New Delhi: Sairat (wild), a low-budget movie about star-crossed lovers played by a pair of newcomers, has broken all records for a Marathi film by amassing 90 crore in box-office collections this year.

Kannada film Thithi (funeral), whose cast is made up entirely by amateurs, won rave reviews and numerous awards on the festival circuit. Pegged on the death of a village patriarch, it tells a tale of rural poverty.

Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra recently produced a Bhojpuri film called Bam Bam Bol Raha Hai Kashi.

Even the Hindi film industry seems to have taken a fancy to regional. Punjabi film actor Diljit Dosanjh was recently seen in a pivotal role in Udta Punjab, a mainstream Hindi film about drug addiction in the northern state. The actor is also slated to play a role opposite Anushka Sharma in her upcoming production Phillauri.

Clearly, regional is the new cool in Indian cinema. From the fringes, regional films are moving to the mainstream. And this has to do, more than anything else, with their makers, who see no need to dilute the content to attract a wider audience.

“Most of the regional cinema that is being discussed at the national level is extremely good filmmaking. And people are connecting with it at a more human, instinctive level as opposed to just an artistic level," said film critic Raja Sen.

It is also a matter of access, Sen said. “Earlier you had to travel far and wide to see a Tamil film, but now it will play at your neighbourhood theatre," he said. “People are getting used to it; they are also definitely tired of the same old faces being thrust at them. Which is why there might be differing opinions on Udta Punjab but everyone came away quite impressed with Diljit Dosanjh because he was someone they hadn’t seen before."

The game changer, and one that has shown up Bollywood, according to Sen, has been Sairat. A non-Hindi film produced at 3.5 crore earning 90 crore shows there is a definite market for good cinema that is also profitable.

“As the market expands and if there are profitable numbers, producers will definitely turn towards regional films," said Avinash Arun, director of another acclaimed Marathi film, Killa (2015). “Yes, everyone wants to produce good content. But filmmaking costs money. It’s possible to produce good content in regional cinema because your investments are lower. That’s why you can take a risk. With Hindi films, because production, distribution and release costs are so high, most content is mass-driven. The idea is the film should run," said Arun.

A Marathi film today can be wrapped up with production and publicity costs running up to 3 crore each, said Arun. There is a fight for screens of course, but that has to do with the shortage of screens around the country. From the 600-700 screens in Maharashtra, a big Marathi film gets 100-200.

Little surprise then, that several foreign film studios have been increasing their focus on regional cinema. Last year, Fox Star Studios distributed the award-winning Tamil film Kaaka Muttai. Viacom18 Motion Pictures backed Marathi film Poshter Girl (2016) and Bengali film Black (2015). It also has a Marathi romantic comedy, Photocopy, lined up for release this September.

“We’re beginning our journey in regional (films) but we need to understand the space better," said Sudhanshu Vats, group chief executive officer, Viacom18 Media Pvt. Ltd. “Fortunately, regional is a lot more about content and sensible budgets. So some things are very naturally aligned to our thinking but the understanding of each language and its nuances is a capability we need to develop within Viacom18 as we go forward."

There’s regional cinema and regional cinema. A Marathi or Bengali film is yet to achieve the numbers that a Tamil or Telugu blockbuster does. The latter, often like Hindi films, tend to be star-driven.

“One of the main common factors you’ll see to this (difference in reach) is the overlap or influence of the Hindi language," said Anuj Poddar, project head of TV channels Colors Marathi and Colors Gujarati. “In places where the influence of Hindi is very low, like in the Tamil and Telugu regions, the cinema evolved much earlier. It operates in a vacuum in the sense that it’s not competing with Hindi, so there’s no distortion or distraction from Hindi in that market. In other markets like Marathi, Bengali or Gujarati, Hindi does play a factor because the audience is also a consumer of Hindi content," he said.

To be sure, while regional content may always have been high-quality, its commercial proposition has improved thanks to better packaging and production.

For example, Gujarati content, which earlier, according to Poddar, was slightly tacky and made for the rural audience, has changed completely in the past two years. Films are now being made for the urban audience and reflecting current aspirations.

The proliferation of general entertainment channels in vernacular has helped the cause of regional cinema.

“As regional channels grow, you get a better platform to promote your films and later to sell them for satellite (TV). Movies benefit from the growth of television in terms of being able to promote and monetize themselves better," said Poddar, adding that the reach of television is many times the reach of cinema in any language.

But if you’re making better content, promoting it better and creating more demand, then the exhibitor is happy to allot a regional movie more screens, he added.

Surprisingly, several regional films dubbed in Hindi have done exceedingly well on mainline Hindi movie channels. A 6 July Mint report quoted data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council India for June across top movie channels such as Sony Max, Star Gold and Zee Cinema that showed at least one regional film among the top five programmes in the Hindi movies category every week. This included films such as Baahubali with 5.29 million impressions, Ravi Teja-starrer Bengal Tiger with 4.07 million impressions, Prabhas’ Telugu action film The Return Of Rebel with 3.7 million impressions and Tamil horror comedy Kanchana: Muni 2 with 3.58 million impressions. (Impressions refer to the number of individuals in thousands of a target audience who viewed an event, averaged across minutes.)

While television may be popularizing regional cinema, government regulations are also helping in driving its cause. Marathi films have always been tax-free in Maharashtra, but last year, the government introduced a minimum screen requirement for films made in the language too.

Earlier this year, the government of Gujarat said it would introduce a gradation system for providing financial assistance to Gujarati film producers that ranges from 5 lakh to 50 lakh. Films that gain national or international recognition would be given an additional award of up to 5 crore.

Despite the new-found buzz around regional language cinema, filmmakers confront challenges. Some of them are keen to subtitle and not dub their projects. Thithi director Raam Reddy admitted that dubbing the Kannada film had been proposed. But the filmmaker wasn’t keen because of the ethnographic nature of the plot and the misfit with the sync sound that dubbing might cause.

Summed up Arun: “There is no culture of watching films with subtitles in our country. We have to slowly push for it. Dubbing makes it a Hindi film. Even if there is subtitling, it is for a Kabali. That we’re not watching for the film’s sake, we’re watching for the superstar’s (Rajinikanth’s) sake. When people want to watch a film for the film’s sake, that’s when things will start changing."

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