Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawan (2023) has reportedly raked in Rs. 500 crore worldwide in just four days since its release. It’s a Hindi film but with a Tamil sensibility, and speaks a brand of politics that’s so common in Tamil cinema that it can be termed formulaic. Yet the film has found resonance with the Hindi audience that’s celebrating Khan’s superstardom in a new flavour. Directed by Atlee, Jawan marks a milestone in the journey of south Indian filmmakers in the Hindi film industry – many of whom were established and successful names in their respective industries, but found it difficult to network within mainstream Hindi cinema, or Bollywood. “It is very difficult for south Indian directors to come to Hindi cinema,” acknowledged director Priyadarshan, who is among those who successfully straddled multiple film industries.
In the Seventies and Eighties, when many south Indian films were remade, directors like LV Prasad, Raghavendra Rao, T.R. Ramana, K. Balachander, Bharatiraja and others entered the Hindi market, the largest in the country.These scene-by-scene remakes were shot in studios in Madras (now Chennai), with local technicians. Some of these films were superhits, but the directors never made more than a handful of Hindi films. For instance, legendary Tamil director K Balachander’s romantic tragedy Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981) was a blockbuster, but he made only five films in Hindi, with the last – Dilon Ka Rishta (1992) – remaining unreleased.
The Nineties were more challenging for south Indian directors because films were no longer shot extensively in studios, and they had to grapple with linguistic and cultural barriers while shooting in unfamiliar locations. Priyadarshan is among the few exceptions from the south to have had a long innings in Bollywood. The National Award-winning director, who hails from the Malayalam film industry, has made over 90 films in his career spanning nearly four decades. Of these, 31 are Hindi films. His first Hindi film, Muskurahat (1992), was a remake of his Malayalam comedy Kilukkam (1991).
“Some of the Telugu directors like Dasari Narayana Rao and Raghavendra Rao succeeded with a few films. Then there was Ram Gopal Varma who was good at Telugu, Hindi and English – he was able to pull it off. When I went to Bollywood, I was sure that I would make a mark,” said Priyadarshan.
Though Priyadarshan still can’t read Hindi fluently, he understood the language well enough to correct his dialogue writers when they came up with lines that sounded jarring to him. But his confidence wasn’t only because of his familiarity with Hindi. “I watched more Hindi films than Malayalam cinema during my school and college days. Whenever I watched Hindi films made by south Indian directors, I always felt they didn’t look like Hindi films but like a ‘south’ film. That was one thing I didn’t want to repeat,” recalled Priyadarshan.
From the cultural references to the actors and costumes, Priyadarshan was particular about his films looking and feeling like Hindi movies. He adapted and rewrote films entirely to suit the Hindi audience. Apart from several blockbuster comedies like Hera Pheri (2000), his biggest Hindi hits include Gardish (1993) and Virasat (1997) – both of them remakes of culturally rooted films made by other directors in Malayalam and Tamil respectively. “Virasat is the remake of Bharatan’s Thevar Magan (1992),” said Priyadarshan. “It’s about the Thevar community in Tamil Nadu, but Vinay Shukla rewrote the screenplay and brought in a UP flavour to the remake. I insisted on bringing even junior artists from Uttar Pradesh, and didn’t want anyone to look remotely south Indian in the film. I wanted it to be believable.”
Contrast this with Jawan, a film that is teeming with south Indian names in the cast, ranging from Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi who have considerable screen space, to actors like Jaffer Sadiq in supporting roles. Moreover, these actors aren’t playing south Indian characters in the film – like, for example, Mohanlal in Company (2002) or Dhanush in Raanjhanaa (2013) – but locals from other parts of the country. The film even has a Tamil song playing during an important scene, making Jawan a melting pot of sensibilities. The fact that the Hindi audience has lapped it up shows how much the dynamic between the southern industries and Bollywood has shifted.
There are many reasons contributing to this, including the easy availability of dubbed-to-Hindi films on television, YouTube channels and OTT platforms. Money-spinners like the Baahubali (2015 and 2017) and KGF films (2018 and 2022), Pushpa:The Rise (2021), Kantara (2022) and so on have popularised south Indian cinema among Hindi-watching audiences. This is also reflected in the Hindi audience rejecting many remakes, ostensibly preferring to watch the original in dubbing or with subtitles.
In other words, an audience that appreciates Jawan knows that the sensibility of an Atlee film is different from a regular Hindi movie, and is welcoming of it.
Director Balki, a south Indian who grew up in Bengaluru, has made seven feature films so far – all of them in Hindi. “Back in the day, Hindi films were bigger in Bengaluru than they were in Delhi. There were Amitabh Bachchan films that would run for 25 weeks,” he said. Balki lived in Mumbai, working in advertising where he had the opportunity to meet Bollywood stars, and eventually made his debut with the Hindi romcom Cheeni Kum (2007).
The director pointed out that even earlier, the plot threads and themes in south Indian commercial cinema were similar to Hindi films. “There were some differences in cultural nuances and sensibilities, but the broad plot threads and themes were the same,” he said. This is why remakes of massy commercial films were so popular – from Hindi to south Indian languages and vice versa.
It was tougher to get the emotional stories right. “The definition of love in north India in the Seventies and Eighties, for instance, would be a Kishore Kumar-Lata Mangeshkar song while it would be SPB (SP Balasubrahmanyam) in the south,” said Balki. He reasoned that each director’s voice is shaped and influenced by the culture they grow up in, and that this may explain why south Indian directors did not meet with the same amount of success in Hindi as in their home markets. “But I don’t think we should look at films only in terms of the box office. Sure, Balu Mahendra’s Sadma (1983), the remake of the Tamil romantic drama Moondram Pirai (1982), may not have done well in Hindi, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great film,” he said.
Beyond these factors, Priyadarshan said, there was also a “huge lobby” within Bollywood that wasn’t happy with south Indian directors, male stars and other artists entering the industry. “Yesudas gave so many hit songs in Hindi, but he couldn’t continue in Bollywood. Why do you think that happened? Women actors like Rekha, Sridevi, Hema Malini…they became big stars in Hindi, but the rules were different for others,” said Priyadarshan. “Take Malayalam director Siddique. He gave such a massive hit with Salman Khan – Bodyguard (2011) – but nobody approached him after that.” These turf wars exist within the south Indian industries, too, where it’s easier for female stars to work in multiple industries but not the men.
However, with corporate companies taking over production, these rules are fast disappearing. “Young filmmakers today are sensible,” said Priyadarshan. “The production companies are more interested in impact than anything else. They’re very open to ideas. What’s most important to them is the film.” With Jawan’s spectacular success, north-south collaborations that marry south cinema’s “mass” sensibility with Bollywood stardom, are likely to become more common – and that may well become the new ‘pan-Indian’ formula.