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LATA JHA : When he first approached the Sony broadcast network with the idea of airing a Telugu action film dubbed into Hindi, Manish Shah’s pitch found few takers.

This was in 2007, long before the Hindi-speaking film audience’s love for pulpy action drama from south India was setting box offices abuzz.

The network’s executives were fairly sceptical that Mass, dubbed into Hindi as Meri Jung: One Man Army, would appeal to viewers. Shah promised to compensate the network if the film didn’t work to convince them.

“Meri Jung first aired on a Wednesday on MAX (Sony’s film channel) and garnered TRPs of 1-plus, and we have never looked back since," said Mumbai-based Shah, founder and director of Goldmines Telefilms, a television production house.

For over a decade now, Shah has delighted Hindi film channel viewers with a steady supply of dubbed southern language blockbusters.

That taste for southern masala is now making its presence felt on the big screen, too.

Shah recently hit the jackpot when he bought the rights to the Hindi dubbed version of Allu Arjun’s Pushpa: The Rise- Part One for 30 crore—and released it in theatres.

He made more than 100 crore from the theatrical release and by selling the streaming rights to Amazon Prime Video.

Shah had initially purchased the rights to the Hindi dub of Pushpa for satellite TV and digital streaming. But it was his decision to release the film in theatres that raked in the big moolah. The company’s current revenue is estimated at 450 crore.

Shah is not new to the dubbing game. He has, over the years, brought several southern language films such as Sarrainodu, Meri Jung: One Man Army, DJ: Duvvada Jagannadham and the Kanchana series, among many others, to Hindi language film channels, challenging the dominance of Hindi movies on their home turf.

Shah believes that the south makes mass-market, commercial entertainers that go down well with small-town audiences in the north, fetching both viewership and advertising revenue for these channels.

“Even today, 90% of India is made up of single TV homes. We may sit in Mumbai or Delhi, but there is an India beyond that," said Shah, who feels Hindi film audiences have been missing out on action films and commercial entertainers since the mid-2000s when the industry began to cater to an upmarket, multiplex audience.

These are not films, he said, that people can watch at home with their parents and children.

“Nobody wants to watch the realistic subjects of Hindi films on screen. They want fantasy, heroism and a sense of escape," said Shah, who banks primarily on male actors to choose films.

His taste in movies is for the larger-than-life, macho spectacle, too.

He believes that stars such as Allu Arjun, Mahesh Babu, Jr. NTR, Rajinikanth, Vijay, and Ajith are crowd-pullers.

In the past decade, the price that mid- and big-budget southern language films, dubbed for Hindi-speaking markets, fetches from the sale of satellite television and streaming rights has risen by nearly fourfold.

Some mainstream Tamil and Telugu films with sizeable budgets are now being sold for about 20 crore, compared with 7 lakh earlier. This has led to a 10-fold increase in production budgets, with several films costing upwards of 200 crore to target a pan-India audience.

After the first covid lockdown in 2020, when fresh content was yet to arrive in theatres, Shah released some of these older films in small towns, reaping huge profits from an entertainment-starved audience.

Shah, 47, started his career making television soaps and then acquiring rights to old Hindi films that he would sell to broadcast networks.

He benefited from the first-mover advantage by tapping the dubbed southern film market in the mid-2000s.

“He ventured where nobody had ever thought of and started much earlier than anybody else; so he has a definite edge today," said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema.

Mohan said Shah is not just blessed with great business acumen; he is also aggressive and quick in locking deals.

From flying down to Chennai and Hyderabad to doing his homework on the films currently on floors, he is known both for one-time payments and acquiring films even before they are complete.

“He is completely clued in on which actors bring maximum eyeballs and the genres that specific networks favour. He is big on action, and he stays away from anything explicit or vulgar," Mohan said.

Several broadcasters have offered him high prices for combined satellite and digital rights to films, but Shah prefers to keep the latter to himself. Instead, he releases the titles on his YouTube channel, easy access to which has made it hugely popular among small-town audiences.

With over 3,000 videos, Shah’s YouTube channel, Goldmines, has 69.3 million subscribers, catering to a young, mobile-savvy audience in small towns.

In May 2020, Shah launched a TV channel, Dhinchaak, and renamed it Goldmines Movies recently.

The channel has topped the Hindi movie channel category regularly. According to data from Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India, it had clocked 1.8 million AMAs, claiming the third spot in the overall Hindi category this January.

AMA (average minute audience) is defined as the number of individuals of a target audience who viewed an “event", averaged across minutes.

The formula might not always work.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a film trade expert said that Goldmines often overdoes the belief in the pan-India appeal of films, dubbing every other title in Hindi. But Shah insists he’s very selective in picking larger-than-life films with the right mix of action, comedy and emotion.

After the success of Pushpa, a film that lead actor Allu Arjun was confident would work in the Hindi-speaking belt, Shah will be looking at more theatrical releases—though he is reluctant to divulge more about his plans. “Theatrical releases require a lot of money, so one can’t bring a film just for the heck of it. It has to be something people would want to come to the cinemas for," Shah said.

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