The Great Promise of the Pan-Indian Hit

Last year, Indian cinema saw revenues growing by 15% over 2022, but ticket sales are lagging behind the numbers earned in 2019. Can the pan-Indian hit save the day?
The Great Promise of the Pan-Indian Hit
The Great Promise of the Pan-Indian Hit

Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi (1991) was a frustrating watch. The VHS tape was scratchy, there were no subtitles and the only Tamil I knew was ‘Vanakkam’ and a couple of cuss words. The gorgeous Shobana, a superlative performance by Rajnikanth, Mani Ratnam’s reputation, and all the articles raving about the film helped me hang on for 157 minutes. Throughout the Nineties that is how I watched a range of Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films — on eye-wateringly bad, possibly pirated VHS tapes rented from the local cablewallah, without any dubbing or subtitling. Clearly he had enough of a market in Mumbai (Bombay then). And it was not limited to Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam speaking homes – ours certainly wasn’t. 

That market, for Indians wanting to watch Indian cinema, has now asserted itself nationally. The rise and rise of the domestic crossover or the pan-Indian film is proof.

Regional or ‘Indian’?

The biggest hit of 2023, Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jawan was made by Tamil director Atlee, known for hits such as Mersal (2017). It had a cast and crew drawn, largely, from Tamil cinema. It was released in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Jawan collected a gross of Rs. 1,160 crore at the box-office – that is the total value of the tickets people bought to watch Jawan. Of this, over Rs. 400 crore came from the overseas market and Rs. 760 crore from within India. From the tickets sold in India, roughly Rs. 200 crore was from ticket sales in non-Hindi markets. 

The (primarily) Tamil language Jailer, starring Rajnikanth, collected a gross of over Rs 600 crore. A bulk of this came from states outside of Tamil Nadu. For many of the hits in 2023, Pathaan, Jawan, Jailer, the Rs. 600-700 crore ticket sales domestically is possible only because of an all-India run. By their very nature domestic crossovers appeal to a larger audience. Their rise then is propelling the growth of ‘Indian’ —  not Hindi or Bengali or Tamil or Marathi - cinema. 

Significance of Ticket Sales

From a handful in 2019, last year saw over two dozen pan-Indian films such as Animal and Salaar, going by data from consulting firm Ormax Media. These are films designed for a market larger than their state of origin. They are either shot bilingually or can be watched in three or more languages with dubbing and subtitling. Most are released in the a large number of screens across the country, not just in the Telugu or Hindi or Tamil belt. 

Last year, Indians bought 943 million tickets to the cinema. This was a 6% growth over ticket sales in 2022. Overall Indian cinema earned a total of Rs. 19,700 crore in 2023. This number which includes domestic and overseas box-office, streaming, television and all other revenues has grown 15 per cent over 2022.

Usually ticket sales, which form anywhere from 60-70 per cent of total industry revenue, are critical to a film’s ability to make money. If a film doesn’t work at the box-office, its ability to get a good price from television, streaming or other rights reduces significantly. This is more true for mid-level and smaller films. Many films with big stars that have failed at the box-office manage to recover some or all of their budget from the other rights. They may at times even make a profit from the other rights. 

On overall revenues, India has gone ahead of the pre-pandemic numbers. However, on ticket sales the market is still behind the billion plus tickets sold in 2019. Screen owners reckon that as the domestic crossover rises, it will push the Indian film business to the billion plus ticket sales number by the end of 2024. 

The Role of Dubbing

Note that these numbers have happened even while competition is doing well: Streaming is offering delectable programming at home, live events are booming. In fact some of these forms of entertainment have played an integral role in bringing the Indian audience to this language-agnostic, story-centric avatar. 

A quick flashback might help. 

Through the Eighties and Nineties, filmmakers from across the country tried to reach other audiences, but there were only sporadic, scattered successes for North-South ventures such as Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981) with Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri, or Andha Kanoon (1983) featuring superstars Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan among others. 

Somewhere in the early part of the millennium Hindi general entertainment channels started offering dubbed versions of Tamil and Telugu films. This brought in a large audience from the Hindi belt which is now familiar with the faces and feel of these cinemas. In 2016 came streaming. By 2018 almost every international or domestic show or film was being subtitled or dubbed in a multitude of languages. While you and I were watching Icelandic show Trapped with English subtitles, someone in France was watching the Hindi Sacred Games in French. That is what was happening within the country too. Pushpa, Minnal Murali, Kaathal -The Core, films are increasingly finding an audience outside their core markets.

This aggregation of audiences online has now helped aggregate them theatrically too aiding the revival of the domestic box-office. Leo, Jailer, Salaar, Jawaan some of the highest grossing films of 2023 were domestic crossovers. 

Indians watching their various cinemas makes for good business.

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