Just a week ago, the Malayalam film industry looked like a very different place. The producer of Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, Anthony Perumbavoor announced that their Rs.100 crore magnum opus would go straight to OTT. He also announced that four more films of his, all starring the industry’s biggest star Mohanlal, would also head the OTT way signalling a shift in the way the movie business is run. It also hinted at a lack of faith in the theatrical release model. Add to this list Minnal Murali, another spectacle, was also heading to OTT and it was as though no major film was going to be taking a chance with a theatrical release any time soon.
So when Dulquer Salmaan’s Kurup announced a big release exclusively in the theatres, it sounded like a risky proposition. After five months of closure, theatres in the State were allowed to open only in the last week of October and to plan the release of a big budget film just two weeks after reopening, might not have been the safest option. Add to this the risk of a cap on 50 per cent seating in Kerala, the film’s biggest market, most industry veterans would not have been able to see the viability of a wide release during such a lean period.
But the industry seems a much happier place today. Dulquer Salmaan’s star power, helped by an eager set of theatre owners, have come together to create one of the biggest ever openings for any film in the State. “This is unprecedented,” says industry tracker Sreedhar Pillai. “The 50 per cent seating limit didn’t prove to be a detriment at all despite how strictly it was being enforced because of the massive screen space the film got. In Ernakulam city, the film released in Shenoys, Kavitha and Padma theatres on the arterial MG Road with additional shows in Saritha and Sridhar just a kilometre away. Before this, even the biggest release would only be limited to two or three of these theatres. Which means that every theatre in the State practically laid the red carpet for the film.”
In Kerala alone, the film is said to have opened in more than 450 screens, plus an additional 500 odd screens outside the State. In terms of numbers, a release in over 1000 screens, that too with dubbed versions in four languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi) ensured a version of the film was playing all throughout the country, besides attracting the lucrative NRI Malayali crowd across the Gulf countries. Dulquer Salmaan’s previous hits in Tamil and Telugu have also contributed to the opening outside Kerala.
It also helped that the film, based on a true crime that occurred in 1984, was able to generate hype for itself because of its subject. Gautam Jain, a partner at Ormax Media, feels the stories of the notorious Sukumara Kurup, who it is based on, has been a part of Malayali folklore further adding to its appeal. He says, “On Ormax Cinematix – Malayalam, our film campaign tracking product for Malayalam films, the film had a Buzz of 77 on day of release, indicating that 3 out of 4 film viewers recalled the film. The appeal for the film was also high at 81. The story, along with a good campaign and being the first film to release in cinemas in Kerala after the lockdown lead to this huge weekend numbers.”
The extensive marketing campaign helped the film too, he adds. “The Middle East has a huge Malayali diaspora who contribute to the overseas collection of Malayalam films. Considering this, promotions on the Burj Khalifa was an excellent move, not just to get that audience but to get conversations alive in the domestic market.”
All this worked big time making Kurup the Malayalam film with the biggest international opening so far. And within four days of its release, Kurup’s team also managed to release figures of having collected a gross sum of Rs.50 crore, a rare feat for a Malayalam film. Although last to the party, Malayalam cinema too has learnt that the theatrical trade remains robust despite the lockdown. Jain adds, “All regional markets, be it Tamil (Doctor), Telugu (Love Story) or Punjabi (Honsla Rakh) had released films which opened well. This put to rest all the speculations about whether audiences will get back to theatre or not. With Kurup, the same has happened with Malayalam films.”
According to Pillai, the prospect of Marakkar going to OTT too further shook up the theatre owners to ensure everything was done in their part to give the film a big opening. “In terms of its content, it already had a lot of intrigue going for it because it is based on the most sensational police case in the State. But you also need to factor in the timing of its release. For many film viewers, this is their first outing to theatres in over half a year. As for Dulquer, it is a proper Malayalam release for him after a year and a half even when every other star had multiple releases in this period. It is also his first solo film in Malayalam (Varane Avshyamundu had an ensemble cast) since April 2019, which further helped establish his stardom.”
As Pillai see it, audiences have returned to the theatres with a “sort of vengeance, because they have all missed the big theater experience.” He adds, “But my biggest surprise is how well the film is doing even in rural Tamil Nadu. Dulquer had a fanbase in Tamil Nadu because his films Oh Kadhal Kanmani and Kannum Kannum Kolaiyadhithal were hits in the urban centres. But from what I could gather, it is doing very well even in smaller cities like Tirunelveli and Madurai. It has revived the single screen market in both states and this augurs well for the business. It is also proof that mass films driven by a superstar will always draw crowds.”
The Risk And The Reward
The fact that the film managed to hold its numbers into the weekdays, despite receiving mixed to good reviews was further proof of its credentials as a film “best enjoyed on the big screen”. Rajkumar Akella, Managing Director of ComScore Movies—India, does not completely agree to these points. “External factors like marketing will only help a good product do better,” he says. “Eventually, the film has connected with the audience and that’s why it has sustained its business. In Tamil, this is what Doctor managed to do even with restrictions in place. Master too was able to do this early this year. It shows that when you have a good product in hand, you can back it by giving it a theatrical release and it will be worth it.”
Kurup has also shown the sheer power of a theatrical release compared to the much-discussed OTT model. “With a good film, the risk is always worth taking,” Rajkumar adds. “But the rewards are almost three times that of what any OTT platform can provide. And given that the film got a solo release, it also managed to circumvent all the issues we have been discussing about the theatrical release model. We were talking about how there were too many films being scheduled every Friday with no film getting its due space or time. But by taking the first proper release window, Kurup took the biggest risk of uncertainty but the rewards are sure handsome.”
With Marakkar backtracking at the last moment to go for a major theatrical release on December 2 (early shows are said to begin as early as 12:01 AM), we will have to wait if Kurup’s massive opening record will be short-lived. Add to this that Suresh Gopi’s Kaaval also will be getting a release in 150 screens or more further shows the business is back to being bullish. Either way, after the leanest period in decades, the industry finally has reason to cheer. Whoever thought that it would take a biopic based on a fugitive for theatres to have the last laugh over digital.