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The rise and rise of regional cinema

Akshaya Chandrasekaran | Updated on: Jan 26, 2022
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Move over Bollywood! It is films from other regions that are setting the screens ablaze winning over audiences pan India

Telugu film Pushpa: The Rise has scorched the screens raking in more than ₹250 crore at the box office, edging out the much-hyped cricket saga 83 from theatres. The Hindi version of P ushpa alone has reportedly crossed the ₹80-crore mark, close to what many big-budget Bollywood films make. It has single-handedly brought back audiences to theatres at a time when home viewing was becoming a habit. It seems like the film chronicles not just the rise of its hero Allu Arjun, but is also a testament to the growing clout of regional cinema.

“Audiences have become language agnostic. What was true for OTT has now spread to cinema halls too. If Telugu cinema is able to give a full Indian, commercial cinema experience, then the audience will go for it,” says Rajiv Menon, Director and Cinematographer.

Massive crowds at a theatre in Hyderabad where Pushpa was released on December 17

Massive crowds at a theatre in Hyderabad where Pushpa was released on December 17

In India, the size and scale of the Bollywood industry is unmatched and movie-goers have historically preferred their popular films in Hindi. This left regional cinema in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada — and even more so in Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi and Bhojpuri — restricted to their geographies. But things are starting to change.

“Film scripts are re-written, dubbed, and released in multiple languages, instead of mere translation. Marketing efforts for pan-India cinema have drastically improved, impacted audience mindset in a positive way, and made them way more willing to watch movies in languages other than Hindi,” says media and internet research analyst Karan Taurani.

Beyond native markets

“Pan-India is a phenomenon we cannot diminish or dilute,” said Producer-Director Karan Johar during a recent producer’s round-table discussion organised by Film Companion. The triumph of period spectacle-series Bahubali (2015 and 2017) heralded the start of something new and altered the image of regional cinema, added Johar.

Fans celebrate the release of Baahubali 2

Fans celebrate the release of Baahubali 2

The most notable ripples from the Bahubali victory may be seen in other languages. Malayalam film Puli Murugan (2016), Marathi film Sairat (2016), Bengali film Amazon Abhigyon (2017), Kannada film KGF (2018), and Gujarati film Chal Jeevi Laye (2019), all blockbuster hits, clocked in numbers similar to large scale Hindi movies and went beyond their native markets. Some of them were also re-made in Hindi and other languages.

In 2017, soon after the Bahubali rumble receded, chatter around Tamil film Visaranai began over its entry in Oscar’s best international feature category. In 2021, Malayalam film Jallikattu did the same. This year, once again, another Tamil film Koozhangal has been picked by the Film Federation of India to represent India at the 94 th Academy Awards in March. This decade, seven of the 10 films submitted to the Oscar’s were regional.

A still from Tamil film Koozhangal, selected as India’s entry to the international feature film category at the Oscars

A still from Tamil film Koozhangal, selected as India’s entry to the international feature film category at the Oscars

Can such breakthrough films transform the way the movie business is done? Industry watchers say the trend is here to stay and credit the shift, in part, to two factors.

The first is OTT and streaming platforms which have quashed the idea of limited distribution that theatres upheld for so long. Theatres are selective about what movies they show but with digital, there is a larger opportunity for a wider audience to watch films with no bar on language.

The second factor, they say, is ironically cable TV. A majority of the Hindi-speaking audience in Tier 2 and 3 cities, and rural areas, has been watching dubbed versions of regional movies for many years now and has gradually developed a liking to them. These films and film-making styles are not alien to Hindi audience — some of the biggest masala films in Bollywood ( Wanted, Bodyguard and Ready) are re-makes of Telugu films.

This shift is also credited to stronger marketing by regional cinema producers — creative posters, tantalising promos, social media teasers and road shows.

“Regional is an idea whose time has come. Hindi cinema is facing threats from all directions. Malayalam and Tamil cinema has completely engulfed the OTT-watching, urban audience, and the grandeur and mass appeal of Telugu cinema has penetrated the Tier 2 and Tier 3 TV-watching audience,” says Naveen Chandra, CEO of regional film studio Mumbai Movie Studio.

To tap the potential of this fast-growing regional industry, Chandra set up The Story Tellers Fund, a SEBI-approved regional film fund, partnering with a London-based boutique investment management company, in November 2019. The fund offers regional filmmakers organised capital and access to distribution across India. In October 2020, they further enhanced the scope and launched the production house Mumbai Movie Studios.

Crossover films

Over the next few months, two massive films — Rajamouli’s RRR and Puri Jagannadh’s Liger — could become the benchmark of the successed of regional cinema. RRR, led by Telugu stars Jr NTR and Ram Charan, has also cast Hindi talent Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn. Liger, starring Vijay Devarakonda, also features Hindi actor Ananya Pandey. These are large-scale movies, released in Hindi and Telugu, headlined by stars who are relatively unknown to Hindi audiences.

Ram Charan and NTR in RRR

Ram Charan and NTR in RRR

The release of such crossover films is a supportive trend that strengthens the ecosystem and works out favourably for the cinema industry overall, says Taurani. “It offers more variety to the audience and provides reasons to go to the theatres more often. When the frequency increases, occupancy goes up and there’s a huge potential for more seats being added.”

However, he feels regional films will only be a threat to small and medium-budget Hindi films, and larger films will remain unaffected.

Although this regional wave of growth has been helmed by the South Indian film industry, Chandra says niche industries in the shadows have shown massive growth too.

“In 2011, there were only a total of eight films made in Punjabi. But in 2018, 56 films have come out, of which Char Shahibzaade has collected ₹78 crore at the box office, and five films have crossed the ₹50-crore mark. What’s unbelievable is that, as of 2019, in Punjab, the collection from Punjabi films has surpassed Hindi films. This is unheard of,” he says.

In the next decade, it is expected that many regional films will set brand new benchmarks and many actors will cross over to other regions in their quest for a nationwide fan following.

“Bhojpuri actors who are villains in Tamil films will soon be heroes,” quips Chandra, and adds, “A captivating story with universal themes can travel beyond borders. The day is not far when more than 50 per cent of a film’s revenue will come from markets outside its language, from absolutely alien viewers in other languages.”

Published on January 24, 2022

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