Last Updated: 10.59 PM, Dec 29, 2022
2022 has been a year in which cinema from the Southern states stuck a chord with national audiences. The resounding success of spectacle and action films like RRR, KGF and Pushpa, and even smaller budget films like Kantara and Karthikeya 2 on a national level and the muted response to even the biggest Bollywood films led to terrifying statements that Bollywood is dead. But, amidst all this, one question has stirred a major debate: How are South Indian movies able to strike gold while Hindi cinema fails at theatres?
There has always been a connection between the South Indian film industries and Hindi cinema in the form of collaborations and exchanging ideas and talent. On the one hand, Telugu filmmakers like K Raghavendra Rao and K Bapaiah and studios like Ramanaidu and Padmalaya made blockbuster Hindi films (mostly remakes of South films) with the likes of Jeetendra, Sridevi, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty to name a few. On the other hand, stalwarts like Rajinikanth, Kamal Hasan, and Mani Ratnam succeeded in Hindi with original content. But this phase didn’t sustain and eventually led to different language films falling into individual silos with little or no crossover.
Beyond cinema halls, the rise of satellite channels and later mobile phones and the internet in the late ‘90s and early 2000s was the biggest game changer in how people engage with cinema. This resulted in more avenues to release Hindi-dubbed versions of South Indian films. It started with satellite channels looking for low-cost content and later the internet, like YouTube and even pirated movie sites. The audience from the Hindi heartland found South content with action and heroism appealing. Around the same time, Hindi filmmakers started producing films appealing to NRIs, leading to the growing acceptance of South Cinema in the Hindi heartland.
It all blew up with the release of Baahubali-The Beginning. The film had the scale, grandeur, and right partnerships to ensure a wide release. It hit the sweet spot, and people across India watched and celebrated the film like it was their own. Baahubali -The Beginning, followed by the superlative success of Baahubali-The Conclusion, gave many South Indian filmmakers dealing with growing budgets the confidence to release their films in Hindi. The success of subsequent films like KGF 1&2, Pushpa, and Kantara dismantled regional boundaries and gave rise to “pan-India” movies or what I prefer to call Indian cinema.
The question on everyone’s mind is what is so appealing about these films even if they are only a small fraction of the all the film produced in the South.
Most of the South Indian films which worked at the box office in recent times share a few things. First, they are all rooted in local or Indian culture, raw at times and far removed from sophisticated Western filmmaking. And the more local a story is, the more it connects with the audience. The biggest spectacles also tend to be hero-centric and action-driven, where the hero goes out of his comfort zone and becomes a messiah for the people around him. They
might be escapist, but there’s something quite awe-inspiring about watching such stories that have an intrinsic message of hope, justice, morality, and bravery.
Is there something mainstream Hindi cinema can emulate from the success of South Indian films in recent times? Perhaps, the answer lies in rooting the stories and storytelling in our culture and ethos, which the general audience seems to be craving right now.
Hindi cinema has made blockbuster films showcasing people’s aspirations in the 50s and 60s to capturing the nation’s mood in the 70s and 80s with Salim-Javed’s ‘angry young man’ featuring Amitabh Bachchan. The latter became a benchmark for a quintessential ‘action hero’ who continues to enthral the audience today. At its heart, Hindi cinema was rooted in its approach to stories and characters before the rise of NRI culture in the mid-90s changed the direction of mainstream Hindi cinema. Perhaps, it’s only a matter of time before Hindi cinema finds its rhythm back to cater to an audience pampered with a wide variety of movie choices across languages and platforms. Therefore, the fears that Hindi Cinema has lost its magic touch are exaggerated and unnecessary.
The ongoing success story of South Indian films means that filmmakers can now dream bigger, break out of the confines of language-based regional silos and make Indian movies for Indian and global audience. That, indeed, will be a game changer for Indian cinema.
Shobu Yarlagadda is the founder of Arka Mediaworks, that has produced the two-part Baahubali franchise.