Bollywood has reigned over Indian cinema since moving pictures came to these parts. Popular film stars over the decades have become household names. Even till recently, its star-actors—the Khan triumvirate, Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan, Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh et al—were the unquestioned moguls of Indian popular cinema. The rest were satraps with small regional kingdoms, happy in themselves, but nothing that could threaten the sultanate. But now Tollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood and all manner of sandal-scented woods are suddenly moving in on it. And leading the army are actors you had likely not heard of a few years ago if you are a Hindi film buff: Prabhas, Allu Arjun, Yash (not the Chopra), Ram Charan, Jr NTR, Vijay Deverakonda...
These actors are now creating a buzz. Last year, a Telugu film about a down-and-out drifter-turned-smuggler, endowed with nothing more than a chin-stroking swagger and a shoulder tic, came out of nowhere to defeat Ranveer Singh-starrer 83, just like India had done in the 1983 world cup final. The uplifting sporting drama was supposed to be Bollywood’s route to recovery from Covid-19 convalescence. Instead, it was Allu
Arjun’s Pushpa: The Rise – Part I that became the highest grosser of 2021. The real break in the paradigm? The Telugu film became a pan-India phenomenon. Dubbed versions of the film played everywhere, including in the Hindi territories, and single-handedly nursed the pandemic-hit single-screen cinemas back to health. Its songs logged billions of views...and counting. Suddenly, everyone everywhere was copying the trademark shrug-and-slide dance move that Allu Arjun invented and patented. “The idea wasn’t to impress the whole country,” the 40-year-old actor told us. “If your local audience is impressed, automatically the energy transfers and the aura spreads.” Pushpa ended up making Rs 323 crore nationwide at a time some cinemas were still running at half the occupancy. Just its Hindi version pulled in Rs 108 crore. By contrast, Ranveer’s 83 bowled at a military medium pace, underperforming with collections of Rs 103 crore nationwide against an estimated budget of Rs 260 crore.
In the wake of Pushpa came two monster hits that stalked the land with an even more imperious air. March 2022 brought us S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR, the most expensive Indian film till then with its Rs 550 crore budget. Ram Charan and Jr NTR, doing the honours in a fictitious reimagining of two real-life freedom fighters, made light of that burden. The film pulled in nearly Rs 1,111 crore worldwide and Rs 902 crore in India, Rs 275 crore of that coming from the Hindi version. And just the next month, even those records were broken by KGF: Chapter 2. This time a product of the Kannada industry, not the most robust in the south, Yash’s action-laced epic on the Kolar Gold Fields has now become the second-highest grosser ever in India. Again, the turnstiles whirred across the land and the final takehome stood at Rs 992 crore. The Hindi version alone made nearly half of that: Rs 427 crore!
So what exactly is happening? As Deputy Editor Suhani Singh writes in our cover story, what we’re seeing is a historic break in the way our cinema—and its star-actors—circulate in our midst. Six of the 10 films that earned Rs 100 crore in 202021 were from the south. Four of those were Telugu, with Pushpa hitting the jackpot. And 2022 saw the pattern get etched even deeper on celluloid history.
While the Deccan kings were conquering the north, Bollywood’s own ageing monarchs saw their empires being snatched away. Akshay Kumar’s Samrat Prithviraj sank ignominiously. His comic outing, Bachchhan Pandey, brought no relief either. Only three Hindi films have crossed Rs 100 crore this year: The Kashmir Files, Gangubai Kathiawadi and Bhool Bhulaiya 2. All three are atypical entries: the first for its political theme, the second as a woman-centric film carried on the shoulders of Alia Bhatt, the third being a horror comedy. No studs breaking down doors, flying through posters and serenading the Indian public. For now, that function has been outsourced to southern beefcakes, in cinematic spectacles spiced liberally with gongura and Guntur chilli. Yash isn’t done with the KGF franchise. And Allu Arjun reprises his role as Pushpa Raj. “His performance in Pushpa is a masterclass in infusing charisma and nuance into a character,” says Suhani Singh. “It’s no surprise that leading Hindi actors are waxing eloquent about him even seven months after. Pushpa 2: The Rule is by far the most anticipated release of 2023.”
The significance is not just in the numbers, but in their areal distribution—the crossover success of the southern hero is the real story. As products of pop culture go, Bollywood and the entire video library of southern cinema are almost tweedledum and tweedledee. A casual foreign observer would see more similarities than differences between the two. The same liking for giant cutout heroes and heroines who alternate between coy simpering and coquetry, the same salad bowl of revenge and action, the same predilection for song-and-dance. And yet, the two have existed on two sides of a psychological and linguistic gulf. Southern cinema has left its stamp on Hindi earlier too—but those were remakes. The Telugu film gene ruled 80s Bollywood via the Jeetendra-Sridevi nickelodeon entertainers. But whether it was a Tamil blockbuster or a Malayalam storyline being brought into Hindi, the actor always had to be replaced. Even stars like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan found the transition to Bollywood less than heroic—the seas didn’t exactly part for them. The difference now is that the southern heroes are not chasing coronation by joining Bollywood. They are ruling India from their own lion capitals.