KGF 2, RRR, Pushpa: The southern Indian films winning on Bollywood's turf
For decades, Bollywood, which makes Hindi films, was seen as synonymous with Indian films while other-language industries were termed "regional". But are the sands shifting a little now?
APRIL 20: Last week, KGF 2, a Kannada film which was also dubbed into other languages, released in 4,500 screens across India - a number usually reserved for Bollywood superstars such as Salman Khan.
After a spectacular opening, the movie - the sequel to a flamboyant 2018 hit about a gangster who fights to take over a gold mine - looks set to become one of India's biggest box-office hits.
KGF 2 came on the heels of Telugu-language blockbuster RRR, which is still drawing crowds in northern Indian theatres.
A couple of months ago, another Telugu film, Pushpa, performed well with the Hindi audience before streaming online - since then, its dialogues and songs have sparked hundreds of Instagram reels.
Over decades, many filmmakers have attempted to make "pan-Indian" films that appeal to audiences across the country - a major challenge considering the diversity of languages and cultures in India. Some, like Tamil directors Mani Ratnam and Shankar, succeeded once in a while with films that addressed larger, "national" anxieties, dramatic love stories or grand productions featuring big stars.
But these efforts were intermittent. Bollywood films had bigger budgets as they were aimed at a larger audience - Hindi is by far the most widely spoken language in India. In comparison, films in other languages didn't have that much appetite for risk.
Now, the back-to-back success of KGF 2, RRR and Pushpa - seven years after Telugu blockbuster Baahubali opened the doors - has given new hope.
"There couldn't be better news for Indian cinema," media specialist Vanita Kohli-Khandekar wrote recently about the rise of the pan-Indian movie.
"It means more tickets sold and therefore more revenues."
Film critic Anupama Chopra agrees the change is welcome.
"The industries in the south are making absolutely fantastic films and it's wonderful that they are reaching new audiences. I think that this cross-pollination between industries is only going to help Indian cinema move ahead," she says, pointing to the quality and variety of smaller southern movies released on streaming platforms during the pandemic.
In the meantime, Bollywood is seeing a shift in viewership patterns. In a bid to appeal to multiplex audiences and urbane viewers of streaming platforms, it has been making fewer mass entertainers that revolve around a larger-than-life hero. While the diversity in its stories and performers has improved, there is a large section of the traditional audience that feels underserved.
Bollywood's biggest hit so far this year is Kashmir Files, a controversial movie on the exodus of Hindus from Kashmir that was backed by right-wing politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In the past decade, the industry has also shifted from an overt reliance on its big three superstars - Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. Actresses such as Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt and industry outsiders like Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkumar Rao now regularly headline movies with strong scripts.
Trade analyst Komal Nahta thinks Bollywood's audiences still love the big blockbuster. It's just that southern industries are making them with better scripts and slicker visuals.
Salman Khan's last release, Radhe - delayed a year because of the pandemic - was a flop, even though it included many of the tropes that worked for his earlier movies. Critics panned the film for its lacklustre scripting and generic storytelling.
"I think Hindi cinema got lazy in its rendition of the big, commercial film. They became too reliant on the stars. But the manna from heaven arrives only when you put a great star with a great script," Ms Chopra says.
Mr Nahta insists, however, that Bollywood shouldn't worry.
"People like to say Bollywood is dead, cinema is dead but recent films such as Suryavanshi was a hit, Gangubai Kathiawadi did well and Kashmir Files was a blockbuster," he says.
The current anxiety, he adds, is because Pushpa, RRR and KGF 2 released so close to each other.
"It seems to have shaken the confidence of Bollywood and, actually, trade people's confidence in Bollywood films."
The rise of the crossover film didn't happen overnight.
Film journalist Aseem Chhabra points out that dubbed versions of big Hollywood films such as Spiderman and Batman have worked with audiences across India.
"They showed there is an audience for dubbed films," he says.
Satellite TV channels, which began airing Telugu films dubbed in Hindi around a decade ago, made several actors from the industry recognisable to the northern Indian audience.
The Telugu industry - which, starting with Baahubali in 2015, has produced most of the pan-Indian successes - also began changing around this time.
While Telugu viewers prefer star-driven movies with plenty of traditional "masala" elements, mixing romance, action, melodrama and comedy, newer filmmakers have blended these with good story-telling, says journalist Sangeetha Devi K, who tracks the industry.
"SS Rajamouli [who directed Baahubali] changed the game with Magadheera and Eega, where the emotional undercurrent of the story and the characters drove the action sequences," she says.
The industry also managed to expand the scale of its productions - dubbed films worked well in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, increasing profits and hence budgets.
"The Telugu and Tamil population abroad is also a sizable market. I think all this has contributed to films being produced with bigger budgets," Ms Devi says.
She points out, however, that not all ambitious crossover films can work, as the recent failure of Prabhas-starrer Radhe Shyam shows.
Though their budgets are usually smaller, the Tamil and Malayalam film industries also have a new crop of promising filmmakers, indicating that viewers, especially those with access to streaming platforms, will continue to be spoilt for choice.
But it's hard to predict what the future will be like - for instance, whether only star-driven spectacles can be pan-Indian theatrical successes. As Ms Chopra points out, there is no certainty right now if viewers will pay to watch even smaller Hindi films in theatres, let alone smaller dubbed films.
"Conventional wisdom right now is that people will come into theatres for an event movie, but they will not come for smaller films," she says, adding, however, that the success of Kashmir Files - which had no big stars - complicates this belief.
Bollywood remakes of southern hits - which have paid off well for actors such as Salman and Shahid Kapoor - are also likely to be fewer in number.
"If a Hindi viewer can access the dubbed version, they don't need to watch a Bollywood star doing the same movie again," Mr Chhabra says.
As a critic and viewer, Ms Chopra says she is happy to see other film industries in the spotlight.
"Bollywood has monopolised it for much too long," she says.
With inputs ffrom BBC