Why Bollywood and Hindi are no longer the face of Indian entertainment
New Delhi: When she moved to Delhi in 1988, Gana Lakshminarayanan brought along a lot more than suitcases— for her luggage included a metaphorical cabinet loaded with Malayalam movie nostalgia. Growing up in Palakkad district, she had been mesmerized by the Malayalam film industry’s strong sense of script and music. Thirty years later, she continues to flock to theatres playing Malayalam films in the national capital.
“There is nothing like the movie theatre experience,” said the 53-year-old, who most recently watched and loved director M. Mohanan’s drama about an abandoned son’s search for his mother Aravindante Athidhikal. A resident of Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, Lakshminarayanan doesn’t face any problem in finding convenient shows or theatres for Malayalam films—from Noida to Ghaziabad to anywhere in East Delhi, the options are many.
That may not have been the case even a few years ago. India’s entertainment landscape is going through some radical churn, fuelled by the multiplex revolution and increasing ease of access (online as well as offline) to content in a board spectrum of languages. As Malayalam actor Dulquer Salmaan, who made his Bollywood debut this month, recently said, everyone’s watching everything.
Meanwhile, T-Series prepares to present Baahubali lead Prabhas in an ultra-expensive spy thriller called Saaho that is being shot simultaneously in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. The preponderance of such “cross-pollination” is a clear reflection of the fact that Hindi is no longer the face of Indian entertainment. Cinema and television soaps once pejoratively described as “regional language entertainment” are not only beginning to break geographic barriers to go “national”, but also garnering enough respect as entertainment markets with concrete potential.
Numbers tell the story
Earlier this year, Mint had reported that non-Hindi cinema contributed 22% of cinema exhibition chain Cinepolis’ revenue in 2017. This is a marked rise from the 5% share the segment commanded in 2005. According to the Ficci-EY media and entertainment industry report 2018, online ticketing platform BookMyShow reported average occupancy of 45-46% for regional language films in 2017, compared to around 39-40% in 2016.
The story is just as impressive overseas. Telugu and Tamil films have pretty much overtaken Bollywood as the face of Indian cinema in the United States and Malaysia, thanks to blockbusters like Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, Mahanati and Mersal. The dominoes in line to flip include movie markets in the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Netherlands, Singapore and even, South America.
“The South was always a strong market, but there has now been an upsurge in industries in Maharashtra, Bengal, Punjab and Gujarat,” said Nikhil Sane, business head, Viacom18 Motion Pictures Marathi and Colors Marathi. Gujarati films, for example, registered a 44% increase over 2016 in terms of transactions on BookMyShow. Meanwhile, the Bengali film industry notched up its highest grossing film ever last year, an action adventure called Amazon Obhijaan that made ₹486.3 million worldwide.
In the age of globalization where relocation far away from one’s roots is a reality, people still want to know about their communities, said Surinder Singh Jodhka, professor of sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU. “Humans are always more comfortable with who they are and want to reproduce themselves the same way, instead of assimilating into western culture,” he added.
A slice of the regional pie
Sony Pictures India has just announced a Malayalam project to be co-produced by and featuring Malayalam superstar Prithviraj Sukumaran, while Viacom18 Motion Pictures that released Marathi films like Aapla Manus and Cycle has a Gujarati film Dhh coming up in September. ZEE Studios has a bunch of Marathi projects lined up, while Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions too is looking at presenting and distributing regional language films.
“As far as quality of content goes, regional (cinema) has always been up there. What has emerged in the last few years is our ability to commercialize and package in a much more noticeable way, which has resulted in bigger box office numbers,” said Mangesh Kulkarni, business head-Marathi Film Division, ZEE Studios.
Kulkarni refers to the fact that regional films have been executed differently off late. ZEE’s own Marathi blockbuster Sairat, a tale of star-crossed lovers, while being a hard-hitting take on the caste system, was riddled with the trappings of a typical Bollywood blockbuster —chartbuster music, slow-motion chase sequences, great fights and drama, all of which fetched instant attention.
Meanwhile, the Baahubali franchise, characterized by spectacular war scenes and dazzling special effects, not only reinstated faith in the enduring quality of hardcore commercial Indian storytelling but also shed its regional connotations by simultaneously releasing Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam versions, notching up the highest screen count ever for a film made in the country.
That is a strategy Bollywood is picking up increasingly to bolster box office earnings. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period saga Padmaavat, like many other recent films, was released in Tamil and Telugu, apart from Hindi. According to the Ficci-EY report, from 31 movies in 2016, Hindi dubbed movies increased to 96 in 2017.
But while Baahubali is a phenomenal success story, the reach of smaller content-driven regional films remains limited in states outside their native geographies. While Sairat may have appealed to a vast number of non-Maharashtrians, in states apart from Maharashtra, those viewers were largely the urban, educated cinephiles. The non-mega blockbuster genre of movies, like director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s massively acclaimed Malayalam crime drama Angamaly Diaries, remain relatively unknown outside.
Film critic Baradwaj Rangan said the fact that many of these films have not traveled to other states or countries could either be a question of screen space or the result of the producers’ decision to not release subtitled versions.
Essentially, even in the age of cross-pollination, it’s not easy for every film. “For any industry to break through (into new territory), you need to spend a lot on research and development,” said Tamil actor and producer Vishal Krishna, who is also president of the Tamil Film Producers Council.
To put it quite crudely, for the man on the street in north India, regional cinema is the dubbed south Indian potboiler playing on a Hindi movie channel. The biggest blockbusters on television in 2017 were two dubbed Telugu films—while Baahubali 2 set an all-time record for TV viewership, with even its repeat airing generating higher numbers than the second most watched film, Dangal, the big surprise was Allu Arjun’s action comedy Duvvada Jagannadham that beat many Hindi films like Tubelight, Kaabil and Raees.
Given Bollywood’s increasing affinity towards urban-centric narratives, these well-crafted dubbed films that started appearing on Hindi movie channels around 2009 make for great entertainment with their escapist themes of vendetta, justice and revenge. These may not be the best movies but as Rangan said, they exposed the stars of the region to a larger population, before the streaming platforms started helping people catch up with non-Hindi content two to three years ago.
“The number and satellite prices for dubbed south Indian movies on Hindi channels have gone up by seven to eight times in the past two years,” Krishna said. “Though dubbed, these films are easier to grasp and people tend to watch the whole movie. The dubbed version of a big Telugu film can be sold for anything between ₹15-20 crore today.”
TV show remakes
To be sure, regional language television has grown by itself too. Data from India’s television monitoring agency BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) says that while Hindi remains the most preferred language of consumption in the country, the growth is led by regional content, with Gujarati, Assamese, Marathi and Kannada registering 146%, 123%, 74% and 63% growth over 2016, as compared to 27% by Hindi.
The multi-language remakes of hit Hindi shows like Bigg Boss, Kaun Banega Crorepati, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’l Champs and Naagin shows that broadcasters are ready to add cultural nuance to exploit an existing property across what is clearly a growing spectrum of viewers.
Things are evolving on-the-ground too, said Shariq Patel, CEO, ZEE Studios. It’s a matter of access and the advent of direct-to-home television has meant you can watch a regional language channel in any part of the country even beyond your native geographic area, he said.
When Srijit Roy moved to Mumbai from Kolkata in 2010, he had no idea how he would survive without his staple viewing of Bengali films. There were either no theatres playing those movies or the ones that did were at obscure locations and had odd show timings.
“Today, platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar have thrown open a world of endless options,” said the 35-year-old IT professional referring to the exhaustive movie library curated by OTT (over-the-top) video streaming services in India. Plus, there is original content that they are looking at closely. “The bulk of content on our platform is in five Indian languages,” said Vijay Subramanium, director (content), Amazon Prime Video, that launched its first regional web series, a Telugu dark comedy called Gangstars this May and is looking at releasing a Tamil original in the fourth quarter of this year.
Industry experts say regional content gives better uptake in terms of engagement. People usually take half the time to lap up regional content as compared to Hindi or English, which are already cluttered markets.
The landscape is easy to decipher, said Akash Banerji, head of marketing, partnerships and licensing, VOOT, the streaming service operated by Viacom18 Media Pvt Ltd. As data costs come down, there is a proliferation of cheap smartphones and a surplus of content. Digital video will increasingly become more mainstream.
“Nearly 3/4th of our new consumers come from non-urban towns and 70-80% of them will demand content in their language,” Banerji said.
VOOT has witnessed close to a 200% increase in content consumption on the back of regional language content over the last six months. Regional content currently contributes 15-17% of the total watchtime on the platform. VOOT is aiming for a 25-30% share soon.
Banerji, who begins each day by going over the top 20 shows on the platform the previous day, can see the stark change himself. “Till about two years ago, 70-80% of the top shows would be Hindi, a few big movie titles, a couple of kids’ shows and maybe some originals. Somewhere on the 15th or 16th spot, you may see a regional show that could disappear again after a few days. In the last six to eight months, we’ve consistently seen a minimum of five to six regional shows not just in the top 20 but sometimes in the top 15 and even in the top 10,” Banerji said.
The next step, industry experts say, will be digital platforms dedicated to content in specific languages, like Hoichoi, a streaming service available only in Bengali. “We currently have 75 hours of content on Hoichoi and are adding two shows every month,” said Vishnu Mohta, co-founder, Hoichoi. “We want to put our best foot forward. This market is so nascent today that it will take the best of three to five years to reach a critical mass audience. But we are very sure this is where we want to be and where we see the future.”
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