Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Leo (2023) was easily among the most anticipated films this year and it’s gone on to be a blockbuster. According to Ormax, Leo’s earnings (Rs. 405 crore) add up to half of what all films released in October earned this year (Rs. 812 crore). This is despite the film’s limited release in Hindi markets – neither the original Tamil nor the dubbed Hindi versions were released in national multiplex chains like PVR INOX and Cinepolis.
A few weeks later, Karthik Subbaraj’s period action comedy Jigarthanda DoubleX (2023) also had a simultaneous release in Tamil and Hindi for Deepavali. The film ended up being a complete washout in the Hindi market. The dubbed version was released in barely five screens in Mumbai and there was no buzz around it. The film has reportedly grossed over Rs 30 crore worldwide in five days. Admitting the film could have done better in the Hindi market, Pavan Narendra of Stonebench Films said the production company hadn’t been aware of the Multiplex Association of India’s (MAI) rule regarding an eight-week window between theatrical and OTT releases. Member theatres of MAI (like PVR Inox and Cinepolis) have decided not to screen any Hindi film – including those dubbed to Hindi – that will be out on streaming platforms less than eight weeks after its theatrical release.
“We were not aware of this clause. For Tamil films, the OTT window is 28 days,” said Narendra. “So, we could release Jigarthanda Double X only in citiplexes and single screens in the Hindi region.”
This is a recent development. Until September this year, films in the original language were released even if dubbed versions weren’t. For instance, the Tamil version of Nelson Dilipkumar’s Rajinikanth-starrer Jailer (2023) was released in national multiplex chains across the country, but the Hindi version wasn’t. However, since then, multiplex chains have decided to not screen even the original version of the film in the Hindi market if the OTT window is less than eight weeks. Consequently, films like Kangana Ranaut and Raghava Lawrence’s horror thriller Chandramukhi 2 (2023), Leo and Jigarthanda Double X weren’t released in these multiplex chains and earned significantly less from the Hindi market than they potentially could have.
It is only after Leo that the Tamil industry appears to have become aware of the MAI’s revised stance. “If we had known about it earlier, we could have released the film only in the southern languages and delayed the Hindi release. Perhaps the ground rules were always there, but we didn’t know about it,” said Narendra.
There is a perception among trade analysts that unlike the Telugu and Kannada film industries, the Tamil industry isn’t doing enough to promote their cinema in the Hindi market. Manish Shah of Goldmines Telefilms, the distributor of Leo in the Hindi market, rejected this criticism. “Only a few south Indian films have become pan-Indian hits theatrically,” he said. “In Kannada, other than the KGF films, no other film that was released as ‘pan-Indian’ became a hit in the Hindi market. Kantara (2022) was not a simultaneous release in Hindi. It became a hit in Kannada and they released the dubbed version two weeks later.”
The Rishab Shetty action thriller made close to Rs. 100 crore in the Hindi market. In comparison, Mani Ratnam’s multi-starrer epic action drama Ponniyin Selvan: 1 (2022), released a couple of weeks before Kantara in the Hindi market, made around Rs 30 crore. Though the PS team did extensive promotions across the country, the film enjoyed only moderate success in the Hindi market and was unable to replicate the success of SS Rajamouli’s epic dramas like the Baahubali films, RRR (2022) and Sukumar’s surprise blockbuster Pushpa: The Rise (2021), which made over Rs 100 crore each. The PS films were not considered “massy” enough and the unfamiliar names, locations and historical references may have acted as barriers for the Hindi audience.
An Ormax on pan-Indian attempts from the south aligns with Shah’s opinion. Noting that the term ‘pan-Indian’ has become popular after the pandemic (when viewers discovered cinema from different regions), the report points out that several films from the south have since used the term ‘pan-Indian’ to mean a Hindi dubbed release. In 2018, only two south Indian films were released in Hindi theatrically, but in 2023, 12 such films were released in just the first half of the year. Further, the report states that of the 42 Hindi dubbed films from January 2020 to August 2023, only nine films managed to cross Rs 15 crore (net) in earnings. Of these nine, only the PS films are from the Tamil film industry.
With the MAI strictly enforcing the OTT window rule, southern filmmakers have to decide if they want to release a Hindi dubbed version of the film theatrically at all or stick with the 28-day window deal with OTT platforms, which may be more lucrative than a deal for a much longer window. “At least the Tamil version of Jigarthanda Double X could have had a wider release in the Hindi region through national multiplex chains if we hadn’t had a simultaneous Hindi release,” said Narendra.
While the MAI’s new policy has certainly played spoilsport for recent releases, a lack of planning has often been cited as a reason for Tamil films being unable to make inroads into the Hindi market. Pavan Narendra noted that if there was a perception that the Tamil film industry was lagging behind, steps should be taken to improve the reach of the films in the Hindi market. “I don’t think our release strategy is too different from the other industries, but there is no smoke without fire. If people feel our films are not being seen or heard enough, we should do better,” he acknowledged.
Though Leo makers had promised to promote the film in the Hindi belt, there were no events planned in the region. Ahead of its release, several Vijay fans took to social media to demand more screens and promo events in Hindi. Manish Shah said it wasn’t possible to do any events in the Hindi belt since the film’s star, Vijay, wasn’t willing to do press conferences or interviews. “Without the hero, how can we do promo events? In any case, I’m against promotions that aren’t targeted at the target audience. Goldmines doesn’t need promo events to make a film run,” he said.
Adding that Goldmines owns four major channels, including one of the world’s largest YouTube channels for movies, Shah said promos for the film were running on these channels. “It reached the target audience in the Hindi region. That is what matters. Reviews of the film were carried in more than 300 newspapers in the Hindi heartland. We got the publicity we needed,” he said. “The movie’s collections are three times that of Vijay’s last best performing films in the Hindi market – Varisu (2022) at Rs. 10 crore and Master (2021) at Rs 9. crore. Leo made Rs. 33 crore in the Hindi market.”
Though the pan-Indian fever may have intensified after the pandemic, Shah pointed out that it was actually a Tamil film that was the first to become a pan-Indian hit after the Baahubali phenomenon – Shankar’s 2.0 (2018), starring Rajinikanth, Amy Jackson and Akshay Kumar. “2.0 did Rs. 190 crore in the Hindi market, so I don’t think the Tamil industry is lagging behind. It was the Tamil industry that was the first to crack the pan-India formula [after Baahubali],” he said.
Goldmines has played an important role in expanding the market for south Indian films in the Hindi belt through their dubbed content. “We have played a very big role in taking films from the south to the Hindi region. We have an 80 percent market share. If you take any big hero from the south, and you look at their filmography, 80 percent of their films are with Goldmines,” Shah said. He is of the firm belief that content is king, and that a film can become a pan-Indian hit and find new markets only if it appeals to the audience. “Just promotion without good content will not work,” he said.