Pushpa The Rise, KGF, RRR: As South India emerges as the new centre of tentpole movies, what is ailing Bollywood?

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The hierarchy in Indian cinema was clearly defined till a few years ago. Bollywood was the big brother, with films being made in various states being bundled together as ‘regional cinema. It was believed that they could never match Bollywood movies in terms of budget, reach and their earning potential globally. The change creeped up on us slowly but definitely — as ‘pan-India film’ became the most in-demand currency, the industries that seem to be producing them were all from South India. And this phenomenon was not limited to box office numbers; in terms of ideas, narrative and a new cinematic language, south film industries became the new flag-bearers, and streamers brought them all directly to our hand-held screens. Take Minnal Murali, The Great Indian Kitchen or Malik, for instance.

Which was the last Hindi movie that captured the imagination of the whole country? Probably, Dangal. And that was 2016, which feels like a lifetime ago. It was a different time when the pandemic was yet to take control of our reality and begin to dictate the terms of our social engagement.

South is the new centre

However, even before 2020, not many movies from the Hindi film industry managed to strike a chord with a wider audience down south. Meanwhile, south Indian movies managed to build a formidable reputation and expand the size of their audience, cutting across the language and cultural barriers. Earlier, only a movie of select filmmakers and superstars from the south were considered for a wider release across the Hindi belt. But today, “pan-India” release has become the operative word that influences every decision of mainstream filmmakers.

A case in point is Allu Arjun-starrer Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo whose dubbed Hindi release was put off over the concern that it may affect the box office status of Shehzada, the film’s Hindi remake starring Kartik Aaryan. It was unheard of dubbed films having that sort of a reach, normally only playing in B and C centres or on satellite channels.

Director Prasanth Varma accepts that a change is in the offing. He told indianexpress.com that the budget, scale and scope of his movie got bigger as the investors from the north market wanted a piece of his upcoming film Hanu Man as soon as he released the title poster. “The day we announced the title, we also sold the Hindi dubbing rights and everything. And it is a pretty big thing. Without even knowing who the hero is, they bought the dubbing rights just on the announcement that I am making a superhero film,” he said.

And that’s how closely the Bollywood producers are watching what filmmakers are doing in the south. The paradigm shift in the power hierarchy began seven years ago with, you guessed it right, Baahubali: The Beginning.

The film was received with a thunderous response both domestically and internationally. And it soon became the biggest earner ever in the history of Indian cinema until Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017) arrived and obliterated its box office records. The film clocked a little more than Rs 100 crore every day, collecting Rs 1000 crore within 10 days of its release.

Baahubali Prabhas Rana Daggubati Prabhas in Baahubali 2.

The Pushpa phenomenon

After the massive success of Baahubali 2, 2.0, and KGF Chapter 1 found an audience outside their home states. These movies also benefited from star-studded promotional campaigns led by their producers. The filmmakers went to each state, roped in the biggest stars and filmmakers there, advertised in major newspapers, dominated the news cycle on television channels, online entertainment portals, and social media trends. The makers of Allu Arjun’s Pushpa: The Rise, however, had no time to market it in the south, let alone in north pockets.

As director Sukumar burned the midnight oil with the film’s editor and sound designer to ensure the film was ready to hit the screens on December 17, Allu Arjun and his co-star Rashmika Mandanna addressed a single press meet and spoke to a handful of the media houses to spread the word about the film. It was clear that the area of focus for the filmmakers was the Telugu states and its neighbouring states, where Allu Arjun already has a significant fan following.

It came as a pleasant shock when Pushpa managed to outearn its biggest competitions in the country. It even gave 83 a run for the money in the Hindi belt. Needless to say, Pushpa was a box office juggernaut in the Telugu states and it also gave a career-best opening for Allu Arjun in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The three-week worldwide theatrical collection of Pushpa was pegged at over Rs 300 crore. Of this, Rs 80 crore was earned by the Hindi version alone domestically.

Where 83 failed, Pushpa succeed

Allu Arjun Pushpa Allu Arjun in Pushpa The Rise. (Photo: PR Handout)

“We are discussing how Pushpa collected Rs 80 crore, but we are not considering the fact that the bulk of the collection of Pushpa came from single screens in tier 1 and tier 2 cities, where the average ticket cost is half or 1/3 of the average ticket prices of Spider-Man. If you divide the net collection of the average ticket price, the figure of footfalls you derive is an eye-opener. Had the pricing of Pushpa been the same as 83 or Spider-Man, the collections would have been double,” trade analyst and distributor Akshaye Rathi says.

Pushpa’s success in north India was not a fluke. It was a sign of fast-evolving dynamics, which has put mainstream Hindi filmmakers on the backfoot. “Yes, of course, Pushpa has been a trend-setter in that way. It was a long time coming. A lot of factors and variables played in its favour and that’s why it did so well,” filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar said.

The “factors and variables” that Bejoy is referring to are how Hindi dubbed versions of south movies on satellite television and YouTube cultivated a fan following for stars like Allu Arjun, which translated in solid footfalls for Pushpa. He also refuses to believe there is a disconnect between a large section of theatre-going audience and Hindi filmmakers.

“Given the dynamically changing scenario in the theatrical releases, one successful film cannot be the trigger to say there is a disconnect,” Bejoy added. “One big blockbuster and this conversation will be redundant. We will be back to normal if a film like War comes out. I think it’s seasonal, a trend. It is constantly evolving.”

The gulf between the collection numbers of major Bollywood titles and south movies tell a different story. While Pushpa’s gross collection crossed Rs 100 crore mark within 2 days of its release, 83 took about 17 days to reach that number. However, as Nambiar points out, this is a comparison between just two films.

deepika padukone Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh in 83.

The biopic/remake fatigue, anyone?

As per a rough estimation, nearly one crore people saw Pushpa in theatres in the Hindi belt alone. A trade expert claims that the theatrical run of many Bollywood movies begins and ends in about 8-12 cities, which make up for 80 per cent of the industry’s revenue.

There is a huge market that Bollywood is missing out on. It also boils down to the industry’s struggle to produce stories that would capture the imagination of a culturally diverse country like ours. “Many of the blockbusters in Hindi are remakes. I think there’s a dearth of content in the Hindi mainstream. It’s either remake or biopic, the audience is getting bored I guess,” said Arun Matheswaran of Rocky fame, who is now busy with the pre-production work of his next film with Dhanush.

Bejoy also shares the sentiments of Arun on the matter. “There are so many biopics. Everyday someone’s biopic is made. One or two biopics worked out and everybody keeps doing it to keep the cash registers ringing. It is this or remakes. No new stories are being attempted,” he complained.

Maybe it is the biopic fatigue that undercut the earning potential of Ranveer Singh’s 83, which is inspired by cricketing great Kapil Dev’s captaincy feat that led India to its first world cup victory. Despite having a huge star cast, strong performance and plenty of cinematic moments, the film came up short on capturing the fancy of the theatre-going audience.

“Bollywood is now in a state of churn. It does not know whether it should go mass or do class. And the pandemic hasn’t helped at all,” said Shubhra Gupta, senior film critic of The Indian Express.

“Somebody called 83 a classy movie on a massy subject. I don’t understand how you can say 83 is meant for just the ‘classes’? What Kabir Khan has made is a movie like Ek Tha Tiger. But, Ranveer Singh has played Kapil Dev with such felicity that people are saying it is a very documentary type. If it hadn’t been for Covid, this movie would have flown,” she added.

Even director Kabir Khan is fully convinced that if not for the pandemic and the onset of the third wave of infections, 83 would have performed way better theatrically. And he’s still holding on to the hope that if infection rates decline, it would turn the wind in the film’s favour in the coming days.

The pandemic, however, has changed something fundamentally about the business of cinema. With the dawn of the streaming era, the audience wants something special before they step out of the house to watch a movie in a theatre. Otherwise, they may choose to wait for a few weeks to catch them on an OTT platform from the comforts of their homes. “The pandemic has separated grain from the chaff. Now the audience that was unthinkingly lining up for Friday’s first day, the first show is no longer going to do that. Only films like Spider-Man or RRR that are so big that TV screens can’t contain will do well in cinemas,” Shubhra opined.

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