My first coherent memory of watching a South Indian movie in its entirety is when I saw a Hindi-dubbed version of the Telugu film Don No.1, originally titled Don, when I was visiting relatives in Hyderabad in 2010. The fact that I was watching a Telugu movie dubbed in Hindi and mocking it for its ridiculous plot and dialogues while sitting in Hyderabad said more about my ignorance as a viewer, than it did about the movie, even if it was, to be fair to past me, truly ridiculous.
You don’t have to be a movie buff to know how swiftly and staggeringly South Indian movies have taken over the country and Hindi movies are struggling to keep up. Over the past couple of years, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada movies have nudged Hindi movies down a number of pegs, especially when it comes to the box office earnings.
According to reports, 62 percent of overall box office collections in 2021 came from South Indian films. One of the films responsible for that impressive number is KGF Chapter 2, which grossed nearly INR 1,200 crores worldwide. Out of this, almost INR 500 crores were made from the Hindi-dubbed version of the film. In a similar fashion, SS Rajamouli’s RRR earned over INR 800 crores just from the Hindi version, and Pushpa: The Rise’s Hindi-dubbed version earned over INR 100 crores.
Now I’m not a box office analyst, nor am I a film critic. I’m just someone who loves movies and prefers them to the company of real, living and breathing human beings. Does that make me qualified to talk about the issue? Not really. Will I still take up space on the Internet and present my two cents on the subject? Absolutely. So here goes.
Why are South Indian movies getting more popular day by day?
While South Indian movies are seeing a stratospheric rise in popularity recently, this is not a new phenomenon. South Indian movies have had an audience amongst non-multiplex goers who could find themselves relating to the content of Telugu and Tamil movies dubbed in Hindi more than what was being released by Bollywood. This is why you could not land on channels like Set Max without finding another South Indian movie playing most of the time. Many mainstream Hindi filmmakers also realised the potential of these movies and liberally released remakes of Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam movies for a Hindi-speaking audience. These movies were lifted scene-by-scene and dialogue-for-dialogue. The box office success of these films spurred more remakes, with some hits and several misses. So why didn’t people just watch these South Indian movies in their original language? This could be because of the inaccessibility of the content and the innate ignorance about what these movies represented.
For most of us, a change in the trend started happening when Rajamouli released his epic period drama Baahubali: The Beginning, followed by its sequel Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. The multi-lingual release of the film ushered in an era of big-budget South Indian movies releasing dubbed versions of the film along with the original language release. The Baahubali series, for instance, took great care in selecting the voice actors and Hindi-language dialogue and songwriters for the film. The Hindi-dubbling was impeccable and managed to convey the same emotions as the original, something which previous Hindi-dubbed South Indian films sorely lacked.
I remember catching a screening of the first part in a theatre in Mumbai, much before the movie became the behemoth it did. I was new in the city and had exhausted my options for entertainment (browsing old books at Flora Fountain and checking out new books at a nearby Oxford Bookstore) when I stumbled upon the movie’s poster at Metro Cinemas. With a whole Sunday to myself, I figured I could spend a few hours in an air-conditioned room watching a movie that seemed entertaining from the posters.
To say that the movie changed me fundamentally would be an understatement.
The storytelling and the spectacle made me feel like I was a kid again. I wanted to squeal excitedly about the stunning action sequences with someone but had to restrain myself because my seatmates were an 80-year-old couple who were not amused by the noise levels of the war scenes in the movie.
For the longest time, nothing felt comparable to the scale of the movie and I started feeling distanced from Bollywood movies. Where was the effort? Where was the commitment to provide entertainment to the viewers who are spending their hard-earned money on multiplex tickets and taking out hours from their free time to justify the stars’ outrageous salaries?
While this thought process reeks of entitlement and a surface-level knowledge of how things work, it’s definitely indicative of the factors that led to where we are now.
With a growing dissatisfaction with the content peddled by Bollywood and the rapidly heating up discourse around nepotism, a chasm began forming between what the people wanted to see vs what most mainstream Hindi filmmakers were creating.
Then came the pandemic which acted as an equaliser and turned everything on its head.
With going to theatres out of question, people began swarming to OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ Hotstar for entertainment. This shifted the focus from spectacle to content. People were burning through multiple seasons of TV shows and long movies rapidly mostly because there was nothing else to do. This period also saw a big rise in the popularity of non-English language content on streaming platforms, like South Korean dramas or Turkish TV shows like Resurrection: Ertugrul. With a number of South Indian films available on platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, people discovered that crossing the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, as director Bong Joon-ho so eloquently stated, can lead them to discover a world of superb filmmaking and top-notch stories.
This period brought in a language-agnostic outlook towards movies, with audiences from Hindi-speaking belts discovering Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada movies beyond the big-budget hits like Baahubali and Enthiran: The Robot. The success of movies like Kumbalangi Nights, Super Deluxe, and The Great Indian Kitchen is a great indicator of this.
Rishab Shetty, who made and starred in the brilliant Kantara, said in an interview that one of the reasons behind the critical and commercial success of his film was the fact that the story was rooted in tradition, which made it universal in its appeal. The movie, centred around a forest that was the subject of strife between the tribal folks living in it and the government officials who wanted to declare it as a conservation site, used elements of magical realism to highlight its core themes.
Shetty’s astute observation can be attributed to the pan-India success of most of the South Indian films recently. The movies invite us with the promise of a spectacle but become memorable because of the clear cultural language of the narrative.
Director Karan Johar had a parallel take on the theory when he said that conviction played a strong role in the movies’ humongous successes. In an interview with noted film critic Anupama Chopra, Johar said that most mainstream Hindi filmmakers lack conviction
And that results in an immediate disconnect from the audience. He said that this is the strength of filmmakers like Rajamouli as their movies convey the passion and, well, conviction, the filmmakers have for the craft and the subject.
There’s also a dearth of stars in Bollywood. We have a lot of celebrities but no mega movie stars. Part of this is due to overexposure, thanks to paid PR and social media. We can find anything and everything about a celebrity just by scrolling through their Instagram feed. There’s no mystery anymore. Whether this translates into people not being able to view them as big stars, as they did with actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi and Shah Rukh Khan in the past, and letting even bad movies coast on their shoulders, is not something that can be said with a guarantee but it’s something worth examining.
What does the future hold?
Since we’ve already established that my knowledge of filmmaking is rudimentary at best and that I am no box office trend analyst, I don’t know where we’re headed in the future.
Now that the boundaries between regional and Hindi-language cinema are growing fainter, it’s safe to say that there is a need to champion content over any other factor. Blindly following trends is not the answer, as many filmmakers have figured out the hard way.
To make inroads into South Indian states, many Hindi filmmakers have started releasing dubbed versions of the movies right alongside the original language release. All promotion material for Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming film Pathaan is simultaneously being released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.
Then there are the collaborations. Contentious filmmaker Sandeep Reddy Vanga is teaming up with Ranbir Kapoor and Rashmika Mandanna for the upcoming Animal. SRK’s trio of comebacks includes Jawan with Tamil director Atlee, with Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi as his fellow cast members.
But this doesn’t mean that the era of remakes is over. Following the huge success of Allu Arjun starrer Pushpa: The Rise, his previous hit Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo was going to be dubbed in Hindi and get a theatrical release. The release of the movie, however, was stopped as it was already being remade in Hindi as Shehzada, starring Kartik Aaryan.
With increased accessibility to a wider range of content and an increasing awareness amongst Hindi-speaking audiences about the universality of the themes and stories explored by filmmakers across the country, the rapidly diluting boundaries between cinemas are something that’s here to stay. Here’s hoping we see more crossovers in talent, both onscreen and offscreen, in 2023.
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