A new genre of South Indian film — epic, big-budget, more suspenseful action films, some served up with a puppet of toxic masculinity and gory violence — is increasingly dominating the country’s $24 billion media and entertainment market and, in some cases, making their mark. outside India. Although filmed in regional languages such as Telugu and Kannada, it attracts millions of viewers to theaters showing dubbed versions and to streaming platforms with subtitles.
At the forefront of the action is ‘RRR’, the story of two Indian freedom fighters battling British colonialists in the 1920s. It has grossed as much as $150 million worldwide, according to The Numbers website, since its March launch, while Rolling Stone magazine and some other US publications have given glowing reviews of the film. Local media reported that the “KGF” and “Pushpa” franchises have raised a total of about $200 million, after the huge success of the legendary two-part fantasy film “Baahubali” in 2015 and 2017, which raised about $290 million.
The numbers are a high watermark for an Indian film industry that has long struggled to match the size of China or the US, despite being home to nearly 1.4 billion people. Consulting firm Ormax Media estimates that the Telugu-language film industry – better known as Tollywood – made about $212 million last year, surpassing the $197 million made by Bollywood, which has long been based in the Indian business hub, Mumbai.
The success, which signals a shift in power toward the south of the country, comes at a time when Bollywood is teetering on a string of failures, with its increasingly Western content limiting its appeal to a predominantly urban audience.
Karan Bedi, CEO of Indian live streaming platform MX Player, said South Indian filmmakers have “discovered content that transcends regardless of language”. “If you look at these two films that have become ejaculate, you will find all of that is the superhero formula.”
The hit series is also good news for streaming giants like Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. and The Walt Disney Co. who court these filmmakers for local content to boost users in the broad but price-sensitive market. India’s media and entertainment industry is set to grow 17% this year to reach $24 billion and then to $30 billion by 2024, according to a report by EY and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in March.
The wealthier south of India is home to a movie-craving crowd and thousands of movie screens. The area is also known for producing hundreds of films annually which are considered a blockbuster even by Bollywood standards, often featuring older heroes and heroines. Some of these stars have become successful political leaders.
SS Rajamouli, 49, the maverick who redefined Indian entertainment in the new genre, shot “RRR” with a budget of $72 million, which is unprecedented in India. Many of these images are huge with no dearth of theatrical acting. They are also enhanced by special effects. In a featured fight scene in ‘RRR’, the hero grabs a heavy motorcycle and uses it as a club to crush the bad guys.
“If a movie is worth watching with a crowd and on the largest screen imaginable, then this is this movie,” Rolling Stone wrote in a review for “RRR,” but also cautioned that it risks “being a long context, without the adrenaline rush.”
In a recent interview, Rajamouli said that he pushes the finances of his projects and often exceeds budgets. Before the meeting, he’d been watching a YouTube clip of “Top 5 Most Amazing Cinematic Games Ads” – a nod to the explosive style that propelled him to the top.
“Obviously the film has to be a hit,” the director said in his office in the southern city of Hyderabad, home of Tollywood. “Otherwise, everyone will be in big trouble.”
Not much is known outside of India, and Rajamouli has only been portrayed in Telugu, the fourth most spoken tongue in the country, throughout his two-decade directing career. He also made the “Baahubali” franchise, for which he spent 600 days filming in a massive, custom-built set in the world’s largest studio complex, Ramoji Film City – a sprawling 2,000-acre site and theme park on the edge of Hyderabad.
Rajamouli said his vision has always been “bigger, bigger and better”, drawing inspiration from Hollywood starting with “Braveheart”, “Spider-Man” and “Superman” along with the 1957 Telugu fantasy epic “Mayabazar”.
Anupama Chopra, film critic and director of the Mumbai Film Festival MAMI, said broadcasting with subtitles has changed the game for some regional films.
“This genre has also enabled stars, especially Telugu cinema, to find an audience from outside their specific region,” she said. “Now all of a sudden everyone woke up.”
This success has also been underpinned by a two-decade trend in which Bollywood productions in Hindi have become “too western,” according to Chopra, focusing more on educated and civilized Indian audiences at the expense of the 70% of the population living outside of cities. .
“In the meantime, Telugu cinema has never stopped catering to a larger audience,” she said, describing the films as “very male-centric,” with legendary heroes fighting in slow-motion sequences and female characters “kind of being neglected to the sidelines.”
Chopra is also among the critics asking its makers to reduce the level of testosterone too much. Many warn that these strikes, with their hyper-masculine protagonists, could fuel episodic sexism and gender violence in India – a country already considered unsafe for women.
The ‘Pushpa’ series comes in Telugu, the ‘KGF’ series in Kannada and to a lesser extent, ‘RRR’ – laden with toxic masculinity and misogyny. Violence is glorified. The attempts depicted by male characters to try women on screen can often be interpreted as stalking or kidnapping in most other cultures.
Rajamouli dismissed criticism surrounding male-centric content, saying its focus is on storytelling and emotions rather than sex.
Despite the sheer volume of movies produced each year, Hindi films have yet to gain this kind of global appeal for South Korean content, with award-winning titles like “Parasite” or “Squid Game” on Netflix.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” Rajamouli said in India, adding that he does not plan to change his style to appeal to a wider global audience. But the doors are open. Finding your type of audience in the rest of the world has become a lot easier” than it was about 10 years ago, he said.
India’s box office collections are also smaller compared to China or the United States. Ticket sales totaled just $470 million last year, dropping by a third due to the epidemic, versus 47 billion yuan ($7 billion) and $4.5 billion for Hollywood.
But the huge domestic successes on the silver screen in India are unlikely to gain wide appeal with foreign audiences, according to Chopra, who sees the most likely candidates coming from smaller productions that are broadcast digitally.
“The mainstream, traditional Indian film – which is song and dance, fantasy, color, drama, violence – I think is hard to sell as a crossover,” she said. “It’s a very, very unique taste. I don’t know that Western audiences really endorse it, they always see it as comical.”