South Indian Cinema Rules as Bollywood Battles Box Office Blues

The Hindi-language Mumbai-based film industry known as Bollywood has been the most visible part of the Indian film industry over the decades but that hegemony appears to be waning.

In recent years, the cinema of South India, comprising the Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam language industries, has stolen a march over its hitherto more glamorous Bollywood counterpart in both content and box office.

In the 1990s, Mani Ratnam’s Tamil-language films “Roja” (1992) and “Bombay” (1995) were pan-India hits in their Hindi dubbed versions and the filmmaker made a few films in Hindi before returning to his native Tamil. The notion of a pan-India hit, i.e. films made in one of the South Indian languages becoming a hit across India and Indian diaspora markets in Hindi and other language dubbed versions, roared back to life with S.S. Rajamouli’s “Baahubali” films (2015 and 2017), made in Telugu and Tamil, which together grossed $379 million worldwide, with Hindi dubs accounting for a significant chunk.

It is during the pandemic years — when Indian audiences in lockdown were exposed to a plethora of non-Bollywood content — that South Indian films soared far beyond Bollywood, as the numbers prove. In 2021, the highest number of Indian films were released in Telugu (204) and Tamil (152) and only 84 films were released in Hindi, according to the annual EY media industry report. The Indian box office recovered post-pandemic to $472 million and South Indian films contributed $290 million of this, three times what Hindi films generated, with the myriad other Indian languages accounting for the rest.

2022 has been a trying year for Bollywood with fancied titles “Laal Singh Chaddha,” “Raksha Bandhan,” “Shamshera,” “Samrat Prithviraj” and “Vikram Vedha,” all featuring A-list talent, underperforming at the box office. Among the top 10 box office hits of 2022 so far, just three, “Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva” at No. 4, “The Kashmir Files” at No. 6 and “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” at No. 7 are in Hindi. The rest of the top 10 are from South India with the Kannada-language “KGF: Chapter 2,” Telugu-language “RRR” and Tamil-language “Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1” occupying the top three positions.

Analyst Karan Taurani of Elara Capital attributes the lacklustre performance of Bollywood films to “poor content.” “People really want to watch more content-driven films now, and not star-driven films,” Taurani told Variety.

High ticket prices in Bollywood markets, compared to South India, is another factor. India celebrated Sept. 23 as National Cinema Day with tickets reduced to 75 rupees (90 cents) for the day and 6.5 million people thronging the 4,000 participating cinemas. “If so many people are keen to come to the theaters why are we keeping them away? Is there any way that we can make an adjustment in such a manner that we can get people back into what is right now a shaky industry?,” asks actor R. Madhavan, who works in both Bollywood and South Indian industries and whose “Dhokha — Round D Corner” was a direct beneficiary of the reduced ticket rate.

Filmmaker Mahesh Narayanan, who straddles the worlds of both commercial (“Malik”) and arthouse (“Ariyippu”) cinema in the Malayalam-language industry and is going to make his Hindi-language debut with “Phantom Hospital,” feels that the inordinately long time it takes for Bollywood films to get greenlit robs them of their freshness. He also feels that many of those films are not relatable to Indian audiences.

“Some of the Hindi films where you look at it, people write it as a Westerner’s mindset and they are not looking into the Indian scenario,” Narayanan told Variety. “Where are these characters coming from? Where is the root? Are they grounded? That is the thing Malayalam cinema usually focuses on — even if it’s commercial cinema, try to root it.”

Narayanan adds that even the larger-than-life South Indian hits such as “RRR” and “K.G.F: Chapter 2” have a “core emotion” that is relatable to audiences.

A workaround for producers has been to fall back on pan-Indian films, with stars from both Bollywood and South India featuring. However, this is no guarantee for success as the disappointing box office performances of “Radhe Shyam,” starring “Baahubali” lead Prabhas and “Liger” led by Vijay Deverakonda (“Arjun Reddy”) proved this year, with neither the Hindi or Telugu-language versions finding favor with audiences.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Bollywood and Taurani predicts that the industry will bounce back in 2023. Om Raut, who directed Bollywood film “Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior,” the biggest Bollywood hit of 2020, and has “Adipurish,” starring Prabhas, coming up in Jan. 2023, likens the current dip to a sine wave. “This is like a dark cloud, which is going to pass,” Raut told Variety. “It’s a sine wave, it’s going to see an upward turn.”

Prabhas adds: “It’s a passing phase and I think it just passed off and now all the good times are back to the country.”

Actor, director, producer and distributor Prithviraj Sukumaran, who primarily works in South India but is returning imminently to the Hindi industry, says that all the Indian industries have their ups and downs, not just Bollywood. “Film lovers in the North feel that everything from the South is turning into gold – because they only hear about the gold,” Sukumaran told Variety. “There are a lot of things that are not very shiny happening here, too. It’s not that every film that we make is going on to become becoming a huge success.”

Saif Ali Khan, star of “Vikram Vedha” and “Tanhaji,” also feels that the Bollywood box office is cyclical and it will recover. “We need some nice hits so that people can start investing money more confidently again. I’m sorry to say, I don’t think very good films have not run, and we just need to make better movies,” Khan told Variety.

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