There are as many ‘South’ film industries as there are ‘Madrasi’ languages. And they are winning the pan-India market with lavish extravaganzas.

Three back-to-back hits, even if they are as imp­r­e­ssive as Pushpa: The Rise, RRR and KGF: Chapter 2, don’t prove anything. Among other things, celebrities, commentators and social media users—who claim that the ‘South film’ has decisively proved that “Bollywood is finished”—have conveniently overlooked two major disasters produced by the Telugu industry in the past couple of months: Radhe Shyam and Acharya. The latter’s failure is particularly striking: released in late April, the film co-starred Chiranjeevi—Telugu cinema’s biggest star—and his son Ram Charan, whose RRR was still running in theatres.

The 2021 box office was dominated by South Indian films: they earned thrice as much as Hindi films. But ‘South’ is not one industry: it is four different industries with very disti­nct identities. Moreover, it is too early to tell if these four industries have managed to overcome Indian cinema’s historical inability to recover production costs. Reports commissioned by FICCI indicate that success and failure rates had not undergone any dramatic cha­n­ges in the years preceding the pandemic.

What we have been witnessing for over a decade is the emergence of a pan-Indian market for films—or filmed entertainment as management-speak wou­ld have it—which is spread over several segments, including multiplexes, single screen theatres, television, OTT platfo­rms, etc.

Today, the key to accessing the countrywide market is dubbing. In the past, Hindi cinema had access to audien­ces in different parts of the country due to factors ranging from the three-language formula to the popularity of TV epics in the Doordarshan era. Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam films typically catered to their ‘home’ states, but dubbing into other South Indian languages was widespread. So much so that in the 1990s, close to a third of the films rel­eased in Telugu were dubbed from other South Indian languages.

More recently—from 2010, to be precise—South Indian industries’ attempts to tap into Hindi cinema’s markets cryst­allised around the ‘regional’ blockbuster. This big budget spectacular with high production values is made in one of the southern languages, but for a pan-Indian market. It is then dubbed into Hindi and one or more South Indian lang­u­ages as well.

Take the Prabhas-starrer Radhe Shyam, which, despite its commercial failure, is a good example of the emerging model. This film was co-produced by T-Series and simultaneously released in Telugu, Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam.

Media reports indicate that Radhe Shyam cost anywhere between Rs 300-500 crore. This is not the kind of cost a Telugu, or even a Hindi film, can easily recover, even under the best of circumstances.

Jaw-dropping budgets, as well as positioning films for nat­i­o­n­wide release in multiple languages to justify expenses, are directly traceable to Enthiran/Robot (2010). Said to be the most exp­ensive film made up to that point, Enthiran was conceived of as a pan-Indian release at the production stage itself.

Even the choice of its male and female leads—Rajinikanth and Ais­hwarya Rai—was part of the plan to tap new markets, sin­ce both actors had a recall value across India. Danny Den­zo­ngpa, who played the villain, is an old Hindi cinema veteran. The film’s sequel 2.0 (2018) cast Akshay Kumar, one of Hin­di cinema’s biggest stars, as the villain.

That the South Indian blockbuster relied so heavily on Raj­­i­­nikanth in its initial years was only to be expected, given the star’s track record. Vehicles of Rajinikanth were simult­ane­o­usly released in Tamil and Telugu well before 2010.

The Hin­di dubbed version of Rajinikanth’s Sivaji: The Boss was re­l­­e­­­a­sed in early 2010, and was successful. Sivaji’s route to the Hindi market was quite different from that of Enthiran. Sivaji was released in Tamil and Telugu in 2007, and had bec­ome a cult favourite in Delhi and other metros in Tamil an­d Telugu. The Hindi version was clearly an afterthought. Not so in the case of Enthiran. The Hindi Robot was released sim­ultaneously with Enthiran and on far more screens than its Tamil and Telugu counterparts. Robot went on to become the Hindi box office hit of the year. This story would be rep­e­ated by the Baahubali films (2015 and 2017) that were more expe­n­sive and successful than Enthiran and its sequel 2.0.

Hindi cinema’s audiences did not suddenly discover the so-called South film and its stars in 2010. Way back in 1948, the Tamil hit Chandralekha was partly reshot and released in Hindi. Madras studios made other Hindi films in the wake of Chandralekha’s success. More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, several stars of the region tried to access the Hin­di market by acting in films in that language.

Some of these attempts, including Kamal Haasan’s Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981) and Rajinikanth’s Andha Kanoon (1983) were rema­kes of commercially successful Tamil and Telugu films. Sou­t­hern superstars stopped acting in Hindi productions aro­und the turn of the last century. However, hits from Sou­th Indian languages continued to be remade into Hindi.

The credit for opening the Hindi market via dubbing goes to Hollywood’s representatives in India. Film res­e­archer Nitin Govil points out that Jurassic Park (rel­eased in India in 1994) was the first major Holly­wood film to have been dubbed into an Indian language in recent times. They distributed 110 prints in India, of which 82 were in Hindi.

Dubbing into Indian languages proved to be the most important reason for Hollywood’s growth in India. From the mid-1990s, relatively inexpensive films from Hong Kong and other parts of the world were dubbed into multiple Indian languages. Today, we are acc­ustomed to watching films and television programmes from unfamiliar parts of the country, as well as foreign countries, in a familiar language. The disconnect between faces and voices is no longer considered funny or unnerving.

Television played no small role in the increased acceptance of dubbed films. In the early years of this century, 24-hour movie channels began to air films dubbed into Indian languages. Hindi channels aired films originally produced by South Indian industries and also Hollywood, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. In the 2010s, so large was the demand from satellite television channels that South Indian films began to be dubbed into Hindi for a direct-to-television release. Hindi dubbed versions of dozens—possibly hundreds—of South Indian productions that were never released theatrically, were aired on television. These films then began to make an appearance on YouTube, where they found a large audience.

Television and YouTube thus played a significant role in the success of Pushpa and other southern blockbusters. Allu Arjun, Pushpa’s male lead, has never acted in a non-Telugu film. His films dubbed in Malayalam have done well in Kerala for 15 years now, earning him the nickname ‘Mallu’ Arjun. Nothing unusual about this: Chiranjeevi is a household name in Karnataka, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan in the Telugu states, and so on. Allu Arjun is a household name on YouTube. By 2018, several Hindi dubbed versions of his films had over 100 million views.

If YouTube view counts are to be bel­i­eved, Hindi dubbed versions of South Indian productions with such innovative titles as Dumdaar Khiladi, The Super Khiladi and Rambo Straightforward have had a 100 million plus views each—that is, more views on this platform than tickets sold for any Indian film ever.

The YouTube channel Goldmines Telefilms, which premiers “New South Hindi dubbed movies on every Saturday”, has around 70 million subscribers. In fact, the ‘South movie Hindi’ (a popular search term on YouTube) could be chipping away at Hindi film industry’s overseas viewers as well.

The rise of the South Indian blockbuster was preceded by decades of a secular decline of theatrical exhibition in Ind­ia. Several thousand single-screen theatres have closed sin­ce the late 1990s. The increase in multiplex screens has not kept pace with closures. Box office collections continued to grow largely on the strength of increasing ticket prices, not just in multiplexes but also in single screens.

Increased ticket prices have consequences.

Industry insi­ders warn that theatrical viewing is becoming increasingly unaffordable: not everyone who wants to watch a film on the big screen is willing, or can afford to, spend hundreds of rupees, several times a month. Price, and the sheer ease of access to digital formats, has resulted in pushing the film buff away from the large screen to smaller screens: television, computer and cellphone.

According to Ernst and Young’s 2022 report, titled Tun­i­ng Into Consumer, box office collections contributed 60 per cent of cinema’s revenues in 2019 and are expected to red­u­ce to 50 per cent in 2024. OTT and digital revenues are expected to rise from 10 per cent in 2019 to 23 per cent in 2024.

The future looks promising indeed for the Allu Arjuns of Indian cinema. The increasing OTT-fication of movie viewing has expanded the reach of films that are formally, the­m­a­tically or narratively innovative.

Indeed, film comment­a­t­­ors today speak of the ‘OTT film’ as a category that inherits the promise of the ‘multiplex film’: it is aesthe­tically superior and/­or politically ‘progressive’, is made with a modest budget and features actors who are willing to play deglamourised, unconventional roles. Fahadh Faasil (Malayalam) and Vijay Sethupathi (Tamil) come to mind as the always OTT-ready stars.

South Indian blockbusters were warmly praised by no less a star than Sanjay Dutt for reviving the cinema of the masses, which Hindi cinema had abandoned. RRR, Pus­hpa and KGF reminded Dutt of the larger-than-life heroes in 1970s Hindi cinema. ‘Cin­ema of the masses’ is a slippery category. Hum Aapke Hai Ko­un…! (1994) was a thundering success, while Acharya, with two larger-than-life heroes, was not.

If there is a takeaway in the story of the Southern blockbuster, it may not be the list of ingredients that should go into a failproof formula. The blockbuster is symptomatic of major shifts in the entertainment industry, and our viewing habits. And the monster too evolves. Three back-to-back disasters and there will be no end to commentaries on the death of Southern stardom. #filmshyd #hydnews