Wind back to the year that was and it’s a blur of films with a handful of standout blockbusters from the South punctuating the line-up, leaving this thought on many a mind – is Bollywood ceding its primacy in the Indian entertainment industry?
The spectacular success of RRR, KGF: Chapter 2 and Kantara, each of them epic in scale, has put mainstream Hindi cinema on the backfoot. The takings from even the biggest Hindi hit, Brahmastra: Part One-Shiva, were just a fraction of their earnings.
The year ended with SS Rajamouli’s period action entertainer RRR betting two Golden Globe and five Critics Choice Award nominations and its song Naatu Naatu being shortlisted for the Oscars.
That this is the first time perhaps ever that an Indian film has gotten this kind of attention on the global showbiz stage lent greater credence to the argument that Bollywood could be slipping in the popularity charts.
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“In entertainment, you cannot overdo one tone,” said Viacom18 Studios Pictures COO Ajit Andhare.
“Bollywood filmmakers need to strike a balance between realistic stories like Badhaai Ho and larger-than-life, period escapist offerings aced by the southern belt,” Andhare told PTI.
Hindi cinema had its moments with sci-fi fantasy spectacle Brahmastra: Part One-Shiva (approximately Rs 400 crore at box office), small-budget films The Kashmir Files (over Rs 300 crore), Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 (Rs 260 crore) and Drishyam 2 (Rs 200 crore and counting). But this has been overshadowed by the reported global earnings of Rs 1,200 crore each for RRR and KGF: Chapter 2 each.
Rishab Shetty’s Kantara, a Kannada-language film mounted on a reported budget of Rs 16 crore, also caught the fancy of cine-goers across states and has amassed over Rs 500 crore worldwide since its release in September. A sequel is already being developed.
Much discussed big budget films such as Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha as well as Akshay Kumar’s Bachchhan Paandey, Ram Sethu and Samrat Prithviraj tanked in the first year of the country opening up after almost two years of a pandemic.
The last Hindi release of the year, Rohit Shetty’s multi-starrer Cirkus, didn’t give room for much optimism either with its tepid box office performance.
Every film industry witnesses flops, said trade analyst Taran Adarsh.
“The fact is one hit and ten flops… That’s not a good sign for the industry. This was a year for correction but we hope we deliver better hits in Hindi cinema,” Adarsh told PTI.
Not all movies from the South managed to shake up the order, Adarsh said, pointing to star-studded films such as Kamal Haasan’s Vikram, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-I and Dulquer Salmaan starrer Sita Ramam that were received well but couldn’t replicate the box office success of the others.
In Haasan’s view, the sun of the “commercial world” is currently shining on South cinema.
“We hope we can keep it that way but the luminescence will turn the other side also,” Haasan said during a recent roundtable discussion with entertainment portal Film Companion.
After corporates in the Hindi field started paying high fees to actors, directors, and production companies, the need to “succeed at any cost” has reduced, Rajamouli argued in the same discussion.
“Down South, it is like swimming or sinking. Kamal sir said it has shifted here, now we shouldn’t get complacent. Also, having a connection with the audience is very important,” the director said.
Jayantilal Gada of Pen Studios, who distributed RRR in the north, echoed Rajamouli’s views and said South cinema needs to be wary of corporatisation.
“The South cinema wave is not new. There was a time when Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi and others were hugely popular but things changed. Hindi cinema made some really good movies,” Gada told PTI.
“Later, the fees of artists and technicians started rising in Bollywood because they were delivering hits and demanded more (money), which was not the case there in South industry. A similar pricing situation might now happen in the South too,” he said.
Assessing what may have gone wrong for Bollywood, which for decades was equated with India’s soft power and is considered the cultural czar of the subcontinent, Adarsh said Hindi cinema stars were putting more work in upping their social media game rather than improving their acting chops.
“It’s about being true and delivering what the character demands. That’s where South actors have an edge. They are not much into glamour, Instagram or airport appearances. They let their work speak,” he added.
From the 1948 Tamil superhit Chandralekha to Telugu titles RRR and Pushpa: The Rise, rules of the game have changed substantially, according to film historian Amrit Gangar.
“With market economy, middle-class consumers both in India and outside, the clever harnessing of technology with money-muscle getting stronger and mightier, the rules have changed. The younger players in this game are smarter and terribly ambitious,” said Gangar.
At a recent roundtable with digital outlet Galatta Plus, director Anurag Kashyap cautioned Bollywood from jumping on the bandwagon of “pan-Indian films”.
“The success will be 5 to 10 per cent. A movie like Kantara and Pushpa gives you the courage to go out and tell your story,” said Kashyap, adding that if filmmakers try to use it as a formula and set a project up “that’s when it starts heading for a disaster.”
Andhare is hopeful that lessons learnt from 2022 will bring about a lot of changes in the Hindi film circuit.
As the discussion continues and excitement mounts over whether RRR will actually bag an international award, film critic Saibal Chatterjee said, “RRR is no cinema. It is a computer-generated circus. If that is passed off as what India is going to be represented in cinema that’s going to be really sad,” Chatterjee told PTI.
Industry insiders concede that the success of the South films is also a factor of OTT platforms opening up the subtitled and dubbed movies to new audiences.
The first glimpse of things to come was in 2015 when the first part of Rajamouli’s Telugu epic fantasy Baahubali: The Beginning released. The second part, Baahubali: The Conclusion released in 2017 to bigger success. In 2018 came KGF: Chapter 1.
The South juggernaut gained further momentum with last year’s Pushpa: The Rise.
Bollywood has pinned its hopes on several biggies listed for release in 2023. These include Shah Rukh Khan starrer Pathaan, Salman Khan’s Tiger 3 and Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan.