Apologies for the radio silence but I am back once again eager to write about all things entertainment. One of the biggest phenomena we have seen this year is the lacklustre performance of Bollywood films at the box office and the growing popularity of southern language films –  Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. While Mumbai trade pundits are baffled at what has caused this change, the film industries in the south are excited about this sea change and the recognition they are finally getting from the Hindi-speaking audience in North India. Oscar winning-director of Korean film ‘Parasite’ Bong Joon Ho famously said, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” And this is precisely what is happening in Indian cinema today.
One of the key factors that has heralded this change in the Indian entertainment industry is the Covid pandemic and the forced lockdown that people went through. In the last three years, the Indian audience has discovered OTT platforms and thanks to the diverse content available on them, not just in terms of genres but even languages, has helped them discover a whole new world.
Subscriptions have increased across OTT platforms and people are lapping up non-Hindi content extensively. The March 2022 EY-FICCI report stated that in 2021, the South Indian film industry generated three times the box office revenues of Hindi films, with a total of Rs 2,400 crore.
Now why has content from south India seen its popularity soar?
Firstly, the kind of stories that these films showcase is fresh and innovative for the North Indian audience. ‘RRR’, ‘Pushpa’, ‘KGF2’, ‘Charlie 777’ and ‘Vikram’ are nothing like what Bollywood has produced and this brings us to the second point – the quality and technical brilliance of these productions. Right from magnificent sets to thrilling action to beautiful sound to spectacular cinematography, south Indian language films have proved that no matter how big or small the budget is they can deliver quality cinema. The sheer variety of cinema that is offered by the south films is something that Bollywood can only dream to offer. Take these two extremely different films for example – If the Malayalam film ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ was made on a budget of Rs 2 crore, then we have the Kannada film ‘KGF2’ made on a budget of Rs 100 crore. Both films were loved by the audience (one on OTT and one in theatres) because of their strong storyline, narration style and quality of filmmaking.
Over the last few years, many single screens in the Hindi heartland have been playing south language films with subtitles and the audience there has developed a taste for them. The epic fantasy and larger-than-life films that are being produced in south languages have found a ready audience in the north and coupled with emotional and sentimental dramas, the south language films have slowly edged out Hindi cinema. The realistic performances and talent of south actors is being hailed and recognized in the Hindi heartland and names like Allu Arjun Rashmika Mandanna, Samantha, Prabhas, Yash, Prithviraj, Vijay Deverakonda, Sudeep, Ram Charan and Junior NTR are part of their lingo.
Keeping with this trend, distributors in north India have started to push for more dubbed releases of south language films and this has augured well for south Indian producers. Even smaller films like ‘Maanaadu’ (Tamil) and ‘Major’ (Telugu) find a ready audience in the northern territory and with a wider release, producers are not just looking to make more money but also increase their reach across India.
The big advantage that south cinema currently has is that the Hindi-speaking market up North has opened up and there are more territories they can foray into. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Bollywood, since its penetration into the south Indian market has already reached its maximum capacity.
Now, what does this all mean for Hindi cinema? The important aspect that directors and writers in Bollywood need to look at is the kind of stories they are narrating on screen. What Hindi producers need to do is start collaborating with south Indian directors, writers and actors for better content and luckily, this is a trend that has already started. The Hindi-speaking audience today is no longer willing to accept shoddy content with poor production and performances. The audience fatigue with content being rehashed and churned out has reached its peak and this is reflecting in the box office figures of Hindi films. This needs to change if Hindi cinema is to thrive once again.
Pan-Indian cinema is a term that has come to be bandied about much now but if the Hindi film industry and south language industries find a middle ground where they all can work together successfully and create success at the box office then we can achieve one healthy Indian film industry where everyone gets a share of the monetary pie and the audience gets quality content.