A massive cutout of Shah Rukh Khan advertises the release of Pathaan in Tamil, just outside Chennai’s beloved theatre Sathyam Cinemas. The action thriller directed by Siddharth Anand and also starring Deepika Padukone, will hit the screens in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu on January 25 – a strategy that the makers hope will increase the film’s reach in the south. The Badshah of Bollywood hasn’t had a release since Zero (2018) – if you don’t count his cameos in various films in the intervening years – and both he and producer Yash Raj Films desperately need a hit. Pathaan scoring box office gold across the country, at a time when several southern films have turned into pan-Indian blockbusters, would be a shot in the arm for not just SRK, as Khan is fondly known to his fans, but also the Hindi commercial film industry.
Despite the incessant calls to boycott Bollywood, Khan’s name being dragged through the mud over his son Aryan Khan’s drug case last year, and the controversy over the ‘Besharam Rang’ (the song from the Pathaan soundtrack evoked rage among Right wing trolls because Padukone is briefly seen wearing an orange-coloured two-piece ensemble), the pre-release bookings for Pathaan are spectacular. According to Box Office Worldwide, a whopping 4.19 lakh tickets have been sold for the film so far for its opening day on January 25.
In the south, the audience has the option to watch the film in Hindi and Telugu (Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka) or Hindi and Tamil (Tamil Nadu). In Kerala, the film is only releasing in Hindi as of now. The region’s four prominent film industries – Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada – have no shortage of homegrown superstars who command loyal fanbases. However, Hindi film music and the glamour associated with Bollywood stars have held a certain allure for audiences who were unfamiliar with the language and culture.
“We have a phenomenal opening of Pathaan with advances of close to 5 lakh admissions for the first long weekend of the movie releasing on 25th January (Wednesday-Sunday). This will be the first SRK film that will open at 6am in PVR cinemas,” said Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Joint Managing Director, PVR Limited. “In addition to south India, where the movie is being released in Tamil and Telugu, it has opened really well in Kerala in its original language of Hindi.”
The Hindi version is the most popular with morning shows quickly filling up, but the Tamil and Telugu versions are also doing fairly well for dubbed films. Apart from national multiplex chains like PVR, INOX and Cinepolis, the dubbed versions of Pathaan are also releasing in other prominent theatres in south Indian cities. In Hyderabad, for instance, Devi 70 MM cinema hall has four shows of the Telugu version while Rohini Silver Screens in Chennai has five shows for the Tamil version. According to a Hyderabad based exhibitor, the dubbed versions will pick up if the word-of-mouth for the film is good.
“The film has generated a good buzz, and if the content holds up, the dubbed versions will do well. When the film succeeds in its original language, people who don’t generally watch Hindi films will also come to watch it if it’s available in their own language. Especially if it’s an action film like Pathaan,” he said.
According to Gautam Jain, partner at Ormax Media, it makes sense to do simultaneous releases since “the buzz and interest around the film is highest at that point, and it’s best to capitalize on this across languages.” While small Hindi films may not benefit much from simultaneous releases, big budget films with well-known stars are known to have done good numbers, especially in Telugu and Tamil which have the biggest markets in the south.
Pathaan director Siddharth Anand’s previous release War (2019), an action thriller with Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff in the lead, had a simultaneous release in Tamil and Telugu. Jain said that the Telugu version of War raked in Rs 12.8 crore while the Tamil version brought in Rs 4.1 crore. Another recent film which had a simultaneous release, Ayan Mukerji’s fantasy film Brahmastra (2022), earned Rs 22.6 crore in Telugu and Rs 4.1 crore in Tamil. If Pathaan works with the audience, the film is set to bring in similar numbers or more from Telugu and Tamil markets.
Though the permeation of Hindi is limited in the southern states, Bollywood films have always been popular, particularly in urban centres – and SRK is among the most loved stars from the Hindi film industry in the south. Film critic Neelima Menon said that the first SRK film she watched in theatres was Aditya Chopra’s evergreen romance film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the longest-running film in the history of Indian cinema. In fact, the Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai still has a DDLJ show for fans who can’t get enough of its swoony romance.
As a schoolgirl in Kerala, however, Menon found SRK to be “over-the-top” in DDLJ and didn’t really enjoy the film much. “But,” she added, “SRK had been on my radar much before this as I really liked him in the TV series Fauji (1989) and Circus (1989). I had watched almost all SRK films much before DDLJ too. I recently watched DDLJ again, and to my surprise, I loved both SRK and Kajol in it, and felt their metre was just perfect for a love story of this proportion.”
In Shrayana Bhattacharya’s fascinating nonfiction book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence, she writes that SRK’s brawnier contemporary Salman Khan beats him in search trends in the Hindi heartland, but in Puducherry, Kerala and Tamil Nadu where women have greater social mobility, it is Shah Rukh Khan who is more searched.
Bhattacharya, who travelled to Kochi in 2019 to understand why so many in the city searched for SRK over Salman Khan, said young people she spoke to told her that they liked how he spoke. “They told me that they appreciated his media appearances and interviews. Often, these were in English. They found these entertaining and instructive on how to speak in public,” she said.
Menon is among the south Indian fans who loved SRK for his interviews. “I can still recall the early interviews he gave to movie magazines, how witty and forthright he was. A rarity back then. That sort of remains unchanged to this day,” she said. His ability to romance with “such honesty and intensity” is another reason Menon remains a huge fan. “His spontaneity is unbelievable when he does romance. The way he holds a woman in his arms, those eyes that touch the deepest corners of your heart... magic…,” she gushed.
SRK also has the image of being ‘middle class’ and self-made, and comes across as a sensitive and intelligent personality. Vidya, a Tamil woman who grew up in Delhi and features in Bhattacharya’s book, saw SRK as “a sign of success without network wealth and connections” – these are values that appeal greatly in the south where hard work and humility are seen as necessary in public life, and stars have traditionally crafted their image to conform to it.
However, with close to 580 million people who have Hindi as their mother tongue, Bollywood has not put in too much effort into finding other markets. In recent years though, the popularity of south Indian cinema in the Hindi belt and the shocking failure of several big budget Hindi films, has made the industry sit up, take notice and strategize. Simultaneous releases in south Indian languages are part of this.
The fourth instalment in the YRF spy universe, Pathaan was made on a budget of Rs 250 crore, and has SRK playing an exiled RAW operative in the film. Neelima Menon, who thought the superstar looked “gorgeous” in ‘Besharam Rang’, is looking forward to watching Pathaan. “I liked the trailer and feel it will connect to a pan Indian audience because it comes from the War director,” she said. The first big Bollywood release of the year, the beleaguered industry will be hoping that Menon’s optimistic words come true.