The resounding theatrical success of ‘RRR’, from the two Telugu-speaking states to the United Kingdom, where it roared past Jake Gyllenhaal’s ‘Ambulance’ and Tom Holland’s ‘Uncharted’, has established Tollywood as India’s new cinema powerhouse.
With its worldwide earnings touching Rs 652 crore on its sixth day, far surpassing even the collections of ‘The Kashmir Files’, ‘RRR’ has proved that S.S. Rajamouli’s competition is himself — after edging out his own ‘Baahubali: The Beginning’ from the No. 2 all-time blockbuster spot, he has only ‘Baahubali: The Conclusion’ to dislodge to establish ‘RRR’ as Indian cinema’s highest-ever grosser.
Coming close on the heels of the success of the Allu Arjun-starrer Pushpa: The Rise’, which was 2021’s highest-grossing film pan-India, ‘RRR’ has made it amply clear that Telugu commercial cinema is the new entertainment leader in post-Covid India, especially when compared with much-hyped commercial duds such as ’83’, ‘Gangubai Kathiyawadi’ and ‘Bachchan Pandey’.
‘The Kashmir Files’ has been the only exception, but it owes much of its success to the manner in which it was adopted by the BJP and supported by its state governments with tax exemptions, especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed it wholeheartedly.
Not only films, Telugu movie stars, such as Prabhas, Allu Arjun, Jr NTR, and Ram Charan, have become well-known names across the country.
It’s certainly a far cry from the days when Bollywood ruled the box office, and if South Indian films got noticed, it was only if they won national awards or were remade into Hindi films, and their superstars rang a bell north of the Vindhyas only if they made waves in politics. Of course, there have been exceptions such as Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, but Tollywood stars were barely known outside the then undivided Andhra Pradesh.
Observers point to several factors for the growing national acceptance of movies from Tollywood and other South Indian film production hubs.
Telugu film critic and industry analyst Prabhu told in an interview: “Television channels dedicated to the screening of South Indian movies dubbed to Hindi, and then the arrival of OTT platforms began opening up a wider audience for them.” Suddenly, all of India started watching and appreciating films made in the south.
The spread of multiplexes across an increasingly urbanized India, with their enormous appetite for software, has also helped South Indian producers to exhibit their films in traditional Hindi markets. But the multiplication of platforms and venues for the exhibition of movies alone cannot explain the growing pan-India footprint of South Indian cinema.
Bollywood’s fading star power is an oft-quoted reason. Much of Bollywood’s heft is thinning as stars such as the Khans, Akshay Kumar, and Ajay Devgn are in their 50s and past their prime. Increasingly, they don’t seem to be drawing audiences to cinemas. The developing vacuum has created a level playing field that South Indian movie stars are exploiting, says Bengaluru-based film scholar and critic M.K. Raghavendra.
The South is also scoring because of the grand visions of its movie-makers, which was amply evident in ‘RRR’.
Prabhu pointed to the larger-than-life portrayals of characters that South Indian filmmakers boldly etch on the big screen. “Can you imagine a filmmaker daring to think of a subject such as ‘Bahubali’ and spending so much time and attention as Rajamouli on building up its elements?” Prabhu asked.
Raghavendra added that South Indian filmmakers excel in adding ‘masala’ — action and emotion — in dollops. Something that Bollywood seems to be unable to effectively deliver anymore. “The stuff is pungent. That’s the taste people want,” he said.
“Hindi films are bland, so nobody wants them. They want masala and Hindi films no longer have masala as they did in the past. Telugu and Tamil films, moreover, are punchy. They hit you straight,” Raghavendra explained.
The soon-to-be-released ‘KGF: Chapter 2’, starring Kannada movie star Yash, is another South India potential blockbuster that has raised expectations, especially among the fans of ‘KGF: Chapter 1’, which raked in Rs 250 crore, a record for a Kannada film. It just changed the way the rest of India perceived Kannada cinema, which previously made news only because of its arthouse productions.