Can SRK Break The Southern Comfort?

2022 was a year of hits for south Indian films and misses for Bollywood. Will the latter learn from its debacle or will it again bank on star power for deliverance?     

The year was 2015 when Telugu actor Prabhas, little known beyond southern states, suddenly became a household name across the country as S.S. Rajamouli-directed Baahubali: The Beginning broke records. Two years later, its sequel Baahubali: The Conclusion surpassed the previous one’s performance. Together, the two films, released in multiple languages, raked in more than Rs 2,000 crore. The Baahubali franchise announced the arrival of south Indian films on the national screen; the film-loving Indian realised that an entertainer in any language was still as entertaining, and warmly received them. The humongous success of RRR and K.G.F Chapter 2, released in multiple languages in 2022, dispelled all remaining doubts about the pan-India appeal of dubbed south Indian movies. Both collected more than Rs 1,000 crore each at the box office.

According to the November box office report compiled by media consulting firm Ormax Media, Hindi cinema’s share in gross domestic box office between January and November 2022 was 35%, down from 44% in 2019. Films in the four south Indian languages—Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam—together contributed over 52%. The cumulative box office earning for this period is Rs 9,751 crore.

The firm’s report on gross domestic box office earnings shows that of the top 10 releases between January and November 2022, six were south Indian films. K.G.F: Chapter 2 in Kannada, RRR in Telugu, Kantara in Kannada and Ponniyin Selvan: 1 in Tamil claimed the top four slots, with Brahmastra being the sole Bollywood film in the top five list. The other Bollywood films were The Kashmir Files at Number 6 and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 at the ninth place. Tamil film Vikram was placed seventh. Drishyam 2, the eighth film in the list, is a Hindi remake of a Malayalam film. It was again a Tamil film, Beast, at Number 10.

IMDb’s Indian Films Box Office Report, based on worldwide gross earnings, passed a similar verdict. Its list has four south Indian films among the top five, with the only change being Vikram at the fourth place.

Bar Brahmastra and Drishyam 2, no big-ticket Bollywood film could impress at the box office. Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha, Hrithik Roshan’s Vikram Vedha, Akshay Kumar’s Samrat Prithviraj, Ram Setu, Bachchhan Pandey and Raksha Bandhan and Ranbir Kapoor’s Shamshera failed to break even, ending up as either a “disaster” or a “big flop”.

An analysis of the top-grossing films shows that budget or region does not seem to matter when it comes to its appeal. Laal Singh Chaddha, made on a scale of Rs 180 crore, managed to rake in worldwide gross of just around Rs 127 crore, of which Rs 57 crore was from the domestic market, as per an IMDb report. On the other hand, Kantara, with a meagre budget of Rs 15 crore and released just a month after Laal Singh Chaddha, made over Rs 393 crore worldwide, of which nearly Rs 190 crore came from the overseas market. The movie became the second-highest grossing Kannada film of all time after K.G.F: Chapter 2. Brahmastra, directed by Ayan Mukerji and co-produced by Dharma Productions, was made with a budget of around Rs 315 crore and earned approximately Rs 412 crore worldwide, as per IMDb.

Anatomy of Devolution

The list of memorable movies that Bollywood churned out over the last two decades is long and the plots diverse. Tanhaji was probably the last major Hindi film to be released before cinemas were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic which did some decent business. However, the lull that set in since then is something the industry has not yet been able to shake off. Even big names failed to pull crowds to the multiplexes.

In November 2021, Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi collected around Rs 200 crore at ticket counters. Industry experts rushed to announce the return of Bollywood’s good days. But they were soon corrected. For a while, the long queues for advance booking of Kabir Khan’s 83 made Bollywood believe that the popularity of its films was intact. But all the confidence in the success of the Ranveer Singh-Deepika Padukone film sank when it failed to stand up to Pushpa: The Rise, released simultaneously in five languages. Not only did 83 fail to do business, it ended up being pulled off several screens to make way for more shows of Pushpa.

There were multiple factors contributing to the scenario—the pandemic, loss of income, economic slowdown and rise of OTT platforms to name a few. But critics blame it on the dearth of fresh ideas. Inability of production houses to churn out fresh content due to lockdown norms, combined with the rise of OTT platforms that bridged the accessibility divide across regions and languages allowed viewers to watch dubbed content from other language industries, including south India. Baahubali, and later K.G.F 1, had given them a glimpse of the talent and content available in south India.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people shifted to OTT. They started consuming not just Indian, but also international content. In India, they were exposed to a variety of content in languages other than Hindi, like Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, etc. It widened their horizons,” says Taran Adarsh, film critic and trade analyst. Bollywood films that had been planned pre-pandemic were released several months later. But, by then, audience’s tastes had changed, he explains, adding “They had already decided what to watch and on which platform.”

As this article goes to print the question everyone is asking is: Can Shah Rukh Khan break Bollywood’s dry spell at the box office. Pathaan is the superstar’s comeback to the theatres after a long gap of four years. The setting, context and backstories leading up to the release of this SRK-starrer make up for a masala potboiler. And there are multiple narratives and jinxes that Khan has to break with this film. Its dry spell at the box office notwithstanding, Bollywood desperately needs a hit to quell the growing troll machine calling for its boycott. There is palpable fear around the success of the trolls within the industry; not to forget demands of its isolation on charges of nepotism. And to the rescue are three “outsiders”, SRK, Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, the lead cast of Pathaan.

Pathaan is not just any film; the social media has amplified it as a battle between love and hate, where only SRK can spread his arms and help us return to the fast fading idea of an inclusive India. And for many, SRK’s personal faith is adding that touch of epic in this battle.

If early numbers are to be believed Pathaan is all that Bollywood has been asking for. But SRK has a daunting task; he has to follow up the success of Pathaan, part the sea of trolls and deliver an entire industry to a promised land with restored glory. For that the king of Bollywood has two more releases that are lined up this year, Jawan and Dunki.

His star appeal might have spelled early magic for Pathaan and pacified certain sections on social media but it does not solve the much bigger problems staring an industry, where content and not SRK should be king.

Bollywood’s Lost Mojo

Gautam Jain, partner at Ormax Media, says that south Indian films get creative assets, whether it is trailer or poster or songs, right. This helps in keeping the audiences excited throughout the promotion campaign right till the release day, he adds. “Filmmakers from south India, especially of Telugu and Kannada films which have done well, know their film and their audience well. They usually do not try to promise something that is not going to be in the film just to get the audience excited,” he says.

“Since the growth of multiplexes and digital distribution 2010 onwards, a lot of focus in Hindi cinema was on making urban stories appealing to the metro, multiplex audiences, which led to the alienation of mini-metro and small-town Hindi film viewers who graduated to watching dubbed films from the south on TV and YouTube,” says Jain. Due to higher ticket prices, these films would get good collections but not the same footfalls, he explains.

Film historian and archivist S.M.M. Ausaja attributes the situation in present day Bollywood to “a bankruptcy of ideas”. “Earlier we had stars who could pull off bad films. Today you do not have stars who have the ability to do it,” he says. According to him, filmmakers of the south work hard on content, presentation and technology, which is why their films do well. On the same note, he blames the complacency of Bollywood filmmakers for the films’ lacklustre performance. “Bollywood is stuck in a system where if you have two big stars, you assume that your film will sell, and you need not bother about the story,” he remarks.

The OTT Effect

Affordable internet connection and rationalised subscription plans are cited as the most important reasons for the growth of OTT services in India, the other factors being cost, ease of use, convenience and user customisation.

A KPMG report of 2019 is estimated that India would have more than 500 million online video subscribers by FY23. The report further noted that regional content started getting due recognition on OTT platforms as subscription video on demand platforms began to focus on building a library of regional content, including movies and originals, over the past 12–18 months. Dubbing emerged as an effective tool for players to quickly expand the breadth of original and movie content available across multiple regional languages, it added.

“Post-Covid, the metro audiences joined the OTT bandwagon and no longer felt the need to visit cinemas to watch urban stories. But they did not mind making a visit for larger-than-life spectacles and rooted cinema which they would not be able to enjoy on streaming,” says Jain.

“For people to pay a premium for the cinematic experience, the pull of ‘premium cinematic feature films’ is a pre-requisite. Four of us watched Brahmastra at IMAX. I am not exaggerating when I say that the money we spent for that one afternoon is enough to fund one year’s subscriptions of Netflix+Prime+Hotstar+Liv+Zee5. Now everytime I think of watching a movie at cinemas, this math will be at the back of my mind,” says Neeraj Sharma, managing director, communications, media and technology, Accenture, India.

Hitting the Right Chord

One much-awaited part of Bollywood movies used to be their music. However, not many songs in recent times can boast of an enraptured audience. Ausaja is critical of the music in many new releases in Bollywood. “Music now is cacophony. The ultimate aim seems to be to make music that is popular in pubs and lounges,” he rues.

Bollywood’s reliance on remixes—call it overconfidence or helplessness—has come in for a lot of criticism. Here too, south Indian films are scoring well. Last month, Naatu Naatu from RRR became the first Indian song to win an award for the “Best Original Song” at the 80th Golden Globes. And now it has also bagged an Oscar nomination.

“This year should definitely be better for the Hindi film industry. The year 2022 had a lot of films, including big ones which were supposed to release pre-pandemic and therefore did not suit audience taste, while 2023 has the advantage of films which were greenlighted after the pandemic keeping in mind the new audience expectations,” says an optimistic Jain.

His optimism is reflected in Ormax Media’s list of most-awaited Indian films in which, with the exception of Pushpa: The Rule, the rest are from Bollywood. Apart from Pathaan, the list has Jawan, to be released in June, and Dunki in December. Salman Khan’s Tiger 3 is scheduled to release around Diwali. The box office verdict will show if Bollywood has learnt its lessons.