Mumbai: It’s an echt Tamil movie, but if you look closely at the teasers and posters for Thaandavam, you can spot a bit of Mumbai in them. The 28 September release is produced by UTV Motion Pictures, and is the latest in a series of Tamil projects being nurtured by the entertainment company.
Apart from chasing Hindi-speaking markets in India and abroad, Bollywood producers like UTV Motion Pictures, Reliance Entertainment and Fox Star Studios have been putting down deep roots in the major film industries in the south by partly or wholly financing movies and remaking hits in Hindi. Thaandavam, an action flick starring Vikram as a blind spy, is the fourth Tamil release for UTV Motion Pictures this year after Vettai, Kalakalappu and Mugamoodi.
The company first ventured south with the Telugu movie Athidhi in 2007. Its southern projects include Tamil and Telugu remakes of its 2008 Hindi sleeper hit A Wednesday and Deiva Thirumagal (several names from Deiva Thirumagal are back in Thaandavam, including Vikram, director A.L. Vijay, actor Anushka, music composer G.V. Prakash Kumar, and cinematographer Nirav Shah). “The benefit is clearly to be able to explore varied content in both the markets,” says G. Dhananjayan, chief—south business, Studios, Disney UTV. “We consider five Cs as the factor which helps us to decide (content, crew, cast, cost of the film and commercial viability),” he says about the kind of films Disney UTV likes to back.
Mumbai producers must find local partners to make Tamil films due to protectionist and extra-legal resolutions passed by industry bodies like the Film Producers Guild of South India and South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce. In order to issue a censor certificate, the Chennai office of the Central Board of Film Certification requires proof of membership in these guilds. No such restriction operates in Kerala or Andhra Pradesh.
Bollywood’s partnerships in Tamil Nadu span all kinds of budgets. Fox Star Studios, which partnered with AR Murugadoss Productions (owned by the director of Ghajini) for Engeyum Eppodhum in 2011, is doing two more projects with the film-maker: Vathikuchi, a mid-budget film starring Murugadoss’ brother Dileepan, is expected to release early next year, while Raja Rani should be completed by mid-2013. “Murugadoss is a big name in the south, and he is now famous in the north because of Ghajini, while Fox is an international brand,” says Kishore Thallur, manager, marketing and distribution, Fox Star Studios.
Bollywood companies like to produce films that can be reissued several times over—the rash of remakes from Telugu and Tamil in Hindi and the other way round can be attributed in some part to the new alliances being formed between the west and the south. Disney UTV is remaking Vettai, which it co-produced this year in Hindi. Meanwhile, the smutty comedy Delhi Belly, co-produced with Aamir Khan Productions, will soon be reincarnated in Tamil and Telugu.
Reliance Entertainment’s back catalogue has many films whose shelf lives can be extended, such as Yavarum Nalam (2009), which was made simultaneously in Hindi as 13B, and Singam (2010), which was remade into Hindi the following year. The company has previously produced Kireedam (2007), a remake of the 1989 Malayalam hit, and distributed Osthi, a remake of Dabangg, last year. Its Telugu ventures include this year’s Devudu Chesina Manushulu and the Hindi and Telugu remakes of Amitabh Bachchan’s breakthrough movie Zanjeer. “If you produce a successful film in a regional language, you can migrate the story into another language on your own,” says Mahesh Ramanathan, chief operating officer, Reliance Entertainment. For instance, Reliance Entertainment went it alone for the Hindi version of Singam. “The ownership of rights is crucial,” Ramanathan says. “Our local partner gets the actors and line producers on board and packages the film, while we do the marketing and distribution. The Tamil co-producers are usually not players in the Hindi space. We are in a better position to do that.”
Reliance Entertainment is pressing ahead with partnerships despite the debacle of the dual-language Raavan in 2010. The co-production with Mani Ratnam made its mark in its Tamil version Raavanan but sunk in Hindi. “Raavan flopped because of its high budget, but the Tamil version happens to be one of (lead actor) Vikram’s top grossers,” Ramanathan says. “We still believe in the process of producing two versions of a story, of being able to launch a big star in a regional language in Hindi.”
Raavan may have tanked, but it introduced Vikram, who has starred in the gritty tragedies Sethu and Pithamagan and formula flicks Dhool and Saamy, to Hindi audiences (he appears in both language versions). It vastly helps to have a big-name actor in a co-production, as Bejoy Nambiar, the director of the upcoming David discovered. Produced by Nambiar’s Getaway Films along with Reliance Entertainment and two other companies, David, starring Vikram, is being made in both Tamil and Hindi and will be dubbed in Telugu upon its release next year. “The film had the potential to go in both languages,” Nambiar says. “The subject is not conventional Bollywood, but people are now open to new ideas.”
Mumbai producers prefer putting money on projects that have big-name actors attached. “There is a certain scale to the Tamil and Telugu film industries—after all, they constitute 45% of the overall box office in India,” Ramanathan says. “If you want to tap into that scale, you have to work with the top actors.” Vikram opened doors for Nambiar, who has only the Hindi indie Shaitan to his name. “It was difficult for people in Hindi to connect with David’s story,” Nambiar says. “Vikram will balance out the risk in Hindi for me since he will work in Tamil and Telugu.”
The bridges that have come up between Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad (and Kochi, on occasion) are built and operated by local producers with vast experience in shooting and troubleshooting. Wide Angle Creations, set up in 2006 by Suresh Balaje and George Pius, was one of the first companies to explore the possibility of making films with Mumbai producers. Wide Angle has collaborated with Reliance Entertainment on Yaavarum Nalam and 13B and NDTV Imagine on Madurai Sambavam (2009). Family connections and an old-boy network helped Wide Angle make connections with Mumbai, says Pius. Balaje and Pius have grown up together, and they have had a long professional association with film-maker Suresh Menon. The partners first worked on a Hindi movie in 2002 on Menon’s Mitr: My Friend, directed by Menon’s ex-wife Revathi. The next Hindi movie Pius and Balaje produced was Phir Milenge in 2004 for Percept Picture Company.
Wide Angle Creations has subsequently emerged as a go-to outfit for collaborations. “Companies are looking to partner with people down south, and there’s a comfort level in working with somebody who knows what’s happening,” Pius says. “We know what works here, which stars to back—we have better knowledge than them. We also know the pulse of the local people better.” A local partner comes especially handy if producers run into problems with trade unions over wage payment or shooting dates. “It’s not just about having the money, it’s also about knowing what to do on location, how to crisis manage,” Pius says. “Not every director or actor is conversant in English—we are that bridge.”
Wide Angle Creations also collaborated with Mumbai-based In Entertainment for Billa 2, starring Tamil heart-throb Ajith. “Capital is always looking for opportunities,” says Sunir Kheterpal, former chief executive officer of In Entertainment. “When capital and the opportunity meet with the right people, participation happens, partnerships happen. The language barrier is a bit of an issue, but in order to grow, you need to take certain risks and find new opportunities.”