If Vijay Sethupathi is a big star today, much of the credit should go to Pushkar-Gayathri’s Vikram Vedha (2017) in which he plays a cheeky criminal who tries to outsmart a police officer. His catchphrase from the film – “Oru kadhai sollata, sir? (Shall I tell you a story, sir?)” – is still commonly used in Tamil popular culture when someone wants to play mind games. Following the narrative structure of Vikram-Vetal folklore, Vikram Vedha was an entertaining thriller that minted Rs 60 crore in Tamil, earning well over its budget of Rs 11 crore. But the Hindi remake, also directed by Pushkar-Gayathri, at the box office despite positive reviews and the stellar star cast comprising Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte.
The film, which was released during the Dasara holidays, posted a shockingly-low of just Rs 2 crore for the opening day. While Bollywood, in general, is going through a difficult period with few releases making profits, the scenario for remakes seems to be particularly dire. Last week, Mili (2022), the Hindi remake of the Malayalam survival thriller Helen (2019) hit the screens. Days before the release, director Mathukutty Xavier sounded hopeful about the film’s fate at the box office. “Producer Boney Kapoor contacted me to do the remake during the first lockdown (March 2020). I was hesitant to do the Tamil and Telugu remakes because they wanted to make too many structural changes which would have taken away the charm of the film,” said Xavier. The film, which is about a young woman who gets trapped in the freezer of a fast food restaurant where she works, also offers a commentary on gender, class, bigotry and state power.
Xavier said that he was keen to retain the flavour of the original and did not want to add any heroism or male saviours in the script. Kapoor, he said, respected his view and thus, only cultural changes were made to Mili. The Hindi film, starring Janhvi Kapoor in the lead, is set in Dehradun and Xavier had local people on the sets to make sure that there were no errors.
“This is a film that can work anywhere because it doesn’t have any cultural links that are so integral to the story that they can’t be changed. I was ready to do the remake because of this,” said Xavier. Indeed, ease of adaptation is the reason why the thriller is such a favourite genre when it comes to remakes. For instance, the Hindi version of Vikram Vedha is set in Lucknow and Kanpur, with some cultural changes like the characters ordering kulcha instead of parotta in an important scene. Otherwise, the film is a near frame-by-frame remake of the original.
There’s a long tradition of remaking hit films from one language to another — one of the first is Ram Aur Shyam (1967), which was a remake of the Telugu blockbuster Ramudu Bheemudu (1964) — but today, there are a few new factors affecting the audience’s response. The lack of rootedness in stories that are transplanted from one culture to another may be working against them at the box office. Movies like Pushpa (2021), RRR (2022), KGF 1 and 2 (2018, 2022) and Kantara (2022) have universal themes with larger-than-life characters that appeal to audiences across states, but they’re difficult to remake because of how closely tied they are to specific socio-cultural details. The more local the stories, the more universal their appeal seems to be.
There has also been a definite shift in audience behaviour during the pandemic when many people discovered OTT platforms and started exploring content across languages. They don’t see the point in going to theatres when new films arrive on OTT platforms within weeks of the theatrical release, and this is more so when the original version of a remake is already available on a streaming platform with Hindi dubbing or subtitles. A frame-by-frame remake like Vikram Vedha Hindi therefore has little appeal for the audience.
“The original version of Vikram Vedha with Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi was extremely popular on satellite as well as YouTube in its Hindi dubbing. It allowed a lot of people to experience the film in its original form and that certainly impacted the remake,” said film exhibitor Akshaye Rathi. Remakes need to have something more for an audience to take away from, he added. “You need to adapt the content for the sensibility of the audience that you’re making it for and add value. This can be in terms of scale, tweaking the story, sprucing it up with better production values, using better actors and so on,” he said.
This is just what director Mohan Raja attempted to do with Chiranjeevi’s Godfather (2022), a Telugu remake of the Malayalam Lucifer (2019). However, removed from the context in which the original was made – the political thriller was released just before the 2019 General Elections and had parallels to certain political events and personalities – the remake despite receiving mostly positive reviews.
Previously, remaking successful films was viewed as a safe bet. In addition to Hindi remakes, films have also been remade in the southern industries. For example, the Malayalam superhit thriller Manichitrathazhu (1993) was remade in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and Bengali. The Telugu version of the coming-of-age romance film Premam (2016) became a hit although the Malayalam original was immensely popular in the southern states. Such box office results showed that people were either not watching films in other languages in large numbers or that even if they did, they still enjoyed watching a remake in their own language, with stars who were from their own industry.
That the audience has changed now is evident in the box office failure of big budget remakes with prominent stars, especially in Hindi. “Not just Vikram Vedha, remakes like Jersey (2022) and Lal Singh Chaddha (2022) have not done well either. These are big films with notable names, and when they flop, we have to start wondering if remakes work in the current scenario,” trade analyst Taran Adarsh said.
Pawan Kalyan-starrer Bheemla Nayak (2022), the Telugu remake of the Malayalam action thriller Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2020), is among the few films to have bucked the trend of remakes flopping. The film, which was made on a bigger and ‘massier’ scale than the original, reportedly made over with a budget of Rs 75 crore.
Film industry tracker Ramesh Bala attributed the success of Bheemla Nayak to Pawan Kalyan’s star power. “In the Malayalam original, the two men who fight it out are on the same footing. But in the Telugu version, the film is titled after Pawan Kalyan’s character and the other person doesn’t receive as much importance. In the south, star culture is very much alive and a remake with a big star still has the potential to do well because they have a wide and loyal fanbase,” he said.
On the other hand, a small film without a big star may struggle to find an audience, especially if it is remade within the southern industries. “A person in Chennai is more likely to watch a Malayalam original film than a Hindi one. So if there isn’t a star factor to attract them to theatres, they will prefer to watch a south Indian film in its original version on OTT,” said Bala.
RJ Balaji’s Veetla Vishesham (2022), the Tamil remake of the Hindi comedy Badhaai Ho (2018), is an example of a Tamil remake from Hindi that in the post-pandemic era despite not having big stars in the cast. The film retained many scenes from the original but there were also that gave it a fresh feel. It also helped that the Hindi original wasn’t a “mass” film that was widely watched in Tamil Nadu, barring the metro audience.
With Mili’s being a dampener, all eyes are now on Ajay Devgn, Shriya Saran and Tabu’s thriller Drishyam 2, the Hindi remake of the Malayalam film by the same name (2021) that was streamed directly on Amazon Prime Video. The Hindi version of the first film in the franchise, Drishyam (2015), was a blockbuster and the sequel is scheduled for release on November 18. “I asked Ajay Devgn about remaking Drishyam 2 when the original is already available on OTT. He said the film isn’t there in Hindi dubbing, so it shouldn’t be an issue. Ultimately, this is the producer’s call. I feel if you take the soul of a film and add something new, it should work,” said Taran Adarsh, pointing out that Drishyam 2 has a character played by Akshay Khanna which isn’t there in the original.
With several remakes of films like The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), Soorarai Pottru (2020), Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020), Angamaly Diaries (2017), Ishq (2019) and more in the pipeline, there is anxiety in the industries about whether remakes have become redundant. The performance of Drishyam 2 will help the trade understand which way the wind is blowing. Akshaye Rathi is optimistic about Drishyam 2. Calling the film a “litmus test” for remakes, he said that the Hindi demographic that would have watched a Malayalam film with English subtitles on OTT isn’t very wide. “The first film, Drishyam, has a cult following. It has a solid repeat value and is a very popular film. We’re hopeful that Drishyam 2 will shatter the myth that remakes don’t work any more,” he said.