Not Mammootty, Mohanlal, Prithviraj or Dulquer Salmaan. The top three films at the Kerala box office in the opening weekend aren’t led by any Malayalam star. The honours go to Vijay’s Leo (2023), Yash’s KGF 2 (2022) and Rajinikanth’s Jailer (2023). According to film industry trackers, Leo made Rs. 32.8 crore from the Kerala market in its first weekend, followed by KGF 2 at Rs. 26.5 crore and Jailer at Rs. 23.68 crore. For a comparison, Salmaan’s much hyped gangster film King of Kotha (2023), which was promoted as a pan-Indian film, raked in about Rs. 10.8 crore at the Kerala box office in its opening weekend.
The average Malayali is rather proud of Malayalam cinema and its legacy of producing authentic stories with realistic performances. Yet, the Kerala audience also has a deep love for “mass” cinema and showers its love towards films from other industries that follow the larger-than-life template. Malayalam filmmakers have tried desperately to crack the code, but so far, they have failed to whip up the same kind of hysteria at the box office.
Sree Gokulam Movies, the Kerala distributor of Leo, reportedly paid a record rate of Rs. 16 crore for the film’s rights in the state. Krishnamoorthy, executive producer of Sree Gokulam Movies, justified the decision, saying director Lokesh Kanagaraj’s previous Tamil action thriller, Vikram (2022), was hugely successful in Kerala too. “The Kerala audience values the director. They have high hopes on a director who has delivered a blockbuster, and there’s no doubt that Kanagaraj has his own fanbase in Kerala,” said Krishnamoorthy. But the major factor is the star himself – Thalapathy Vijay. “He has the highest fan followers in Kerala,” said Krishnamoorthy. “And it’s these two factors in combination that has led to such a craze among the public.”
The Kannada film industry, too, used to have a limited market, similar to Mollywood. All that changed with the KGF films and Kantara (2022), which became pan-Indian blockbusters. Until Malayalam filmmakers decode the success of these films, it appears that for now, the kings of the Kerala box office will continue to be from outside the state, with a little help from fans as well as state governments.
When the Tamil Nadu government did not allow early morning shows in the state, Kerala was quick to open 4am shows – and the tickets were sold out in no time. “We didn’t want to disappoint Vijay fans in Kerala. We were determined that Leo should be the first film to cross Rs. 10 crore in gross collection from the Kerala box office, and that would be possible only if we started the shows by 4am,” said Krishnamoorthy.
Prem Menon, managing director at Global United Media Company, was among the first distributors to realise the potential market for films in other languages in Kerala. Menon distributed Shankar’s romantic action thriller I (2015) in the state, and the Vikram starrer became the highest grosser for a non-Malayalam film at the time. In I, Vikram plays a body-builder and Menon came up with a unique strategy to promote the film.
“The producer of I just showed me a five-minute clip. He told me what it was about, and I understood that it had this body building aspect to it. I took the risk of taking the film…I went by a hunch,” said Menon. Vikram had done a few Malayalam movies early in his career, and was a known face to the audience. “So, to promote the film, we gathered about 50-60 muscled men at Lulu Mall in Kochi. They came in their shorts and danced to the catchy songs from the film along with female performers,” said Menon. Vikram and the film’s heroine, Amy Jackson, also participated in the promo event, and this created a massive buzz.
Menon also distributed Vijay’s Mersal (2017), directed by Atlee, in Kerala, and he called the experience an “eye-opener”. “I took the film because I knew Vijay had a market in Kerala. But I was not sure of what the market size was. It was a gamble. That’s when I learnt that every district in Kerala has a Vijay fan club. I was shocked,” said Menon. To promote the film, Menon’s company distributed Mersal T-shirts to the fan clubs and told the members to ride through their cities and towns wearing them.
On the Shoulders of Fandom
Among the numerous Vijay fan clubs in Kerala is one headed by Nischith in Triprayar, a town in Thrissur district. A graphic designer by profession, Nischith joined the fan club during the release of Vijay’s Thalaivaa (2013). “Tamil Nadu Vijay fans were disappointed that early morning shows were not allowed for Leo. But we were happy to provide them with an opportunity to cross borders and catch the film in Kerala,” said Nischith. This fan club, called Vijay Army, has about 300 members, and organised five shows for Leo on October 19 this year.
Though Vijay is a Tamilian, Nischith said the people of Kerala see him as a member of their family. “He has that charm about him. We have grown up watching him dance and fight on TV. Every house in Kerala will have a Vijay fan,” he said. This is a sentiment that Krishnamoorthy echoes. Over the years, Vijay’s mass films have helped him build a substantial fanbase, especially among the youth. “He has become a heartthrob among youngsters, and there are innumerable die-hard Vijay fans. Be it a kid or a 90-year-old grandma, the people of Kerala have accepted him. They just love him,” he said.
The hype for Leo was through the roof also because of its director Lokesh Kanagaraj, Nischith agreed. “It’s the combination of a good director with Vijay’s stardom that has made Leo so big in Kerala. Anirudh’s music helps as well,” he added.
The Baahubali Effect
The market for Telugu films too has expanded in Kerala, thanks to a star director – SS Rajamouli. Prem Menon, who distributed Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017) in Kerala, said that nobody had heard of the first film in the state when he decided to take it up. “But I had a glimpse of the film, and I went with my gut feeling that it would be big. I went to Hyderabad and met producer Shobu Yarlagadda of Arka Media. I told him that we were new to this and that we needed to market the film well in Kerala. We created the largest poster in the world for Baahubali – it won a Guinness award,” said Menon. Slowly, the interest in Baahubali grew in Kerala and when visuals from the film started doing the rounds, it became a phenomenon. “Of course, it was also a good movie and that’s why it became such a big hit,” acknowledged Menon.
Since the market is small for Malayalam films, Menon said that it’s risky to invest more than Rs 10 crore in a film. The lavish action sequences, songs and star cameos that are part of tentpole movies from other industries are difficult to pull off in Malayalam. “The Malayalam industry makes beautiful films, but the audience waits to see if there’s good word of mouth. Then they decide if they should go to the theatre or watch it on OTT. They don’t spontaneously decide to watch it like these big budget films from outside,” said Menon.
Noting that the majority of theatre-going audience is the youth, Menon pointed to another factor: The cost of watching a film on the big screen has shot up exponentially. “Earlier, it would cost Rs. 50-100 to watch a film in a theatre, but now it is about Rs. 400 – 500. Young people have money to watch only one movie a month in a theatre,” he said. When Baahubali released in Kerala, Menon went to theatres to see how the crowd was responding to the film. “I saw a group of boys standing outside the theatre and counting their money to see if they had enough for all of them. They were running short, and I offered to pay for them because I remembered being their age,” said Menon.
When the choice is between a small budget Malayalam film – irrespective of its quality – and a big budget extravaganza from another industry, audiences and particularly young people often prefer to save their money for the latter. To see the blockbuster film that is the topic of conversation among fandoms across the country isn’t just about seeing the film, but also about feeling part of a community that feels seen by the act of going to the cinema. Perhaps there’s space for both the modest local film with its indie spirit and the blockbuster movies from nearby states in the Malayali cinephiles’ hearts.