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Bollywood goes South in search of hitmakers

Latha Srinivasan | Updated on October 23, 2020 Published on October 23, 2020

Scouting for blockbusters: Ajay Devgn in a still from Drishyam, which is based on a hit Malayalam thriller of the same name. Many of the actor’s remakes of South Indian movies have grossed ₹100-crore at the box office

Many of the hit Hindi movies today are remakes from the four South Indian film industries. In a trend dating back to the ’50s, movies remade from southern success stories have routinely fetched big money at the tills and several awards too. The larger-than-life setting with dollops of action, colourful costumes and intense social and family drama travelled well to the North. Today’s remakes, however, tell a crucially different story

Diwali release — these are two humongous words for the Hindi film industry, an annual make-or-break carnival at the box-office for the scores of films that time their release around this big festival. Until, that is, Covid-19 arrived on the scene, much like rain on a child’s stash of Diwali fireworks. But there is one cracker yet that promises to light up screens with a bang: Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb is set to be globally streamed on Disney+Hotstar VIP on November 9, just before Diwali.

The film, which was meant to have been released in theatres on May 22, is a remake of the superhit Tamil film Muni 2: Kanchana, a horror-comedy where the bindaas hero is suddenly possessed by a female ghost.

“In my entire 30-year-long career, this has been my most intensive role mentally. I’ve never experienced such a character before, with this kind of action, reaction, body language,” Akshay Kumar had told the media in June. “The credit goes to my director Raghava Lawrence.”

Bang on: Akshay Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb, set for a Diwali release on Disney+Hotstar VIP on November 9, is a remake of the hit Tamil movie Muni 2: Kanchana

From a star who has acted in 150 films, this is high praise indeed. But beyond just his role, Kumar was doffing his hat to southern cinema, which has inspired several successful remakes in Hindi in recent times.

The 2019 Hindi remake of Telugu blockbuster Arjun Reddy, directed by Sandeep Vanga, grossed nearly ₹300 crore, even as it was panned for its misogynistic hero. Starring Shahid Kapoor, Kabir Singh, in fact, listed among the top five Hindi films that year.

Old acquaintance: SM Sriramulu Naidu directs actors Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari in Azaad (1955), one of the earliest Hindi remakes from a Tamil film

Certainly not a recent phenomenon, South Indian remakes have struck gold in the Hindi film industry for decades now. One of the earliest remakes was Azaad (1955), starring Dilip Kumar and directed by SM Sriramulu Naidu, from the Tamil originalMalaikkallan starring MG Ramachandran. The movie — about a Robin Hood-esque hero who lives in the hills and steals from the rich to help the poor — was a hit and fetched Dilip Kumar his third Filmfare Award for Best Actor.

Ek Duuje Ke Liye, Sadma, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Hera Pheri, Virasat... Tamil film director Vasan Bala rattles off a list of names to make the point that South films have found favour in the Hindi film industry for decades. “Even South Indian social dramas, comedies and romantic films have always been remade since the past 50-odd years. We just talk more about the action movies,” he states.

In fact, in the ’50s and ’60s, AV Meiyappan of Chennai’s renowned AVM Studios produced numerous Hindi remakes — Barkha, Bhabhi, Bhai-Bhai, Miss Mary and Bindiya, among others — from Tamil films. These remakes were popular for their strong characterisations and the fact that they won accolades for the actors. Dil Ek Mandir (1963), a remake of the Tamil Nenjil Or Alayam and directed by CV Sridhar, starred Rajendra Kumar, Meena Kumari, Raaj Kumar and Mehmood. The movie — a love triangle of sorts featuring a husband who recovers from cancer, thanks to a doctor who’s in love with his wife — earned Raaj Kumar the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The ’70s, however, saw a lull in these imports as that was when stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Shashi Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor ruled the roost with their distinctive brand of screen presence, and Hindi films were transitioning to action-oriented plots from family and social dramas. Cut to the ’80s, southern heartthrob Sridevi’s move to Bollywood and her exponential rise saw the return of South remakes. She formed a hit pair with Jeetendra, and the duo shot to superstardom with a series of commercial successes (see box).

However, a few of the remakes were not so lucky. Dayavan (1988), a remake of Kamal Haasan’s superhit Nayakan (Tamil), directed by Mani Ratnam, left Hindi audiences cold. Similarly, after Sridevi and Anil Kapoor became a hot pair with the blockbuster hit Mr India, producer Nandu Tolani tried to recreate the magic with Mr Bechara (1996), a remake of the Tamil film Veetla Visheshanga, but failed. The cultural differences, local sensibilities, sense of humour and other nuances could not always be overcome by these crossover efforts.

Ready to roll

A ready template and a proven success — directors and distributors attribute these factors for backing remakes.

“You get to see the film and its success before you make a decision to be a part of it; and, two, the risk of committing to a project based on a narration or a script is ruled out,” explains Vanga. But there is a flip side, too. “When a film from South comes with a great performance and a mad following, it becomes very challenging for any actor who picks it up,” he says. Namely, the actor should not only outshine the performer in the original but also deliver a similar hit for his producer and his fans.

Dubbed South Indian films have been a staple on Hindi film channels, a fact that has encouraged Bollywood film-makers to go for remakes, says Shariq Patel, CEO, Zee Studios. “South Indian cinema caters to the masses, with their all-encompassing content. Their larger-than-life action sequences and gripping storylines have a different charm that attracts actors, film-makers, and audiences alike,” he adds.

Salman Khan’s remake hit parade

Salman Khan in a still from Wanted, a remake of a Telugu hit. The actor’s rise to superstardom was largely on the back of South Indian action remakes

  • Biwi No 1 (1995) — Sati Leelavati (Tamil) — ₹50 crore
  • Judwaa (1997) — Hello Brother (Telugu) — ₹24 crore
  • Tere Naam (2003) — Sethu (Tamil) — ₹24 crore
  • Wanted (2009) — Pokiri (Telugu) — ₹93 crore
  • Ready (2011) — Ready (Telugu) — ₹182 crore
  • Bodyguard (2011) — Bodyguard (Malayalam) — ₹230 crore
  • Kick (2014) — Kick (Telugu) — ₹233 crore

Salman Khan, one of the biggest names in Bollywood, has built a successful career by working mostly in South Indian action remakes. While he started off as a romantic lead in 1989 with Maine Pyar Kiya and followed it up with romantic comedies (such as Andaz Apna Apna and Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!) and romance dramas (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) in the ’90s, stardom eluded him. It was in the 2000s that he found his mojo with the remakes. Tere Naam (2003), a remake of the Tamil film Sethu — where he played a rough-and-tough college guy who is forbidden to love the daughter of a temple priest and ends up with brain damage — catapulted him into superstardom. A series of superhits followed: Kick, Wanted, Judwaa and Ready. He is currently working on Kabhi Eid Kabhi Diwali, a remake of the hit Tamil film Veeram — a family drama revolving around five brothers — which is due for release in 2021.

Scripting away the old formula

Salman Khan was one of the first heroes to break into the ₹100-crore club — a moniker signifying the box-office earnings of these films — thanks largely to remakes. Today, producers eye ₹300-crore earnings every time a Salman Khan film is released. Not surprisingly, other top Hindi stars — including Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar — have hopped onto the remake bandwagon. But with one important difference.

There has been a major shift away from the earlier preference for action films — the commercial ‘masala’ genre with the regulation three fights, five song-and-dance routines and some romance template — and towards movies with interesting scripts.

The explosion in satellite television and streaming platforms has meant that more and more audiences are now exposed to international entertainment and their production values, including the wide gamut of content. That, in turn, has created a demand for local entertainment that is equally varied, unique and leavened with a fresh perspective on some old favourite topics. If Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), remade from Kalyana Samayal Saadham (Tamil), was about erectile dysfunction, then Kabir Singh had a leading man who was flawed — short-tempered, misogynistic, heartbroken and bent on self-destruction.

Some of the upcoming remakes have interesting plot lines. Actor John Abraham has acquired the rights for Ayyappanum Koshiyum (Malayalam), which is about a feud between a cop and a retired army man. Telugu film Jersey, which will star Shahid Kapoor in the Hindi version, revolves around a failed cricketer who returns to the game in his 30s to gift his son a team jersey.

Coming soon... in Hindi

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a remake of a Tamil film, owes its success to the writing by Hitesh Kewalya that translated it well for Hindi audiences

 

  • Jersey (Telugu) — starring Shahid Kapoor
  • Kaithi (Tamil) — starring Ajay Devgn
  • Vikram Vedha (Tamil) — starring Saif Ali Khan, Aamir Khan
  • Comali (Tamil) — starring Arjun Kapoor
  • Veeram (Tamil) — starring Salman Khan
  • Anjaam Pathira (Malayalam)
  • Ayyappanum Koshiyum (Malayalam)

One of the most talked about remakes has been that of the Tamil 2017 neo-noir action thriller Vikram Vedha, starring R Madhavan — a familiar face in Hindi cinema — and Tamil star Vijay Sethupathi. Based on the mythological ‘Vikram Aur Betaal’ premise, in which a wise king and a ghost match wits, the movie pits a cop against a gangster, with the latter forcing a rethink of the cop’s perceptions of good and bad. Vikram Vedha was the second highest grossing Tamil film that year, right behind Baahubali 2 — the expensively mounted story of a larger-than-life epic hero. The Hindi remake of Vikram Vedha, produced by Reliance Entertainment and Neeraj Pandey, will reportedly star Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan, with Pushkar-Gayathri, the husband-wife director duo of the Tamil original, wielding the megaphone here too.

Remarking on Bollywood’s southward gaze, Madhavan says, “Films which have commercial value as well as being high in content are a hallmark of South Indian films, and Bollywood is slowly imbibing [that] and seeing that it’s working out brilliantly for them.”

As for the action genre, Madhavan thinks they can never go out of style but are forced to buck up in the face of stiff competition. “The challenge is that action has to be as good as — if not better than — Hollywood films because we’re competing with international films, which are getting theatrical releases in India. Action will be appreciated as long as the guy/ girl looks strong and flexible and powerful enough to win that fight.”

Take the case of Akshay Kumar, who was long dubbed ‘Action Khiladi’, thanks to his predominantly action-hero filmography. Now he is slowly veering away from this image, with a clutch of movies revolving around themes of social uplift and patriotism. He interspersed these with comedy and horror outings, which had a strong audience connect.

His upcoming film Laxmmi Bomb is in the horror-comedy genre. While he has earlier tried something similar with Bhool Bhulaiyaa, the actor says his latest work introduced him to a new version of himself that he didn’t know existed. So while the actor continues to experiment with social themes, the need to satisfy the evolving taste of audiences and explore new challenges for himself has found him looking southwards for inspiration.

Similarly, actor Ajay Devgn is readying to go on the floors with Kaithi, his 10th South remake. He has tasted success at the box office, with most of his remakes crossing the ₹100-crore mark — Singham and Yuva from Tamil; Drishyam and Golmaal: Fun Unlimited from Malayalam; and Son of Sardar, Himmatwala, Sunday and Insan from Telugu.

“The attraction of doing a remake from an actor’s point of view is that he or she can choose a subject which is already proven commercially; also, it’s easier to relate to a character and story once you see on the screen vis-a-vis reading a script,” says Shibasish Sarkar, group chief executive officer, Reliance Entertainment, which has produced several successful remakes of South Indian movies in Hindi, including Singham, Bodyguard, Simmba and Holiday.

He adds that while Malayalam films are known for their content, Telugu and Kannada are known for their wholesome entertainment (song/dance/comedy/action) and Tamil films tend to combine both these aspects.

Twinkle-toeing their way to the North

Southern dancing sensation Prabhu Deva matches steps with the redoubtable Madhuri Dixit in Pukar

  • Hindi cinema in the ’80s was suddenly awash with the colours of South Indian movies, with the hit films and dance moves of the Jeetendra-Sridevi leading pair dominating the silver screen for close to five years. In their 16 movies together in half a decade, the duo left cinegoers with memories of briskly executed jhatak-mataks set to foot-tapping music, extravagantly designed sets and countless costume changes — a clear influence of South Indian cinema. A large number of these hit movies were helmed by the ace Telugu director K Raghavendra Rao.
  • Rewinding even further back, you find that the South Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam was brought to the Hindi screen in the 1950s and ’60s thanks to Sayee and Subbulakshmi. The duo, trained by the renowned dance teacher and choreographer Muthuswami Pillai, were famous for their synchronised dancing in Tamil cinema before they ventured into Telugu and Hindi films. Southern actress Vyjayanthimala, a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, became one of Bollywood’s leading ladies and dazzled Northern audiences with her flawless moves.
  • In the new millennium, choreographer-turned-actor and director Prabhu Deva waltzed his way from Tamil cinema to Bollywood in the movie Pukar (2000). The song Que Sera Sera, picturised with “the Michael Jackson of India” in the company of the dancing powerhouse Madhuri Dixit Nene, became an instant rage. Light-footed with peppy, fast and rhythmic movements, Deva got legions of stars to move as well as he does! Though he has turned a full-time director now, he does choreograph occasionally, and inevitably has a hit on his hands.

Lose the accent

But while adapting or remaking an already proven film is an effective way to ensure box office success, a key factor is how well the movie is localised to cater to Hindi-speaking audiences. Case in point is the Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a remake of the small-budget Tamil film Kalyana Samayal Saadham, directed by RS Prasanna. The Hindi film was made on a budget of ₹25 crore and went on to gross nearly ₹65 crore. One of the main factors attributed to its success is the writing by Hitesh Kewalya for Hindi audiences.

Actors Sridevi and Jeetendra in Himmatwala, a runaway crossover hit from Telugu

Shariq Patel has the last word when he says, “Every industry has a golden period and the cinema movement from the ’70s and ’80s [marked by the emergence of path-breaking Hindi parallel cinema] can’t be overlooked. Be it South Indian cinema or Bollywood, we all adapt and reflect society. I (personally) feel Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal, Kundan Shah, Govind Nihalani, etc, have given us some fine content films. If you look at the timeline, Bollywood is constantly evolving and content is the hero in today’s scenario. While song-and-dance is still very much a part of the Bollywood DNA, we are definitely experimenting with content and moved past the ‘happily ever after’ phase to a more realistic approach.”

Latha Srinivasan is a journalist based in Chennai

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Published on October 23, 2020
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