution strategies are weak, or the marketing is not up to the mark, or both. Or sometimes it’s just bad timing. Which makes these films no different from any other Hindi film.
Regardless of language, Indian cinema is driven by the star system, and stars drive popular perception. The “success” of pan-India films is a matter of perception, as much as the “failure” of Hindi films. Audiences and exhibitors have long felt that pan-India films will save the exhibition sector. But in reality, what they are reacting to is the presentation and marketing of films, rather than the films themselves. As box-office performances show, a pan-India film still functions as a normal film in a lottery game.
If the story is compelling enough, people will brave all obstacles to watch a film in theatres, irrespective of language. If it isn’t, not even the slickest of marketing and distribution strategies can save a film, however “pan-India” it may be.
If you want to see a tale of betrayal and revenge play out against the backdrop of Mumbai’s infamous C-grade film industry, do check out Ashim Ahluwalia’s 2012 film Miss Lovely, currently playing for free on the Bandra Film Festival channel on YouTube.
You can also check out two highly-acclaimed films that dropped yesterday on streaming: Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund on ZEE5, and Arun Karthick’s Nasir on SonyLIV.
Cover Image from iStock by Getty Images.
Crafted with brevity for select stories to make certain you see what others don't; Page One is delivered every Sunday
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