After two years of pandemic restrictions India’s avid movie fans are flocking back to cinemas. But the revival has not been driven by Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindi language movie industry that has become synonymous with Indian film.
Blockbusters made in southern cities and characterised by superhero characters, mythology, violence and spectacular visual effects are enticing audiences back to the big screen, rather than the romantic storylines, comedies and dramas at which Bollywood excels.
Forecasters predict box office takings this year will beat the Rs109.5bn ($1.4bn) record set in 2019. But films playing in Hindi accounted for 34 per cent of India’s gross box office takings for the first seven months of 2022, down from 43 per cent on average in 2018, according to research consultancy Ormax Media. And 41 per cent of Hindi box office takings came from films originally shot in southern Indian languages such as Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam and dubbed into Hindi.
The trend is being driven by changes in the type of productions made in Bollywood, and by greater availability of subtitled films on streaming services which has increased Hindi-speaking audiences’ exposure to content made in the south.
Hindi speaker Ankit Pandey, 29, has switched his allegiance from Bollywood. “If you gave me both options, I would prefer south Indian movies any day,” said the Mumbai clothing salesman. “I don’t need to prevent my kids from watching certain parts, like in the Bollywood films,” he adds — a nod to Bollywood’s occasional racy sequences.
The recovery follows a bruising Covid-19 pandemic. Bollywood’s gross box office takings for 2021 plunged to almost a sixth of their 2019 level, to Rs8bn from Rs52bn, according to EY. South Indian films were more resilient, declining to Rs24bn from Rs40bn. Coronavirus restrictions on cinema attendance were lifted in most states by the start of this year.
Southern-language movies, filmed in cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai, are filling a mass entertainment void left by Bollywood, according to SS Rajamouli, director of 2015 Telugu and Tamil-language blockbuster Baahubali, which broke box office records for a south Indian film.
“The Hindi film industry was more into making urban-centric films,” said Rajamouli, adding that cinemagoers in the mass markets — India’s smaller cities and vast rural hinterland — “started feeling that the films were not to their taste”. An increase of multi-screen cinemas in cities encouraged Bollywood to produce more genre-specific films such as comedies and romances rather than all-action flicks with broader appeal, analysts said.
“In the south we still continued making those . . . more action-centric films,” said Rajamouli. “That brought the mass pockets of northern India, [who] started liking the dubbed films of the south.”
Bollywood’s own big budget “masala movies”, mass market offerings swinging from song and dance to fight scenes, were also struggling. July release Shamshera, starring household name Ranbir Kapoor and reportedly shot on a hefty Rs1.5bn budget, flopped.
But superhero action flick Brahmāstra: Part One, also starring Kapoor, may reinvigorate Bollywood’s fortunes. It grossed a respectable Rs2.25bn worldwide on its opening weekend this month, according to the film-makers.
Two southern releases have been this year’s biggest commercial hits, according to Ormax — the Kannada-language macho gangster drama KGF: Chapter 2, which grossed Rs9.7bn; and Rajamouli’s fantastical freedom fighter epic RRR, shot in Telugu and raking in Rs8.7bn.
Because KGF 2 and RRR have been such standout hits, “it may be premature to write off the kind of storytelling that Hindi cinema has been known for”, said Bollywood producer Vikram Malhotra, founder and chief executive of Abundantia Entertainment.
Nonetheless, bankable Bollywood stars are no longer a sure bet to draw crowds. But the leading actors in southern Indian-language films still command enormous followings that guarantee a sellout opening weekend.
“Going to the first show of your superstar’s film is a pilgrimage for south Indians,” said Pushkar, a predominantly Tamil language film-maker, who makes movies with his wife Gayathri, both only known by their family names. “That has changed in Hindi cinema.”
Nationwide southern Indian hits have been underpinned by new ways that movies reach audiences, partly thanks to the increased exposure of those releases on streaming services and wider distribution in cinemas.
Hindi is India’s official language, with 530mn speakers according to its last census in 2011. But 22 languages are recognised by the country’s constitution and, from Bengali to Malayalam, regional-language film industries thrive across India.
“Imagine it like Europe,” said Gaurav Gandhi, Amazon Prime Video’s India country head.
The total of 500 southern-language films released in 2021 was around five times the number of Hindi productions, according to media group Comscore.
Affluent southern states often have more cinema screens than the Hindi-speaking heartlands. Tamil Nadu, with a population of less than 80mn, has 1,104 screens; Hindi-speaking northern Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with nearly 230mn inhabitants, has just 539.
In the past “regional films were restricted to that regional area,” said Gayathri. “Now a lot of big films are being released across the country with subtitling or dubbing.”
For the four main southern languages, “50 per cent of their audiences started coming from outside the home state”, said Amazon’s Gandhi, adding that viewers devoured content during lockdown: Indians spent 52 per cent more time streaming in 2021 than they did in 2019, according to consumer data provider Data.ai.
“The linguistic palette of each customer has expanded,” said Gandhi.
Platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Hotstar are new territory for Telugu and Tamil filmmakers. Pushkar and Gayathri recently released thriller Suzhal: The Vortex on Amazon, its first big southern-language series.
For Rajamouli, language is always less important than the storyline. “The audience is putting their hard-earned money across the counter and buying a ticket. They don’t care whether the film comes from Hindi or Telugu.”
Additional reporting by Andrea Rodrigues in Mumbai