By all accounts, actor and producer Dulquer Salmaan’s period gangster saga King of Kotha (2023) is a daring attempt to find pan-Indian audiences for Malayalam cinema. An Onam release, King of Kotha is helmed by debut director Abhilash Joshiy and has a budget of Rs. 50 crore. Most Malayalam films have a budget of less than Rs. 7 crore. The industry is conservative about budgets because the size of the Malayali audience is small. Unlike Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films, particularly post KGF (2018), Malayalam cinema has only a niche following in other states.
Also, Malayalam cinema has not had a great track record with big budget films. Historical dramas Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham (2021) and Mamangam (2019) at Rs 100 crore and Rs 55 crore respectively, and the period fantasy Odiyan (2018) at Rs 50 crore, boasted of the biggest budgets and generated massive pre-release hype among the audience. Yet when it came to the box office, all three failed to meet expectations. King of Kotha hoped to buck this trend by presenting Salmaan, best known for his loverboy roles, as an action hero. “I’ve always wondered why Malayalam films are not celebrated in a similar way outside Kerala. Our films are always watched on OTT and we get critical acclaim, but not in theatres. I wanted to make a humble attempt to try and change that,” said Joshiy, ahead of the release of King of Kotha.
According to reports, King of Kotha, which was released in Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu, took an excellent opening and grossed around Rs 17 crore worldwide on its opening day. However, mixed reviews and ambivalent word-of-mouth publicity led to a dip in collections. In the Onam race, the other action film, Shane Nigam, Antony Varghese and Neeraj Madhav’s RDX (2023), has edged past King of Kotha and the heist comedy Ramachandra Boss & Co (2023). According to box office tracker Keralam Forum, the Nahas Hidayath directorial opened at fewer screens than King of Kotha, but RDX made double the money at the Kerala box-office on the first Sunday, minting Rs. 3 crore.
In Kerala, the audience is welcoming of “mass” films from other industries but is more selective when it comes to Malayalam, said film critic and journalist Neelima Menon. Pointing out that RDX also has a “testosterone-pumping narrative”, Menon said the blood and gore in this film worked better with the Kerala audience because it has a local flavour — unlike King of Kotha. “Like Angamaly Diaries (2017), we want mass films that are locally flavoured, including the heroes,” said Menon.
Still, the prevailing belief is that when it comes to box office openings, Salmaan is next only to superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal in Malayalam cinema. As a producer, Salmaan’s company Wayfarer Films is just four films old and despite King of Kotha not meeting expectations, its track record remains promising.
Salmaan’s move to rebrand himself in King of Kotha should be seen in the context of his last release, Kurup (2021), a crime thriller based on the real life story of Kerala’s most wanted fugitive, Sukumara Kurup. A multi-starrer made on a budget of Rs. 35 crore, Kurup too had a young director behind it – Srinath Rajendran who had directed Salmaan in his debut film Second Show (2012). In Kurup, produced by Wayfarer Films, Salmaan plays the titular role of the slippery Kurup who faked his own death and literally got away with murder. It’s a character based on a despicable criminal, but Salmaan revelled in the role. Kurup was a blockbuster, raking in over Rs. 100 crore worldwide. Menon believes it’s the success of Kurup that made Salmaan confident of taking on the more ‘massy’ and expensive King of Kotha. “I think KoK primarily targeted Salmaan’s pan-Indian reach, and it was evident in the way the film was aggressively marketed in every city,” she said.
Menon’s observations are in line with Joshiy’s comments about Salmaan wanting to move away from loverboy roles and reinvent himself with the action genre. Speaking to Film Companion, Joshiy, who is among Salmaan’s childhood friends, said, “This was also because after 10 years in the industry, Dulquer wanted to change his image from boy-next-door to an action hero.”
Wayfarer Films was launched with director Anoop Sathyan’s unusual romcom Varane Avashyamund (2020), about a middle-aged woman’s quest for love. While Salmaan is Malayalam superstar Mammootty’s son, Anoop Sathyan is the son of acclaimed director Sathyan Anthikad. The two met on the sets of director Lal Jose’s Vikramadithyan (2014), in which Salmaan was an actor and Sathyan was an assistant director. Years later, Sathyan met Salmaan in Kochi at a shoot and told him his idea for Varane.
“He [Salmaan] called me home for a full narration, and said he would produce it. Initially, he was going to play a cameo but he ended up playing a role in the film,” said Sathyan. The film appealed to Salmaan, Sathyan said, because it was small, didn’t have too many dramatic sequences and yet, there was a novelty to it. “He told me that he wanted to make a happy film that people would love to rewatch again,” added Sathyan.
Starring the memorable lead pair of the psychological thriller Manichitrathazhu (1993) – Shobana and Suresh Gopi – Varane was released in February 2020. The film had a good run in theatres, but was interrupted because of the pandemic. The industry and the audience has changed a lot in the intervening years between Varane and King of Kotha.
Joshiy said the Kerala market is a lucrative one for action films from other industries like Vikram (2022) and Jailer (2023), which in turn suggested that a homegrown action film should also do well. King of Kotha was shot in Karaikudi and Rameswaram to give a new visual experience for the Malayali audience, and actors like Prasanna and Shabeer Kallarakkal of Sarpatta Parambarai (2021) were roped in to widen its appeal. There’s also an item number by Ritika Singh – a trend that’s made a comeback in south Indian films after Samantha’s viral “Oo Antava” in Pushpa: The Rise (2021). The team did everything they could to market it, including releasing a promo at New York’s Times Square, the first for a Malayalam film.
All things considered, Dulquer Salmaan is still at an enviable stage in his career. Post-pandemic, he delivered a blockbuster in Telugu with the period romantic drama Sita Ramam (2022), did his third Hindi film Chup (2022), and has also played one of the lead roles in Raj and DK’s Netflix gangster comedy Guns & Gulaabs (2023). “He’s a star who is known nation-wide now,” said Sathyan, who added that Salmaan loves to experiment and try out new things. “When he started with production, he wanted to create a brand that makes good cinema in Malayalam. He might be able to act in only one film a year, but he wants to be associated with good productions, big and small.”