South Side Up

What’s South cinema doing right that Bollywood is unable to comprehend?
RRR, Kantara, Ponniyin Selvan
RRR, Kantara, Ponniyin Selvan

Jai Shankar Aryar’s Kannada language debut Shivamma is a small, unassuming film about a poor, illiterate woman’s indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. Elements of documentary and fiction filmmaking come together in a unique, unsentimental way as we encounter the frail lady selling health supplements in the rural milieu, meeting failure more often than success but soldiering on nonetheless.

Shivamma recently won the New Currents Award at the 27th edition of the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. A notable aspect about the quiet film is that it is backed by Rishab Shetty, the writer-director-actor of Kantara, a film that has shattered box office records, not just in Karnataka but across India, by mesmerising the audience with its mix of folklore and mythology, local deities and legends while also dwelling on contemporary issues like land rights and forest preservation.

Last year too, Rishab had struck a fine balance by backing Raj B. Shetty’s gripping Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana aka GGVV, a gangster saga with underpinnings of homoeroticism and Natesh Hegde’s Pedro, a slice of village life and its entrenched feudalism and fanaticism that bring out the latent beast in humans, leaving no room for the innocent and the powerless. This runaway success of filmmakers like Rishab in both the mainstream and arthouse space is in stark contrast to the quagmire that filmmakers in the North have been stuck in. The pandemic has left Hindi cinema in a debilitating impasse—both creative and commercial. On the other hand, the South film industries—Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam—are attracting the masses as well as the cinephiles into their folds, and not just in their respective home turfs alone. After the likes of actors Danny DeVito and Seth Rogen, SS Rajamouli has found his newest admirer in the hard as nails Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw who was last seen posting a selfie on Instagram with the director of “the head-bangingly fabulous RRR”.

It is not as though South hasn’t had its share of box office disasters this year. Mahaan, Maaran, Radhe Shyam didn’t turn out to be as promising as expected but the overwhelming love for the tentpole films—RRR, Kantara, KGF: Chapter 2, Pushpa: The Rise, Ponniyin Selvan: 1, Vikram, Vikrant Rona—and their dubbed versions appears to have cancelled out all setbacks.

According to a 2019 box office report by Mumbai-based media consulting firm Ormax Media, Hindi films led with a 44% share of gross domestic box office, Hollywood (in all dubbed language versions) stood second with 15%, followed by Tamil and Telugu films at 13% each. The pandemic years have turned things upside down and the figures for 2022 might narrate a starkly different story of a clear shift in power from the North to the South.

However, the success of the multilingual or ‘pan-Indian’ cinema, has not been an overnight phenomenon but something that has been gaining ground slowly and steadily over the last seven years—right from 2015 when Rajamouli’s Telugu epic Baahubali posted big numbers, and the Hindi version of its sequel in 2017 emerged bigger than any other Hindi language film that year.

The reasons for this success are not far to seek. Films from the South have been steady in their connection with a core audience that didn’t waver in its faith even during the traumatic pandemic interregnum. In fact, COVID 19 might have, perhaps, left the fans craving for movies. On the other hand, Bollywood has been at the receiving end of a steady disenchantment. While fans of Hindi film stars have been refusing to queue up for the ‘first day, first show’ of their releases anymore, South cinema has continued to register strong openings. The stars themselves have been just as committed to their calling, while those in Bollywood seem to be more involved in brand promotions and social media partnerships than making compelling films.

The South film industry has been able to understand and deliver what the common man desired for venturing out to the theatres after the lockdowns—larger-than-life spectacles, entertaining fantasies, escapist fables. Bollywood, on the other hand, has been bringing forth films that have been dull as ditchwater, lacking imagination, creativity, passion, and effort. Each Friday release appears more jaded than its predecessors.

While Bollywood, with the opening up of the economy in 1991 and the rise of the multiplexes, has been catering increasingly to an urban, NRI audience, South cinema has remained rooted, not quite compromising on its hold on the masses. In the two years of the pandemic, this middle class, theatregoing, family audience in the North has been consuming entertainment through streaming platforms while theatres have been getting patronised largely by young men. Instead of Bollywood films, they found the desired adrenaline rush in the excesses of Sukumar’s Telugu language Pushpa and catharsis in the sound and fury of Prashanth Neel’s Kannada actioner KGF: Chapter 2. In this scenario, Divyang Thakkar’s well-meaning and righteous but supremely boring Hindi film, Jayeshbhai Jordaar, came through as a misfit and was instantly booted out of the theatres.

A big contribution to the success of South cinema has been the fact that the pandemic has forced the viewer from the North to come out of the cocoon. The vast amount of content coming home through streaming platforms has enabled better access to the linguistically and culturally diverse landscape of Indian cinema. So, even for discerning cinephiles, troubled by the overly patriarchal, uncomfortably masculine world of some of the South blockbusters, where women tend to get reduced to props, constantly disempowered or invisibilized, succor has come from another kind of cinema. Like Gautam Ramachandran’s Tamil film Gargi or Mahesh Narayanan’s Malayalam language Ariyippu, both centred on women who are the strong upholders of the moral fibre of society and community. Films where freshness of ideas, inventiveness of storytelling have beautifully underscored dilemmas of individuals and complexities and tenuousness of relationships. These are the kind of stories that Bollywood has forgotten to tell or refuses to turn to anymore.

The growing disillusionment against Bollywood isn’t just about the content. While on a slight mend now, Hindi cinema has still a long way to go to recover fully from the polarisation and politicisation that has afflicted it for the last two years, especially the backlash directed against it since the death by suicide case of actor Sushant Singh Rajput in 2020 and the consequent narrative of sleaziness, drugs, nepotism, and the boycott culture built around it. Many believe that these factors may have trickled down from social media, been amplified on ground and contributed to the adverse business by building aversion for cinema. These are issues that cinema from South India has thankfully not had to contend with.

There have been repercussions, including a check on budgets, apprehensions about investment, postponement of projects, cancellation of releases… Many actors, directors and writers in Mumbai are now preferring to work on projects for streaming platforms than for the theatres. However, hope remains afloat. With recent films like Unnchai, Drishyam 2 and Bhediya showing promise, things could well begin to turn a corner. However, instead of replicating the success of the South cinema as the new formula or going for easy remakes and homogenizing entertainment that Bollywood is notorious for, it will need to democratise and diversify. A larger, radical overhaul that involves rationalizing budgets, reorienting the star system, and focusing on content creation, will need to go hand in hand. The confidence and conviction in itself will have to help it find a way out of complacency.

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