It is one of the most anticipated films of the year and a Hindi cinema superstar, Ajay Devgn, appears in it for just 15 minutes. A role that he did not hesitate to sign once the director told him about it. That’s the power of one of India’s greatest directors today, SS Rajamouli, whose Baahubali: the beginning (2015) alerted Bollywood to its impending demolition. Since then, the success of Baahubali 2: the conclusion (2017) and KGF: Chapter 1 (2018), a COVID-induced lockdown on box office revenue, the emergence of streaming platforms and the muddled Bollywood narrative ensured the rise of the Southern film industry.
The Bollywood film, once a big brother, is gradually being replaced by pan-Indian film, like Rajamouli’s RRR, with star actors from all over the country and stories born from the hinterland. Every industry is no longer happy to spiral in its own orbit. Paths cross and sparks fly.
It was time too. Hindi films have always borrowed scripts from Southern films and vice versa. From Mani Ratnam’s blockbusters such as Nayakan (1987), Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995), which were made simultaneously in multiple languages (Tamil, Telugu and Hindi), Tamil films attempted to enter the Hindi-language market. Multilingual productions have become more common and have made financial sense within the South Indian film industry, although they have remained almost non-existent in Bollywood.
The Southern film industry has broadened the national imagination, adding greater diversity, new stories and new ways of being Indian, says film scholar Selvaraj Velayutham. Bollywood started to sound fake, disconnected and spoke of a narrowly defined pan-Indianness, which was limited to the North.
But like AR Rahman’s music or SP Balasubrahmanyam’s song, it couldn’t be denied for long. Baahubali opened the floodgates for a new kind of cinema where Malayalam actor Fahadh Faasil can play an evil policeman, Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat, in Pushpa: the ascent, the latest Telugu pot on red sandalwood smugglers, and Tamil superstar Dhanush may be the sensitive Tamil doctor Vishu in love with a young Bihar woman in Aanand L. Rai’s Arangi Re. The country is no longer unitary, why wouldn’t its pop culture reflect it? As young people move from region to region for work and love, different dialects and different faces are audible and visible.
For the first time, the Indian film industry is on the verge of realizing its full potential, as it should. After all, if the Indian film industry’s annual gross box office earnings before the pandemic were Rs 12,000 crore, other languages must also be acknowledged. Bollywood accounts for Rs 6,000 crore of total box office receipts, Hollywood Rs 1,500 crore, Southern film industry is at Rs 3,600 crore (Rs 1,500 crore each for Tamil and Telugu, and Rs 300 crore for Malayalam and Kannada). Other regional cinemas such as Marathi, Bhojpuri and Bengali comprise the rest of the Rs 900 crore of total revenue.
“Language is only a means of communication. In movies, we communicate with the audience through images. I’ve always believed that if a story has the right emotion, like the mother finding the long-lost son, the language doesn’t matter at all. You connect with emotion,” says Rajamouli.
“When you finish the story, you see whether it is universal or regional in nature. You cannot force it. History decides itself. The extent to which you trust emotions is what matters,” he adds.
The actors agree. Telugu star Allu Sirish says that at least for big budget cinema, pan-Indian films will be the way to go. “Only big films can get theatrical release in all markets. But other smaller films also have a chance to reach a pan-Indian audience. My Own Film Okka Kshanam was dubbed in Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam on satellite and OTT. It performed well in all markets,” he says. So he’s now telling his directors, “Remember, we’re not making movies just for Telugu audiences anymore, we’re making pan-Indian movies in Telugu.”
So, what motivates inter-diffusion and inter-realization? Art or business? Or both? Actors work across languages - one example is how Alia Bhatt sought out Rajamouli for a role in RRR. Says Sirish: “Such casting makes the film more accessible to Hindi audiences (art) and increases market value (trade).”
The condescension has diminished. Previously, if a Hindi film actor worked in the South, it usually meant that his Bollywood career was over. Moreover, if Southern filmmakers wanted a technician from Bollywood, they would quote an unreasonable amount as a premium for working in a “regional film”. Today this is not the case. It’s considered a respectable career move. Previously, says Sirish, “We hardly got casting calls from Hindi filmmakers. But now, for various roles in Hindi projects, a lot of us actors from the South are being approached.
Nayanthara stars alongside Shah Rukh Khan in Atlee’s untitled film, while Prabhas is Kriti Sanon’s hero in Om Raut. Adipurush. Alia Bhatt can take recommendations on Malayalam movies to watch from her co-star Roshan Mathew in her first film production, darlings, while Raveena Tandon can play her role in KGF: Chapter 2 with as much enthusiasm as she approaches her starring role in the Netflix thriller Aranyak. The distance traveled by the rising stars of pan-Indian film will go beyond Mumbai’s Juhu-Andheri-Lokhandwala.
The author is a veteran journalist and former editor of India Today magazine. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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