Vijay Deverakonda's big Bollywood debut Liger (2022), directed by Puri Jagannadh and produced by Karan Johar's Dharma Productions and Puri Connects, has dashed the dreams of all those who were hoping for the film to be the next pan-Indian hit. The Telugu star, who made a mark with Arjun Reddy (2017), was banking on Liger's Hindi version to launch him in Bollywood and win mass appeal. However, with poor word-of-mouth publicity and scathing reviews, Liger has been declared a disaster in Hindi as well as Telugu.
It's a familiar story. Despite pan-India films from the south becoming blockbusters across the country, it is still difficult for a male star from one industry to find success in another. Several southern male stars like Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Mammootty, Mohanlal, Dhanush, Prithviraj, Sudeep and others have acted in industries outside their own after achieving superstardom, but the hit films in other languages are too few and far between.
In contrast, women stars have always been able to jump from one industry to another – be it Sridevi who acted in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi films in the Seventies and Eighties or contemporary stars like Taapsee Pannu, Nayanthara, Nithya Menen and Samantha who have found success in multiple industries.
Actor Dulquer Salmaan, who belongs to the Malayalam industry, is among the few male stars from the current generation to have acted in Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. His last release was Sita Ramam (2022), a Telugu period romance which has become a blockbuster and earned Rs 70 crore at the box-office so far (its budget is estimated to be Rs. 30 crore). His next release is the Hindi psychological thriller Chup: Revenge of the Artist, directed by R. Balki.
"I don't know if many male stars want to venture into other industries. Sometimes, I too think that it might be easier to just focus on one language, listen to narrations in the same language. Some days, it's so complicated that I wonder why am I doing this," said Salmaan. He added that working in the same industry means the male stars build a market for themselves, and this allows them to experiment with different kinds of roles because they know there's an audience for it. Venturing outside could mean losing out at home.
"I spent almost a year and a half on The Zoya Factor (2019) and that film really set me back in Malayalam because I didn't have a release for that long. People told me that I would lose my market in Malayalam because of the gap," Salmaan said.
The Zoya Factor, based on Anuja Chauhan's romance and sports novel by the same title, also starred Sonam Kapoor Ahuja in the lead, but failed at the box-office. Salmaan has had better luck in Tamil, with successes like the rom com OK Kanmani (2015) and comedy caper Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal (2020).
Writer, filmmaker and academic Anubha Yadav believes most male stars don't feel the need to go to other industries because they earn big bucks in their own market. Seeking out other industries may dilute their brand in the home market, especially if the jump is from the southern industries to Bollywood. "We know that Rajinikanth also gets his power from the myth around his exclusivity to southern cinema. Thus, he is also representative of a larger political idea. I am sure if Rajinikanth had become very successful over two decades at the box-office of Bollywood, his popularity in the south would have actually decreased," said Yadav.
Every industry has its own brand of cinema that defines it and popular trends that it embraces. For instance, Tamil cinema has been witnessing a wave of anti-caste and anti-establishment films for the past few years even as the Hindi industry has promoted nationalism and Hindutva through several big budget films. According to Yadav, southern stars like Rajinikanth also represent the "rage against the hegemony of Hindi and north centrism of politics and discourse in India". The male stars risk losing their core fanbase if they try to pander to other markets and their sensibilities.
And, of course, there is patriarchy. Most films are male-centric; women stars have fewer scenes, fewer dialogues, and fewer opportunities to shoulder a film by themselves. Needless to say, their salaries are also much lower than those of male stars. This makes them affordable across industries. For instance, Tamil superstar Vijay commands a salary of over Rs 100 crore per film. It's inconceivable that he will get the same rate for a standard Hindi film since he does not have a fanbase in the Hindi belt. A woman star, on the other hand, is likely to be paid more or less within the range she's already getting in her own industry.
Further, films are marketed mostly in the name of male stars who have several fan associations. This means that knowing the language is considered essential for the male star while women stars can get by with a dubbing artist doing the job for them.
"When I did Mahanati [his first Telugu film], I was very apprehensive because I had zero exposure to the language. I'd never spent any time in Hyderabad before that. It felt very daunting. Even when you are familiar with a language, you should be able to think in it because it's only then that you can own it and speak naturally in the scene," said Salmaan. The actor also pointed out that the shoot days for women stars are usually fewer, so they are available to do films across industries. "A male star is there in a film for 95-98% of the script, so it is very hard for us to be jumping in and out of films. I think that could be a big reason why male stars generally stick to one industry," he said.
The audience's unfamiliarity with a male star from another industry used to be a stumbling block for producers. But, with the pan-India trend catching on and the rise of streaming platforms, that can no longer be considered an insurmountable problem.
However, Anubha Yadav noted that one successful film isn't enough to establish the star in a new market, particularly if the jump is from the southern industries to Bollywood. The Hindi film industry tends to focus a lot more on the 'packaging' of a male star than the southern industries, and this includes skin colour.
"I don't think pan-India films can sustain as a trend unless the audience becomes open to a certain different aesthetic and style, and also takes keen interest in the themes and socio-political discourse of the south (and vice versa) – because whatever said, a film is a cultural product. It's not made in a vacuum," Yadav said. Not all themes lend themselves to a pan-India film, and when filmmakers attempt to empty a film of local, cultural links and references, it becomes vacuous. Liger is the most recent example of this.
The audience's change in preferences after the pandemic has left most film industries in India confused. From politically-motivated boycott calls to empty theatres even for critically acclaimed films, it is clear that Indian cinema is going through a period of churning. For now, though, success across industries remains elusive for most male stars. Some may have a go at it through the pan-India route. But for most, it may not be the priority since they'd rather be kings in their own backyard than start from scratch elsewhere.