In Dhanush’s recent release Vaathi (2023), the Tamil star plays a committed school teacher who is against the commodification of education. The school is located on the Andhra-Tamil Nadu border, and the film revolves around the teacher’s efforts to motivate his students to aim high. The setting isn’t a coincidence – Vaathi, released in Telugu as Sir, is Dhanush’s debut in the Telugu film industry and is helmed by Telugu director Venky Atluri. It’s the latest in the line of Tamil-Telugu collaborations such as Prince (2022), Varisu (2023) and Michael (2023) that are looking to expand the reach of their films beyond the home state of their star. But, do these bilingual films work?
Nandi Award winning film critic and journalist Rentala Jayadeva pointed out that Tamil and Telugu cinema have always had a close association, since Telugu films were shot in the studios of Chennai (then Madras) back in the day. “Bilingual films were common then too. Films like the mythological Mayabazar (1957) had a Tamil release shortly after the Telugu one. But once the Telugu industry shifted to Hyderabad, the relationship between the two industries changed,” he said.
In earlier decades, there were several bilingual films that became blockbusters across states. For instance, any discussion on Tamil actor Kamal Haasan’s exemplary filmography is likely to include Sagara Sangamam (1983), his Telugu film with director K Viswanath. In this tragedy, Haasan plays a dancer who becomes an alcoholic over a failed relationship, while Jayapradha plays his estranged lover. The film was also dubbed in Tamil as Salangai Oli (1983) and released simultaneously with the Telugu original. It was a huge hit in both languages.
It was in the early 1990s that Telugu cinema completely moved to Andhra Pradesh, with the encouragement of superstars like Akkineni Nageswara Rao who founded Annapurna Studios in Hyderabad in 1976. Though bilingual films with simultaneous releases began to wane, dubbed films continued to be popular. Usually, the Tamil film would first be released and if it did well, the Telugu dubbed version would come out a few weeks later. In fact, Jayadeva said that many Tamil dubbed films in the late Nineties and early 2000s were bigger hits in the Telugu states than original Telugu films.
“After the Telugu dubbed version of Baashha (1995), Rajinikanth’s market in Telugu began to grow. He’d acted in several straight Telugu films before that, including with Krishna, but it was the gangster drama Baashha that made him popular among the Telugu audience,” said Jayadeva. Subsequent dubbed-to-Telugu Rajinikanth films like Muthu (1995), Padayappa (1999) and Sivaji (2007) did very well in the Telugu market. Next generation Tamil stars like Vikram and Suriya too expanded their reach in the Telugu states in this period with massive hits like Shankar’s Anniyan (2005) and AR Murgadoss’s Ghajini (2005).
There were also instances when a dubbed Tamil film did much better in the Telugu states than at home – like Selvaraghavan’s historical fantasy film Aayirathil Oruvan (2010) which was released in Telugu as Yugainiki Okkadu (2010). Its lead star Karthi is still popular in the Telugu states because of the impact it had on the audience.
Post-2010, however, the market for Tamil dubbed films in the Telugu states began to shrink, possibly due to the growing fame of homegrown directors like SS Rajamouli, Trivikram Srinivas, Chandra Sekhar Yeleti, Puri Jagannadh, Sukumar, Sekhar Kammula and others, and the audience preferring to watch films in their own language.
In recent years, Telugu cinema’s domination of the pan-India market has made Tamil stars covet the industry once again, and OTT platforms have made it easier for them to get past linguistic boundaries. “During the pandemic, a lot of people switched to OTT and started watching movies in other languages. This helped these stars increase their popularity beyond their home state, including in B and C centres. Now, a Telugu producer doesn’t have to spend much on promoting these Tamil stars in the Telugu states when compared to earlier times,” said Jayadeva.
SS Lalit Kumar, who heads Seven Screen Studio, the company that distributed Varisu/Varasudu and Vaathi/Sir, acknowledged that Tamil stars like Vijay and Dhanush were already familiar to the Telugu audience. Both Varisu and Vaathi also have Telugu producers – Dil Raju and Sirish, and Naga Vamsi S and Sai Soujanya respectively.
According to Kumar, Vijay’s dubbed films have been opening reasonably well in the Telugu states for a while now, and the actor was keen to expand his base by partnering with Telugu director Vamshi Paidipally. “Vijay really wanted to do a family drama after a long time, and I believe Paidipally had a story that appealed to him. Though a lot of people initially said that Varisu felt too much like a Telugu film, it clicked with the family audience in Tamil Nadu and the film did well at the box-office,” said Kumar.
However, despite the criticism from Tamil film critics and a section of the audience about Varisu having a ‘Telugu sensibility’, the film did much better in Tamil Nadu than in the Telugu states, where Varasudu reportedly collected only Rs 10 to 15 crore. Though this isn’t a bad performance per se, the film was expected to rake in more, considering the makers are from Tollywood. Kumar attributed this to the Telugu version releasing three days (January 14) after the Tamil version (January 11), since only direct Telugu films were allowed to release early for Sankranti in the Telugu states. The mixed reviews and word-of-mouth, as well as the success of the direct Telugu releases, impacted the performance of Varasudu.
In comparison, Dhanush’s Sir fared much better, reportedly grossing Rs 25 crore in the Telugu states alone. “You can say that with Sir, Dhanush has got an opening in Telugu. It’s true that these films are being criticised for their mixed sensibility, but at the end of the day, if the story appeals to the audience, it will work,” said Kumar.
Prince (2022), directed by Telugu filmmaker Anudeep KV, was one such Tamil-Telugu collaboration that was rejected at the box-office. Starring Tamil star Sivakarthikeyan in the lead, the romantic comedy was panned by critics and audiences alike. Another turkey at the box-office was the gangster drama Michael (2023) which was directed by Tamil director Ranjit Jeyakodi and had Telugu star Sundeep Kishan in the lead along with cameos by Tamil stars Vijay Sethupathi and Varalaxmi Sarathkumar. While the film was promoted as a ‘pan-Indian’ movie, it was way too imitative of earlier flicks in the genre to make any impact.
Jayadeva said that in their eagerness to capture new markets, filmmakers tend to forget the wisdom in the adage ‘the more local, the more you’ll go global’. “Look at the success of the Kannada film Kantara (2022). If a local story has a human connection, it will work with any audience. Instead, what these people do is to cast actors from different industries and think that will make it a pan-India film or a film that will work across states,” said Jayadeva.
The critic added that it’s difficult to culturally root a film when it’s conceptualised as a bilingual project. “I would watch a Tamil film with a Dappankuthu (a folk dance from Tamil Nadu which liberally uses film music) happily, but when you show the same thing and expect me to buy it as a Telugu film, I will find it difficult to accept,” he said.
Further, the acting styles of Tamil and Telugu stars are different, even in mass entertainers. Telugu films tend to amp up the drama while Tamil films are subtler in comparison. The body language, style of dialogue delivery, the way the action scenes are executed – all of these vary from industry to industry. In earlier decades, when both the industries were closely connected, directors understood the sensibilities of the audience and knew how to extract a performance from the stars that would match it. Now, however, the market-driven nature of film production has diluted such nuances.
“Even between Telangana and Andhra, there are differences in local cultural practices and traditions. So when you try to pass off a Tamil film as Telugu or vice versa, it creates a dissonance. Still, I believe that emotions are what will make a film work at the box-office. Directors shouldn’t forget that, be it a pan-Indian film or bilingual,” said Jayadeva.