Why Indian cinema is the real winner in South vs Bollywood box office war

The breakout movies of 2022 from India were definitely from the South, but there were four films from the Hindi film industry among the IMDB list of the 10 most successful Indian films (worldwide gross).

By Yasser Usman

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Still from Kantara
Still from Kantara

Published: Thu 12 Jan 2023, 10:46 PM

Last updated: Fri 13 Jan 2023, 12:34 AM

‘Can Bollywood survive the Southern ‘invasion’?’

‘South Indian films show our stories, Bollywood has become too woke!’

‘Ab bas South ki films chalengi!’ (Now, only South films will perform!)

‘Isn’t Bollywood finished after the Southern ‘onslaught’?’

These are the kind of statements and questions regularly thrown at me as a writer on cinema with an Indian connection wherever I go around in London. What’s all this buzz about South-has-taken-over-Bollywood? Is it really accurate to say that the films from South India are performing phenomenally better than Hindi films? Let’s burst some bubbles.

Among the IMDB list of the 10 most successful Indian films (worldwide gross) of 2022, one is from the Telugu film industry (RRR), two from the Kannada film industry (KGF 2 and Kantara), three Tamil films (PS1, Vikram and Beast), and four from the Hindi film industry (The Kashmir Files, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Brahmastra Part 1:Shiva and Drishyam 2).

Four. Yes, that’s a fact though it comes with a caveat. The breakout movies of 2022 from India were definitely from the South. The blockbuster KGF Chapter 2 (from the Kannada industry) and RRR (from Telugu industry) both with a worldwide gross of over INR1,000 crore and among the global top 50 films of 2022. Even the low-budget Kantara (Kannada again) clocked INR400 crore. But South cinema, like Bollywood, had its fare share of disasters too.

Brahmastra Part 1:Shiva
Brahmastra Part 1:Shiva

Reality check

For every KGF2 or RRR, there are a number of films from the South that didn’t even make a blip on global radars.

In the Bollywood-versus-south cinema dichotomy, lost in translation is the fact that the ‘South Indian cinema’ actually comprises of four different film industries put together (Tamil or Kollywood, Telugu or Tollywood, Kannada or Sandalwood and Malayalam or Mollywood). It’s a bit unfair to collectively pit four equally competent film industries from the South against the Hindi film industry.

In a recent conversation with Atul Mohan, an Indian film trade expert, we agreed that the numbers show that just like Bollywood, South Indian cinema too had more flops than hits. “All South Indian films are great is a perception that has seeped deep into the psyche of audiences recently. The fact is even in the South the percentage of hit films has not seen any great surge. It remains less than 10 per cent as it used to be,” shares Atul.

Hits and misses

In all fairness, last year belonged to the Kannada film industry. KGF Chapter 2 and Kantara were two of the biggest blockbusters not just in Sandalwood but across film industries.

However, these were just two films out of the 202 Kannada films released last year. The profits of the rest of the 200 films put together were not anywhere close to that of these two blockbusters. Did anyone say Kannada film industry is dying? Plenty of Kannada films that sank without a trace are not talked about.

I agree in the post-Covid phase and the rise of OTT, film-viewing habits have drastically changed. Mostly larger-than-life spectacles and escapist movies providing an immersive experience can drive audiences to expensive theatres.

Films like KGF Chapter 2, RRR and Pushpa captured the scale, found a pan-India connect and broke the barriers of regions and languages. Karan Johar’s Brahmastra also achieved it, albeit not to the level of a KGF 2 or RRR. Bollywood is repeatedly badgered with the names of the big disasters like Samrat Prithviraj, Shamshera and Laal Singh Chaddha but expensive star vehicles from the South like Radhe Shyam, Liger, Godfather, Cobra, Monster and Maaran that bombed in 2022 are forgotten to build a one-sided narrative.

Perception game

Seems like Bollywood is losing the box office as well the perception game. How and when did the perception tilt so much in favour of the South cinema ‘domination’ narrative? And no, the answer is not some black-swan event that suddenly took off with the monstrous success of S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (2015).

The dubbed versions of his previous two blockbusters Magadheera (2009) and Eega (Makhkhi in Hindi, 2012) had garnered huge television ratings and created a base of loyal Hindi-speaking viewers much before Baahubali: The Beginning (2015).

Hindi audiences had finally discovered South Indian cinema — with its raw energy, new plots, splendour and formula done right. Not just television, during the last 15 years, the single screen theatres of North India struggling for survival with the advent of multiplexes ran these ‘South action films’ dubbed in Hindi. The reasonable print costs suited them and kept the viewers engaged.

No 'sudden revolution'

It was a silent but long, steady march into the Hindi heartland, not a ‘sudden revolution’ the way it is being projected. The best thing to emerge from the changing landscape is (finally!) the rise of the ‘Indian film’. Today, Allu Arjun’s Pushpa is as much a Hindi film as Brahmastra is a Tamil film as ShahRukh’s Pathaan is Telugu.

RRR is in the Oscars not as a Telugu film but as an Indian film. Perhaps, for the first time, the barriers of languages, regions and stardom have finally been shattered. Our cinema has expanded beyond the confines of Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada or Malayalam languages. Finally, we have something we can truly call an ‘Indian film’.

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