New Delhi: The covid-19 pandemic could not compel the south Indian movie industry to take their films directly to digital platforms, contrary to their Bollywood counterparts. Unlike top Hindi movie actors like Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar, Alia Bhatt or Ayushmann Khurrana whose films have all skipped a theatrical release, southern stars like Vijay, Suriya, Mohanlal and several others are waiting for theatres to reopen even though there's no mandate from the government yet.
In an interview to Kochi-based digital news platform The Cue, Mohanlal said while there’s no problem in releasing films made for OTT platforms digitally, if the movie is made for theatres, producers can always work by ‘showing the courtesy of holding their release’. Mohanlal’s Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, Mammootty’s One, Vijay’s Master, Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru are among the list of big star vehicles that have clarified that they would prefer to wait it out.
Film industry experts point out that the film business in the south is driven entirely by top male stars who look at wide theatrical showcasing as a validation of their stardom. Unlike Bollywood where foreign studios call the shots and several films have either gone to streaming platforms owned by the parent company (in case of Disney) or their release was a call taken by the producer with no say from the lead actor, as Ayushmann Khurrana admitted in an interview to movie website Film Companion.
“Any star in the Tamil or Telugu industry taking his film directly to a digital platform will be seen as losing his market. It would be suicidal for them," explained independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai adding that theatrical box office makes up 85-90% of the overall revenues of south films. These male stars, still seen as larger-than-life superheroes starring in commercial productions that glorify them, often have political ambitions and have to nurture that fan base in theatres, Pillai added.
Further, unlike Bollywood films that depend on multiplexes and metros, specifically territories like Mumbai and Delhi for more than 50% of their box office, the south Indian industry is dominated by single screens and these big heroes penetrate deep into the heartland with their annual offerings.
That explains why most video streaming platforms such as Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar have only focused on Hindi projects for direct-to-digital release in their recent announcements. While Amazon Prime Video did announce movies like Ponmagal Vandhal, a Tamil legal drama starring Jyothika, two Kannada films, Law and French Biryani, a Tamil Telugu bilingual called Penguin starring Keerthy Suresh, and a Malayalam movie, Sufiyum Sujathayum, these are all small-scale films with budgets below ₹5 crore that wouldn’t have managed any profits at the box office, trade experts say. A bunch of other small films, Danny, Cocktail and Lockup, all in Tamil, have gone to ZEE5.
Mukesh Mehta, founder of Malayalam production and distribution company E4 Entertainment, said most streaming platforms in India would not even be willing to pay the kind of sum for a south Indian film that it would have the potential to make at the box office. Vijay’s Master, has a shot at collections of at least ₹120 crore, for instance.
“Besides, Hindi films need a pan-India release, and nobody knows when that will be possible," Mehta said. In contrast, the biggest chunk of audiences for these films lies in their individual states and even a relatively limited release may work for them if all states don’t open up at the same time.